Patrick Kane’s 2015-16 season started with that dreadful press conference at Notre Dame to open Blackhawks training camp and ended with the disappointment of a first-round loss to the Blues. But inbetween, he was never better. And he should have a Hart Trophy as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player to show for it after leading the league in scoring with 106 points, including 46 goals and a 26-game point-scoring streak that was the longest in the NHL in 23 years.
“I’ve had a lot of fun playing this year — maybe throughout the regular season, more fun than any year,” Kane said Wednesday at “locker clean-out day” at the United Center. “Teaming up with [Artem Anisimov and Artemi Panarin] on a line and seeing your chemistry build and scoring goals and being able to control the puck and playing the game the way you want, it was a lot of fun doing that.”
But, frankly, after the greatest regular season of his career, Kane could use the greatest offseason of his career. To his credit, the tumult of being investigated following an accusation of sexual assault last summer and fall not only didn’t hamper his performance or his demeanor, but seemed to increase his focus and enhance it. And as it turned out, no charges were filed, with Erie County (N.Y.) District Attorney Frank Sedita almost going out of his way to dismiss the accuser, saying, “this so-called case is rife with reasonable doubt.”
Still, Kane knows he’ll have to watch his every move in the offseason, because “probably more than ever, you know that all eyes are on you.”
“I think it goes without saying that in today’s world, with the social media and everything you’re doing, you almost have to act like there’s a camera on you or someone’s watching you at all times, whether you like it or not,” Kane said. “I guess you kind of live and learn from those situations.”
Kane called the 2015-16 season “a great season overall,” but there was no doubt that the early playoff exit took the edge off it.
“It’s just one of those real empty feelings,” he said. “It still kind of fees like maybe we have a couple of days off and then we’ll get backt to playing again.
“Pretty tough feeling — a lot of us love showing up at the rink, playing hockey and getting ready for a game, especially this time of year. It’ll be tough to watch and see someone else win the [Stanley Cup] this year.”
2. Joel Quenneville’s defense is his baby — he’ll do whatever he can to protect it. While it sure seemed like defensive depth was the Hawks’ Achilles this season — failing to sufficiently fill the hole left by Johnny Oduya and relying on unproven Erik Gustafsson, Viktor Svedberg and David Rundblad to fill out the bottom two spots in the defensive rotation — Quenneville wasn’t buying it.
“I though the biggest thing was the inability up front to get a four-line rotation,” Quenneville said when asked about improving the defense. “That consistency is one thing we didn’t nail. We relied on one line [the second line of Kane-Anisimov-Panarin] for a big part and a couple of lines for a bigger stretch. When we have that balance, that’s when we’re a better team.
“I think our defense was fine for the most part. To me [the four-line depth] — that’s the area we need to shore up.”
2a. Quenneville’s assessment of his young defensemen:
Trevor van Riemsdyk, 24: “I thought he had a real good year; developed nicely during the year; might have been our best player in the last round — so that was positive.
Erik Gustafsson, 24: “Had some good stretches, some ordinary stretches; offensively has strengths and defensively needs improvement.
Viktor Svedberg, 24: “Big guy [6-8, 238] has some reach and ability to defend. He needs to progress at a better rate next year. Still think he can help us out.
David Rundblad, 25: “I think we can put him in that class [with the others]. I think he had some stretches in his return [from Europe/Rockford for the playoffs] looked like there was progression there.”
3. One x-factor in the defensive-depth equation is that it seems to be difficult for even veteran players to get acclimated to Quenneville’s defense. The Hawks were 0-for-3 with veterans they acquired in trades this season — Trevor Daley, Rob Scuderi and Christian Ehrhoff.
Daley and Scuderi found significant roles with the Penguins and Ducks after striking out in Chicago. Daley, who averaged a career-low 14:46 of ice time with the Hawks, is averaging 22:42 with the Penguins in the playoffs. Scuderi, who averaged a career-low 11:06 with the Hawks, averaged 19:20 with the Kings in the playoffs.
Is it that challenging to find defensemen who can play for Quenneville?
“Sometimes guys just fit other places,” Hawks general manager Stan Bowman said before the playofs. “Scuderi, he had his best success in Los Angeles. He’s been a few different places, but it never quite clicked until he got back there and it was like he never left. I don’t know if there’s one particular reason for that.
“If anything, it shows we’ve had an emergence of some young players here. I think it’s more about how our coaches have liked what their games have shown and the potential for them than it is against any other player.”
Quenneville, asked the same question, said he didn’t think his defense was any more demanding than any other team.
“We want to defend as a unit of five,” he said. “As an individual defenseman we want to make sure that defense first is a priority. We expect our defense to have some complimentary attributes where you can handle the puck and make plays, and jump into the offense.
“But defensively we want to make sure that you can kill plays, and your own ice or your own end is what we really place a priority on. And I don’t think we’re any more different here than anywhere else.”
4. What will the Hawks do with Bryan Bickell? The 30-year-old forward, who spent most of the second half of this season in Rockford, has one year remaining on the four-year, $16 million contract he signed after the glorious 2013 postseason (nine goals, 17 points, plus-11). Barring the unlikely event of a trade, the Hawks’ best option is a buy-out, which would save the Hawks’ $3 million in cap space in 2015-16, but include a carry-over cap charge of $1.5 million for 2016-17.
Whatever happens, it’s almost certain that Bickell’s career with the Hawks is over. When the Bickell contract conundrum is brought up, GM Stan Bowman usually includes the option of getting Bickell to “recapture what he can do.” But not this time.
5. The salary cap is a way of life in the NHL, but the Hawks pay a bigger price than probably any championship-caliber team in pro sports because the NHL cap not only is the hardest cap but also has been virtually flat, relative to the NBA and NFL. After giving a raise to just one player — Marcus Kruger signed a three-year, $9.25 million extension in March — the Hawks have little if any room for roster improvement. In fact, they figure to lose forward Andrew Shaw and will be hard-pressed to get anything close to his value in return. The price of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane getting what they deserve shouldn’t be Brandon Saad. But, in effect, it was.
One solution is a “Larry Bird Exception” type of cap relief for signing players that a team drafted and developed. The Hawks’ championship teams have been dominated by players the organization drafted and/or developed — 11 in 2010; 12 in 2013; 12 in 2015.
It seems to make sense to reward teams for drafting well — the essence of building any championship team — but not even the Hawks are interested. Maybe if they fail to make the playoffs they’ll think differently. But Bowman dismissed a cap-relief proposal when asked about it before the playoffs began.
“It’s a good question,” Bowman said. “Truthfully I don’t really spend a lot of time hypothesizing over the best system. This is the system we’re under and we’re all playing under it. We’re going to do the best to make it work.
“There’s a lot of different ideas out there that could potentially work. But obviously you see the … excitement there is around the league. These match-ups are so close. I think the NHL’s never been in a better place in terms of competitive balance. It’s a challenge when you have a lot of good players and you’re trying to keep the group together. But you don’t spend too much time thinking about that. Until they change the system, we’re going to do our best to make this one work.”
6. “The money’s going to come and go. But to win championships and play on a great team, that’s what it’s all about. … We have a tight group here. I’m close with a lot of the guys, and it’s fun out there on the ice and off the ice. The goal is to be in Chicago.”
Less than two weeks after Brandon Saad said that following the Hawks’ 2015 Cup championship, he was gone — traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets because when it came down to it, making money trumped winning championships. Saad scored 31 goals for the Blue Jackets, but his team finished last in the Metropolitan Division with the fourth-worst record in the NHL.
Andrew Ladd echoed Saad’s sentiments Wednesday. “I don’t think it’s all about money for me. It’s about being in a good place for my family and being on a team that’s going to contend every year.”
What’s the difference? Saad was 22 and signed his first big contract with the Blue Jackets. Ladd is 30, has played 11 seasons in the NHL and just completed a five-year, $22 million contract.
“I think every situation is different,” Ladd said. “Every guy is at a different point of his career in terms of what he wants to accomplish, whether he has a family, or he’s getting later on his career and wants to be part of a contender. At the end of the day you try to do whatever is possible to be part of a group like this and an organization like this.”
6a. For what it’s worth, only one player who has left the Hawks after winning a Cup with them in the Quenneville era has won a Cup with another team — forward Colin Fraser with the Kings in 2012.
There are five former Hawks Cup winners left in this year’s playoffs: Patrick Sharp, Johnny Oduya and Antti Niemi with the Stars; Troy Brouwer with the Blues; and Nick Leddy with the Islanders.
7. If the Hawks can find a way to re-sign Ladd, they likely will retain the third line of Ladd, Marcus Kruger and Marian Hossa, which gave the Hawks a huge boost in the final three games of the Blues series.
“I think we fit perfectly,” Hossa said. “All of a sudden we check the top line. I just felt we had the puck way more on our sticks and played more in the zone with the puck and created more chances. There was a job for us to do and it was more fun. We started playing better hockey.”
8. Kruger, who played a key defensive role after missing 41 games with a dislocated wrist, raised some eyebrows when he said his wrist “might never be as good as it was.” Kruger did not score a goal in 15 games since his return — including seven playoff games. But he did not score a goal in 33 games before the injury. His last goal was the triple-overtime winner against the Ducks in the conference final last year.
“It’s just getting healthy,” Kruger said. “I was in a cast for a long time, so I knew it was going to take awhile. It might never be as good a it was, but that was still great for me to get out and play and prove for myself that I can play on the level I want to, and be able to do the stuff that I want to do.”
9. Brent Seabrook was disappointed with the outcome, but was not bemoaning the shot that hit both posts without going into the net with 4:05 to go in Game 7 against the Blues.
“It’s a bounce. That’s the tough part of it.” said Seabrook, who scored one goal in the series — for a 1-0 lead in Game 3 — and has 20 career playoff goals with Hawks. “A bounce went their way off the post and back in to [Troy] Brouwer’s feet and he was able to put it in [on the third try].
“That’s playoff hockey for you. We’ve been the recipient of a lot of bounces over the years and what-not, so hockey’s hockey.”
10. Jonathan Toews is loathe to make excuses, but even he acknowledged that cumulative effect of three consecutive deep runs in the playoffs took a toll on the Hawks this season. Toews had six points against the Blues, but failed to score a goal in a series that went six games or longer for the first time since the 2010 Stanley Cup Final against the Flyers.
“I guess so,” Toews said. “When you’re in the moment … you’re going to try to not let that type of thinking get in your head. Winning one time is hard to begin with. But to come back the next year and try to do it again, that’s one of the major reasons why it’s so difficult — the amount of hockey you have to play; how physical the game is; how tight our division is throughout the regular season.
“We don’t want to make excuses, but it’s part of that experience we can learn from and be better from this loss and we’ll go forward being better because of it.”
Relative to his previous performance level, this was a difficult season for Toews. He already has won three Stanley Cups, a Conn Smythe Trophy, a Selke Trophy and has an enviable record of huge postseason goals. But at 27, when he should be at the peak of his powers, he had a good-but-not-great season — a career-low in points per game despite 28 goals (58 points in 80 games) and the lowest plus-minus (plus-16) since his second year in the league, when he was 20.
And while he was productive in the playoffs, Toews was unable to make the difference in the end. He expects better. And the reality is that a full summer off might be what he needs. He seemed to hint that he was worn down — if not injured — at the end of this season.
“If you look at last summer [after winning the Cup], I didn’t start training until almost August,” said Toews, who will turn 28 on Friday. “I wasn’t on the ice until briefly before training camp. You don’t have a lot of time to not only heal and start rebuilding but to really build up. Especially when you’re in your early to mid-20s, there are a lot of things as far as trying to improve your game and off the ice get strong physically. So you don’t have a lot of time to do that when you’re playing late in the seasons like we have lately.
“So this summer will be an opportunity to do that and try and get rid of little patterns, little things here that down the road could wind up being injuries and making sure I’m coming back for training camp more ready than ever physically and mentally.”