Twelve of the 20 players who dressed for the Blackhawks on Monday night were 25 or younger. Just four were older than 29. The average age of the lineup was a little more than 26 years old, a number that would make them one of the 10 youngest teams in the NHL.
Last season, the Hawks were the oldest team in the league, with an average age of more than 28 years old.
You want the Hawks to punt on the season? To focus on the future? To spend less time worrying about the seemingly insurmountable odds they face just to make the playoffs and instead start rebuilding the roster?
You’re too late. It’s already happening. This is the rebuild. This, right here.
It’s 30-year-old Niklas Hjalmarsson for 24-year-old Connor Murphy. It’s Richard Panik (26) for Anthony Duclair (22). It’s Nick Schmaltz (21) entrenching himself as the Hawks’ No. 2 center of not only the future, but of the present. It’s Jordan Oesterle (25) and Erik Gustafsson (25) bumping Cody Franson (30) from the roster.
It’s Vinnie Hinostroza (23) getting his chance to show once and for all whether he’s an NHL-caliber player, or an AHL-caliber tweener. It’s Alex DeBrincat (20) getting occasional top-six and power-play minutes. It’s David Kampf (23) getting a chance to be the new Marcus Kruger. It’s Tomas Jurco (25) getting one last look. It’ll be Dylan Sikura (22) stepping right into the NHL when his senior season at Northeastern ends.
The Hawks looked slow against the Predators in the first round of the playoffs last year. They looked old through the first couple of months of this season. They might not be much better now, but they’re younger. They’re faster. And therefore, they’re more promising.
So while this season might be a lost cause for the last-place Hawks, the immediate future doesn’t have to be.
“People ask, why do I believe in the Hawks right now, and I believe the guys that I’ve played with before, because we’ve done it before together,” said Patrick Sharp, the oldest player on the team at 36. “And I also believe that there’s a wave of young players that are currently stepping up or are going to step up and play a big role for us in the near future. You mix those two things together and you got a nice balance. And when we have young guys playing big roles, that can only help down the line.”
It’s highly doubtful Sharp will be part of that future beyond this season. Nostalgia signings and trades haven’t worked out well for general manager Stan Bowman over the years. In fact, not a lot has worked out well for Bowman the last couple of years. But one thing he’s doing right is rebuilding around the aging core. And that’s all he can do.
You might want a full tear-down and a tank job for Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, but it’s not happening. Patrick Kane is still at the height of his hockey powers. Jonathan Toews isn’t going anywhere. Brent Seabrook is essentially unmovable. Duncan Keith, while taking a step back this season, is still on one of the most team-friendly contracts in the league. And Corey Crawford’s value has been obvious in his extended absence.
The key now for Bowman is to essentially stand pat as the Feb. 26 trade deadline approaches. It’s not in his nature — he’s gone for it almost every year, with varying degrees of success (the Antoine Vermette trade was divine, the Phil Danault trade was a disaster). But the Hawks are not one player away from contending. Not a goalie, not a top-four defenseman, not a top-six winger. There’s no point in sacrificing a young player and a pick for a rental who won’t make a difference.
Punt on the season. If the Hawks somehow make a miraculous run and squeak into the playoffs, hey, that’s great. But the focus now isn’t this season, it’s on the next few seasons. Put DeBrincat on the power play full time, in Artemi Panarin’s old spot at the left dot. Put Gustav Forsling back in a shutdown role once he returns from Rockford. Get John Hayden back in the lineup every day soon. Keep Schmaltz at center, no matter what Artem Anisimov does. Don’t waste Sikura in a fourth-line role when he arrives. Keep Gustafsson in the lineup for a while, even if it means sitting Michal Kempny (and Seabrook) once in a while.
It’s asking a lot of Joel Quenneville, who very well might be coaching for his job down the stretch here. But it’s the only way to lend some meaning to the rest of this season, and some hope to the next one.
Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus