Despite two straight first-round exits, it’s still Stanley Cup or bust

Joel Quenneville is coming off one of the best regular-season coaching jobs of his career, skillfully weaving several rookies into the lineup while guiding the Blackhawks to just the second 50-win season in franchise history. He’s the second-winningest coach in NHL history, has won three Stanley Cups in the past eight seasons, and is one of the most iconic coaches in Chicago sports history.

But Quenneville turned 59 Friday. So he has been around long enough to know he shouldn’t feel too comfortable after a second consecutive first-round playoff exit.

“Hey, we’re in the winning business,” Quenneville said after the Hawks opened training camp on Friday. “Measuring [our] performance at the end of the season — there was a lot left to be desired. . . . Whether a coach feels pressure, internally or externally from the fans or from the people around Chicago, expectations are healthy — and can be motivating.”

Well, consider the Hawks motivated.

Joel Quenneville said the Hawks are in "the winning business." (AP Photo)

For a few years there, when the Hawks were the dominant team in the NHL, winning the Stanley Cup in 2013 and 2015 and reaching Game 7 of the Western Conference final in between, training camp was a chore. The regular season was a mere obligation. The Hawks, physically and mentally weary from three consecutive 10-month seasons, coasted for significant stretches, just biding their time until the games really mattered in April.

They have no such excuses now, not after a second consecutive endless summer. They have an overhauled roster, losing a pair of three-time champions in Niklas Hjalmarsson and Marian Hossa. They have a deeper, more dangerous Central Division to contend with. And they have the urgency of knowing that Stanley Cup windows don’t stay open forever.

Mediocrity isn’t really an option.

“I don’t know if those two first-round exits have much to do with it, to be honest with you,” said Patrick Sharp, who returns to Chicago after two years in Dallas. “You see the logo. You see the expectations. The ‘One Goal.’ We want to win the Stanley Cup every year. I know everybody says that every year across the league, but we say it and we believe it.”

It won’t be easy. The top six is stronger than last year, with Brandon Saad sliding back in alongside Jonathan Toews. But the bottom six is a mess, and there are four defensemen to replace. The backup goaltender, Anton Forsberg, is an unknown for the first time in years. And the rest of the league has caught up to the Hawks, who repeatedly have been decimated by the cruel rigors of the salary cap. Nashville is now a top team. Dallas got significantly better in the offseason. Minnesota and St. Louis are still quality teams.

The last time the Hawks came off two early exits, they went on their remarkable three-year run from 2013-15. But several Hawks bristled at the idea that this year’s team somehow has something to prove, pointing to their decade of dominance and their 50-win season a year ago.

“I don’t think we want to put any extra pressure on ourselves, but it’s definitely not where we want to be,” Corey Crawford said. “We want to be playing for and winning the Stanley Cup. And anything other than that is obviously a disappointment. . . .  I mean, yeah, there’s always something to prove — to yourself. We had so much fun winning, and you just want to do that again. What more motivation do you need than winning the Stanley Cup?”

The Hawks still believe they’re contenders. But for the first time in a long time, they have to prove it. Or the consequences could be severe.

“This is a championship-caliber team,” new winger Tommy Wingels said. ‘‘If you want to join a team that has the best chance of winning the Stanley Cup, this is the place to do it. The guys in this locker room believe it. The guys in this organization believe it. The coaches believe it. And anything but a championship is a failure.”

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

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