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Blackhawks have holes to fill, and cap space to work with

Stan Bowman has been working to bolster the Blackhawks' defense for much of the season.

Jonathan Toews would make a lousy general manager.

He knows the Blackhawks have some salary-cap space to work with. He’s seen what a late-season addition such as Johnny Oduya can do to a defensive corps. He’s seen what an under-the-radar acquisition such as Michal Handzus can do to fill out and balance out a lineup. And he’s seen what a rental player such as Antoine Vermette can do to put a team over the top.

But Toews’ wish list for the Hawks? To see what this team — as currently constituted — can do.

“I always answer that question the same way, and it’s always a boring answer,” Toews said. “I like our team. I like to see some young guys continue to assume more and more responsibility and continue to assume their identity within our locker room. I think we have a great bunch of guys, and we’re still growing into what this team can be.”

And what this team can be, in Toews’ mind, is a Stanley Cup champion. Again.

“Absolutely,” he said, without the slightest bit of hesitation. “There’s no doubt in my mind. That’s what we should be thinking, that’s how we should view ourselves.”

Stan Bowman likes his team, too. He likes seeing young guys step into big roles. He likes home-grown talent to rise to the top. But you can be sure he’s not going to stand pat. Not with a third-place team that’s closer to the sixth-place Colorado Avalanche than the first-place Dallas Stars. Not with an up-and-down team that sometimes looks unbeatable, and sometimes looks mediocre. Not with a bottom-six full of rookies and journeymen, and a defensive corps leaning on two rookies and two 37-year-olds.

As the Hawks approach the halfway point of the season, one thing is clear: They’re still good. But they can be better. And for the second straight season, Bowman has a little cap space to work with as the Feb. 29 trade deadline draws closer. Marcus Kruger’s dislocated wrist (he’s expected to return for the playoffs) has allowed Phil Danault to make an immediate impact on the Hawks lineup, while freeing up some money for down the road. Sending Trevor Daley to Pittsburgh for Rob Scuderi freed up another million. Bowman has a little less than $2 million to work with, and he won’t let it go to waste.

It’s one of the great quirks of fate in Hawks history that they probably wouldn’t have won the Stanley Cup last season if not for Patrick Kane — their best player, the league’s leading scorer, and a leading candidate for the Hart Trophy at the time — suffering a broken clavicle in February. The Hawks lost Kane for the rest of the regular season, but they gained millions of dollars worth of cap space, which they turned into Vermette, who had three game-winning goals in the last two rounds of the playoffs; and Kimmo Timonen, who became an emotional catalyst for the team.

The question this year is, what do the Hawks need more: A No. 4 defenseman, or a bottom-six forward? While Toews is absolutely correct that the young players filling holes in the lineup are doing a surprisingly good job — Dennis Rasmussen and Danault down the middle, Erik Gustafsson on the back end — the Hawks would be wise to throw a proven veteran in the mix, too. There won’t be enough money to rent a forward such as Eric Staal or Kyle Okposo, or a defenseman such as Dustin Byfuglien. But Bowman always seems to find a difference-maker, whether it’s a splashy move like Vermette, or a sneaky one like Handzus.

Considering Bowman has been trying to find a No. 4 defenseman since early in the season, when it became apparent that Daley wasn’t a good fit, that’s the smart bet. And considering the way Joel Quenneville has raved about Danault, and the way Teuvo Teravainen has joined with him and Andrew Desjardins to form a viable, dangerous and responsible third line, you can bet Quenneville is thinking defense, too.

Quenneville said he and Bowman talk “at times” about his coaching wishlist, but he largely leaves those decisions to the GM.

“There are certain times when you’re looking at the big picture,” Quenneville said. “But coaching, we’re more short term.”

Quenneville’s worried about beating the Ottawa Senators on Sunday. Toews is worried about scoring some 5-on-5 goals. Bowman’s the one playing the long game. And you can be sure he’s trying to use every last dollar of cap space to make it four championships in seven seasons. Because these Hawks are good. But they’re not great. At least, not yet.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

Twitter: @marklazerus