The Blackhawks missed the playoffs for the first time in a decade this past season. Tickets to home games were available for
$10 on the secondary market late in the season. Team president John McDonough had to reaffirm the job security of general manager Stan Bowman and coach Joel Quenneville in April. And team owner Rocky Wirtz told Crain’s that changes might be on the way by the holiday season if the Hawks get off to a slow start.
But Bowman doesn’t sound like a guy feeling the pressure. He still is playing the long game.
‘‘The future is bright here,’’ Bowman said after making three low-key signings on the first day of free agency Sunday, likely the only moves he’ll make for now.
Yeah, but what about the present?
This is Bowman’s dilemma. He has a locked-up championship core that is aging out of its prime — Duncan Keith turns 35 this month, Brent Seabrook is 33, Corey Crawford is 33, Jonathan Toews is 30, Patrick Kane is 29 — so there’s an urge to go for broke every year, to say the hell with the future and try to squeeze at least one more Stanley Cup out of this greatest generation of Hawks players.
But Bowman also has a tantalizing next wave that’s just coming into its own: Alex DeBrincat is 20, Nick Schmaltz is 22, Dylan Sikura is 23, Vinnie Hinostroza is 24, Gustav Forsling is 22, Henri Jokiharju is 19 and Adam Boqvist is 17.
The timing is cruel. The next wave isn’t quite ready to be the complementary pieces the core needs to get back on top of the league. And by the time the next wave is ready to take the reins, the core might be a decaying husk of its former self, unable to be the complementary pieces the younger group needs to win its own championship.
The Hawks were great for a decade. They might be very good again in a few years. But what about now? What about next season and the season after that?
Bowman, for one, is banking on the core rebounding and on the kids taking over soon. That’s why he signed three supplemental pieces Sunday — backup goalie Cam Ward (one-year, $3 million), 38-year-old left wing Chris Kunitz (one year, $1 million) and veteran defenseman Brandon Manning (two years, $4.5 million) — rather than make a bigger splash. Had he given a bunch of
money and a lot of term to a free agent such as James van Riemsdyk, Paul Stastny or even John Tavares, he wouldn’t be able to keep the next wave intact.
‘‘Our focus coming into free agency was to try to improve our team for next season and also realize that the future is bright here and we don’t want to do anything that would block out players in terms of longer-term deals,’’ Bowman said. ‘‘There’s no question that we’re looking down the road at Nick Schmaltz and Alex DeBrincat, guys like that who [have their] best years ahead of them. They’re just sort of scratching the surface, and we’re committed to making sure that they’re part of this going forward. But we do want to be better next year.’’
Bowman pointed to Ward’s lengthy experience as a No. 1 goalie with the Hurricanes, meaning he’ll be ready to take over if Crawford is sidelined again — something Anton Forsberg was unprepared for. Bowman noted Kunitz is a four-time Stanley Cup champion and former 30-goal scorer who can score in any role and can alleviate some of the mentoring duties the core faces. And Bowman saw Manning as the physical, stay-at-home defenseman the Hawks badly needed last season, an undrafted late-bloomer coming off his best season at 28.
They’re hole-pluggers, not splashy additions. They don’t make the Hawks much better on paper. But Bowman’s counting on a healthy Crawford, a rejuvenated Toews, a rebounding Brandon Saad and an ageless Kane to keep the Hawks afloat long enough for the next wave to finish developing.
They had better. Because if they don’t, Bowman and Quenneville likely won’t be around to see the kids take over.