As the days continue to pass, the brutal end to the Hawks’ season will gain perspective. It’s kind of like the stages of grief. Actually, it’s exactly like that. We go through all of the same denial and anger, except it’s sports and doesn’t matter that much.
The Blackhawks have a lot of tough questions to ask themselves after being swept out of the first round by the Nashville Predators. And they don’t have time to grieve. They weren’t just swept… they were manhandled in four straight games. Completely and utterly dominated like we haven’t seen in a long, long time.
It was a wake-up call that we all needed. From the top to the bottom. From the front office, to the coaches, to the players, and to the fans. The Blackhawks cannot continue with business as usual. Things have to change, and they definitely will this summer.
Sun Times Hawks reporter Mark Lazerus hit the nail directly on the head in his article on Friday. Laz basically said that the Hawks can no longer continue to live in the past, and must look to the future. And it all starts with getting younger and faster. That’s the way the league is going, and the Hawks must follow suit. No more re-signing old Hawk players. Leave their team legacy in the past where it belongs. No more retread signings of guys like Versteeg, Campbell, Ladd, Oduya… All of those guys are ‘on the wrong side of 30’ and cannot be target signings for the Hawks anymore. No more nostalgia.
As I mentioned above, things always seem to get clearer with time and distance. After Game 4 it felt like the weight of the championship window was slamming shut on all of us. With a week to think about it and process what happened, that assessment of the franchise seems a bit premature. There are a bunch of teams in the league that looked like they were done competing for Stanley Cups. Last year’s San Jose-Pittsburgh Final was a prime example that championship windows can be extended if done properly.
So what do the Hawks do? Well that’s the rub isn’t it. They’re once again facing another salary cap crunch that is going to make it difficult for them to make any big free agency splashes. Many Hawks assets that could be moved have no-trade clauses in their contract, so that’s another stumbling block. Stan Bowman and company are going to have to get creative. The Hawks don’t need a massive tear down, just an efficient pruning.
-In my opinion, there are only four untouchables this summer: Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, and Corey Crawford. Everybody else has to be on the table, and the Hawks need to at least listen to what type of deal they could get.
-A guy like Artemi Panarin is a prime example of a piece that the Hawks could move and get a haul back for. He’s the most valuable and trade-able asset that the Hawks have. I know, the thought of moving 72 really sucks, but he’s a really talented player that is also replaceable. He’s also in a position where the Hawks have a ton coming up the pipeline, can’t really say that about the defense. Panarin’s no-move clause doesn’t start up until July 1st, so that’s the soft deadline if the Hawks wanted to go that route. With DeBrincat roaring up through the system, the Hawks have guys that could eventually replace that production. It’s a really tough decision, but that’s why Stan is paid a lot to make them. It would have to be a really good deal from the other side for the Hawks to make it.
-The Blackhawks have to get younger on defense. Whether that’s through free agency, a trade, the system, or through the draft, you have to make improvements to the blue line. This has to be their absolute priority.
It was shockingly apparent to everyone watching the series that the Hawks’ D is old and slow. It’s something that we all kind of knew, but this series highlighted the glaring problem the Hawks have with an aging D. The Preds’ speed was the biggest factor in the series, and the Hawks didn’t have an answer.
It’s safe to say Campbell and Oduya won’t be back. Hjalmarsson and Seabrook would be two guys that the Hawks could trade, I’m just not sure what kind of value they have left. But those are two veteran assets whose age has begun to show (Hammer a little less). The concern on moving them is that you’re losing a great veteran D-man. But the apprehension with keeping them is that there could be a steep drop off at any moment. TVR, despite some of his cagey moments, is a solid, young defenseman that the Hawks can hopefully keep grooming. Kempny and Forsling are both right there as well. Hopefully we’ll see more of them in 2017-18.
-There’s also an expansion draft coming up that could throw a wrench into all of this. We’ll see how many, if any, Hawks pack their bags for Vegas.
-When it comes to the goalies it’s important to remember that Corey Crawford is the sure thing. You know what you’re getting, and it’s pretty damn good. The Hawks clearly recognize that too after trading Scott Darling to Carolina.
Darling was great in a Hawk sweater, but deserved a chance as a No. 1. Also, the Hawks were able to get a pick in return for a guy that was probably going to walk for nothing this summer.
We didn’t know what the Hawks would get with Darling as the longterm No. 1. The safe move was to let Darling walk or trade him, and the Hawks did just that, letting Crow continue to be the anchor between the pipes. Now the question is finding another reliable back-up…
-The Hawks have to be impressed with what they got from the kids (Hartman, Schmaltz, Kero, Hinostroza, Motte, Hayden) this year. Even though their four playoffs games were kind of a disaster, the bigger body of work showed a lot of good growth and development. Obviously those guys would be moveable pieces, but if you’re trying to get younger around your core I’m not sure that’s the best move unless it’s a really, really good deal.
While the cupboard is pretty bare on defense, the Hawks do have a lot of good, young forward talent moving into the system. Alex DeBrincat scored 65 goals in the OHL, that doesn’t just “happen.” Those are unreal, NHL-ready numbers. John Hayden also had good flashes while being called up late in the year. So there’s talent chomping at the bit to get up to the big club. Definitely a good problem to have, especially now. That’s also what makes this next Rockford hire extremely important.
-Some of the quotes that came out of the locker room clean-out day were laced with fury. The Hawks are clearly angry and embarrassed about what happened, and they’re showing it. That’s a good sign to see. There won’t be any soft talk and complacency with this group. Again, like I said before, this series was an eye-opener for everybody, not just for the fans.
Some good quotes from the aforementioned clean out day:
Stan: “We did not even come close to reaching the standard we have set. And that’s unacceptable… Not close to good enough. I’m completely disappointed. It’s unacceptable to be where we are today. I’m frustrated, I’m angry… Complete failure.”
Kane: “No doubt it’s going to be a long summer. For a lot of us this is probably the worst feeling we’ve had after any season.”
Keith: “It’s embarrassing. When you get in the playoffs, and you expect a long run and then get out in four straight… It’s embarrassing.”
Hjalmarsson: “Disappointed in the effort… Going out the way we did obviously is not acceptable.”
Q: “It’s a major disappointment, across the board… There’s been anger, frustration, disappointment… Getting it figure out is the process now.”
Seabrook: “It’s not the fact that we lost, it’s how we lost… I’m embarrassed.”
Tribune reporter Chris Kuc said on Twitter said that it was the most angry and disappointed he’s seen the Blackhawks at an end of season locker clean-out. He’s been to nine of them.
Those answers from Stan, Q and the Hawks give me a lot of faith going forward that they’re going to figure it out. The Hawks have to adapt, and for all intents and purposes it looks like they realize it too. If we weren’t seeing those kind of searing quotes from the GM, coach and players I would be disappointed.
The Hawks are an acutely aware organization when it comes to matters on the ice. Off of it, that’s a different discussion.
Any talk of the Hawks falling off a cliff need to be put on hold as well. Another long offseason will allow players to rest some more. Remember, the Hawks have played a lot of postseason hockey in the last few seasons (nearly a year and a half of more games). It will hopefully help Toews get rest, and to his own admission get quicker. The Captain was a shell of himself most of this regular season, and totally invisible in the four games vs. Nashville. Toews knows he has to not just be better, but find ways to get fresher as well. He knows what happened this season is unacceptable. As Toews goes the Hawks will go too.
Great franchises are able to respond to this kind of adversity. I remember after the Red Wings won the Cup in 2002 they went through a bunch of postseasons where they came up short. They had to change and tweak their roster, and eventually went back to the Final in 2008 and 2009. Since then, it’s been a different story for them. That’s the bad/aging contract road that the Hawks cannot afford to go down.
On the other hand, Pittsburgh seemed like they were dead after winning the Cup in 2009. They got younger and faster around their core, made some really tough changes, Crosby got healthy, they eventually climbed the mountain again and won in 2016 and are right back in the thick of it this year. And don’t forget that the Sharks just made a Final with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. So it’s not an impossibility to think the Hawks can recharge the batteries and extend their window. It’s just going to take patience and smart moves by the front office to get the Hawks where they need to be.
It’s sure going to be an eventful summer around these parts. That’s one guarantee I can absolutely make. The process may be a little painful, but we’re going to have to have a little faith.
This is a transition that will define Stan Bowman’s legacy and the future of Chicago Blackhawks hockey. But things aren’t as bleak as they may seem. Better days are hopefully ahead.