NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Patrick Kane slumped at his locker, his body language betraying the level tone of his voice.
Like everybody else in the aftermath of the Predators’ stunning first-round sweep of the once-mighty Blackhawks, he was trying to figure out how a 50-victory season ended so suddenly, so pathetically.
‘‘Maybe we won a couple of close games that might have made us feel like we were better than we really were,’’ Kane said, a startling and honest self-assessment of a flawed team. ‘‘To score three goals in four games, I mean, there’s no way you’re going to win doing that.’’
And there’s no way the Hawks are going to continue to win Stanley Cups doing what they’ve been doing. The lesson from this postseason flameout is clear: The Hawks need to stop living in the past and start looking toward the future.
It’s easy to look at two consecutive first-round exits and think the Hawks’ championship window has closed. But Kane is only 28 and at the top of his game. Jonathan Toews turns 29 next week, and another long offseason without the World Cup getting in the way might work wonders. Duncan Keith is still on the best contract in the NHL. Marian Hossa had 26 goals this season at age 38.
The core isn’t what it used to be, but it’s still as good as any in the league. And just like the Pittsburgh Penguins did in recent seasons, turning what looked to be a fading one-Cup wonder into the Hawks’ successor as the best franchise in hockey, the Hawks still can retool around their two superstar forwards and prolong their relevance, if not their dominance.
It starts with getting younger and faster. It’s not 2010 anymore. Nor is it 2013 or even 2015. No more nostalgia signings and trades. Andrew Ladd, Brian Campbell and Johnny Oduya always will be a big part of Hawks lore, but aging former players on the wrong side of 30 no longer should be the target. The Hawks were the oldest team in the league this season, and they looked like it against the younger, faster, hungrier Predators.
The Hawks don’t have the salary-cap flexibility to make massive changes, even if the Vegas Golden Knights take Marcus Kruger off their hands in the expansion draft in June. It would be insane to trade Corey Crawford to save only a couple of million dollars, and Brent Seabrook’s albatross of a contract and no-movement clause will make him difficult to unload. Richard Panik needs — and deserves — a new contract, too. So much of the change has to come from within. And there’s hope there.
Nick Schmaltz needs to take the next step and become a more consistent, multidimensional player. Ryan Hartman needs to build off his terrific rookie campaign. Tyler Motte needs to come back healthy and raring to go in the fall. Gustav Forsling is only 20 years old and might be the next elite Hawks defenseman. Michal Kempny wants to come back, and the Hawks should sign him and actually play him next season. And the Hawks would be wise to swing a deal with the Golden Knights to ensure they don’t take Trevor van Riemsdyk.
The good news is, there’s a rush of new talent entering the system in the fall. Who knows whether diminutive Alex DeBrincat can produce right away at the NHL level, but you don’t score 65 goals in 63 games by accident, even in the Ontario Hockey League. Big John Hayden showed great promise in his brief stint. There’s help on the way on the blue line not too far down the road, too.
Nobody wanted to talk about the future Thursday. And it’s hard to put a finger on what the 2016-17 season meant. The rookie-laden Hawks defied expectations with a 50-victory campaign, then suffered one of the worst postseason results in franchise history. When asked if the four losses nullified the 50 victories, coach Joel Quenneville grumbled, ‘‘Certainly nullifies it to me.’’
But all hope is not lost. The Hawks might not be the dominant team they once were, but they’re in no danger of tumbling out of playoff contention. And, most important, another great team can be built around the remaining pieces of the Hawks’ golden age.
The championship window doesn’t have to close. It just might need to be propped open for a season or two until the next generation is ready to bust it wide-open.
Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.