In the hockey world, the offseason is all about spin, about putting a happy face on all the signings, trade acquisitions and draft picks that are sure to make your team better and make your fans happier.
But Jonathan Toews and coach Joel Quenneville weren’t doing much smiling on draft weekend as they tried to wrap their heads around a dizzying three-day span that saw the Blackhawks lose Marian Hossa, Artemi Panarin and Niklas Hjalmarsson.
Both clearly were excited to have Brandon Saad back, but neither seemed able to muster the will to say the Hawks are a better team now than they were a week ago.
“It’s hard to sit here and say that without sounding like you’re being disrespectful to two teammates you care for and know were huge parts of the team,” Toews said. “You can’t really say that.”
Quenneville was spotted walking out of a coaches meeting at the league’s Chicago headquarters Friday morning shortly after the Hjalmarsson trade and shortly before the Panarin deal became official. Quenneville’s conspicuous absence from the Hawks’ draft table that night fueled speculation that he was fuming about losing Hjalmarsson, a huge part of three Stanley Cup teams.
Well, Quenneville was back at the table Saturday morning and said his absence had nothing to do with the trades. And this is nothing new for Quenneville, who has had to say goodbye to beloved and important players nearly every offseason since the post-Cup purge of 2010. But it was clear the Hjalmarsson trade hit him hard as he took a few hard swallows while extolling the virtues of a player he called “a heart-and-souler.”
“You feel for him and what he meant to his team and his teammates and fans here, and the city,” Quenneville said. “He’s one of those guys that you have an appreciation to watch, and see how he competes, and knowing what he fights through to stay on the ice in a lot of games. Those guys are hard to see go.”
Sure, Quenneville likes the idea of having a physical, right-handed defenseman on the back end in Connor Murphy. But it’s pretty obvious that Quenneville wouldn’t have dealt Hjalmarsson if he were in charge. It’s no concern of his that Hjalmarsson will be 31 and up for a new contract in two years, while Murphy is locked up for five more years. But that’s normal. Quenne-ville is a coach, and it’s his job to win right now. Stan Bowman is a general manager, and it’s his job to think long term. Some friction and disagreements are inevitable.
“As a coach, we’re in the short-term business, we’re thinking about now,” Quenneville said. “So we’re going to do everything we can to better ourselves right now, looking to win today. It’s not an easy thing to do in today’s business, when it’s hard to move players and it’s hard to find ways to manage the cap. At the same time, as a coach, my motivation is I want to be better and I want to try to win. But Stan’s motivation has a longer-term look to it.”
The fear is that the two trades — neither of which helped the Hawks’ cap situation, just the 2019-2020 one — were a gross overreaction for a 50-win team to one really bad week against the Predators, who went to the Stanley Cup Final and proved to be a much better team than previously thought.
Bowman said the trades were motivated by a lot more than the first-round sweep. The Hawks were pushed around by the Predators, and he wanted to do something about it. So they got bigger and stronger up front and on the back end. The cost was high.
The Saad deal was a home run, now and in the future, but losing Hossa for nothing and losing Hjalmarsson for a poor-man’s Hjalmarsson in Murphy are undeniable steps back. And while there’s a lot to like about the new-look forward group, and while Corey Crawford and Duncan Keith are still there to shoulder the defensive load, the blue line is a huge question mark, all promise with little proof.
The Hawks will be all right. They still will be a playoff team, and they still should contend in the Western Conference. But, no, they probably aren’t better today than they were last week. And not even the coach or the captain could put a happy face on that.
Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.