5-on-5: Top-four defenseman has to be first priority for Hawks GM Stan Bowman

Sheldon Brookbank . . . David Rundblad . . . Kyle Cumiskey . . . Trevor Daley . . .

Whether the Blackhawks’ first playoff-less season since 2007-08 is a blip or the first step into an era of irrelevance is debatable. But even if goalie Corey Crawford returns in elite form, Alex DeBrincat, Nick Schmaltz and Vinnie Hinostroza take the next step and Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Brandon Saad are rejuvenated in 2018-19, the Hawks still will have one significant hole in their lineup: a top-four defenseman. Or two.

Viktor Svedberg . . . Michael Kostka . . . Adam Clendening . . . Klas Dahlbeck . . .

Since drafting Brent Seabrook, Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson under previous regimes, a fourth top-four defenseman has become a black hole for the Hawks — almost mystifyingly — under general manager Stan Bowman and coach Joel Quenneville. Johnny Oduya filled the role admirably for Stanley Cup runs in 2013 and 2015. But with Hjalmarsson traded to the Coyotes and Seabrook and Keith not nearly as effective as they were in their prime, that hole was exposed like never before this season. And another group of prospects failed to fill the void.

Blackhawks defenseman Jan Rutta (44) is congratulated by teammate Gustav Forsling (42) after scoring a goal against the Columbus Blue Jackets in October. Rutta and Forsling are among a number of young defensemen the Hawks are looking to take a big step next season. (Kamil Krzaczynski/AP)

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Trevor van Riemsdyk . . . Tim Erixon . . . Christian Ehrhoff . . . Rob Scuderi . . . Michal Kempny . . .

So if Bowman has any room to splurge in free agency this offseason, a top-four defensemen is likely at the top of his list. But that’s not the only avenue to upgrade the position, Bowman noted.

‘‘We’re going to look at all those options, whether it’s a trade or free-agent acquisition or promoting players from Rockford,’’ Bowman said. ‘‘There have been some nice stories [at Rockford].’’

Erik Gustafsson . . . Gustav Forsling . . . Jan Rutta . . . Connor Murphy . . .

Bowman referred to Crawford’s injury as a factor in the Hawks dropping from 10th last season to 22nd this season in goals allowed. But the Hawks used to rally around their backups, and they didn’t this season.

‘‘I think there are areas we need to be better in terms of structurally or technically,’’ Bowman said. ‘‘I don’t know if it’s the only factor when we look at next year. I think we did have some progression from some of our players, and we need some more from our experienced guys. So it’s a multitude of things that go into that. It’s our job to look long and hard at ways to improve different players, and we’ll see where that goes.’’

2. Henri Jokiharju isn’t quite the Teuvo Teravainen of Hawks defensive prospects, but he’s trending in that direction. The 18-year-old Jokiharju, the Hawks’ first-round draft pick last year, had 12 goals and 71 points in the Western Hockey League regular season, with a plus-47 rating and 211 shots on goal in 63 games.

‘‘He’s got the ability to do some special things with the puck and complement the offensive game, and that’s an important part of today’s game,’’ Bowman said. ‘‘It’s difficult for young defensemen at that age in the NHL, but it’s not unheard of. So I wouldn’t rule anything out, but we’re not counting on him being the difference-maker. We just want to see how he looks in training camp.’’

3. It seems like every defenseman who comes to the Hawks from another organization has to learn how to play hockey all over again. But Murphy, who played both the left and right side, showed enough progress for the Hawks to think he can blossom into a quality top-four defenseman in his second season with the team. Murphy had two goals and 14 points in 76 games.

‘‘The last half of the year, he was one of our best defensemen,’’ Bowman said. ‘‘I think he found his comfort level. He showed he can bring a few different elements. He’s got some versatility in his ability to adapt his game to both left and right defense. And the physicality is something we don’t have a lot of on the back end, and he certainly brings that. If you look at the way he played over the last 30 to 40 games, I think there’s reason for excitement.’’

4. Would the Hawks undo the Artemi Panarin-for-Saad trade if they had the chance? Probably not. Saad still is only 25 and is signed through 2020-21 at $6 million a year. Panarin will be a free agent after next season and likely will command around $10 million a season.

‘‘It’s hard to judge a trade just on one year; that’s a little bit unfair to Brandon,’’ Bowman said. ‘‘Brandon had a strong season in a lot of ways that don’t show up on the scoresheet. When he was on the ice, our team had a lot of chances. His conversion rate was just really low this year. We look at that as an anomaly. We think he’s going to get back to his normal production.’’

5. It was just a tough season for Bowman. After firing special-teams coach Mike Kitchen last year, the Hawks were only marginally better on the penalty kill (going from 24th to 20th in the NHL) and worse on the power play (falling from 20th to tied for 28th).

Asked about areas of improvement, Bowman pointed to special teams first.

‘‘Our special teams have to be much better,’’ Bowman said. ‘‘We’ve got to be able to find a way to get in the top 10. That’s something we’re going to try to figure out leading into next season.’’

6. Bowman is counting on Toews, Keith and Seabrook to rebound from subpar seasons. It’s not unheard of. Of the top five contenders for the Hart Trophy in NHL.com’s Trophy Tracker, only the Lightning’s Nikita Kucherov received votes for the award last season. And two of the others, the Kings’ Anze Kopitar and the Flyers’ Claude Giroux, more than doubled their shooting percentage at age 30 this season.

7. Speaking of the Hart Trophy, if either of the two leading vote-getters in the NHL.com poll — the Avalanche’s Nathan MacKinnon or the Devils’ Taylor Hall — wins, it will be the fifth time in the last six years that a No. 1 overall pick has won the award. Connor McDavid (2016-17),
Patrick Kane (2015-16), Sidney Crosby (2013-14) and Alex Ovechkin (2012-13) are the others.

8. Crawford should probably receive some retroactive MVP votes after his value to the Hawks was made clear this season. Crawford was 16-9-2 in 27 starts this season; the Hawks were 17-30-8 when Crawford didn’t start. For the record, Crawford never has received a single vote for the Hart Trophy.

9. It’s that time of year. Colin Fraser is the only former Hawks Stanley Cup winner to win the Cup with another team. That distinction appears pretty safe this season. Only three former Hawks Cup winners are even on playoff teams: Dustin Byfuglien (Jets), Antoine Vermette (Ducks) and Oduya (Flyers).

10. Bowman’s opening remarks about the Humboldt tragedy at the season-ending news conference — ‘‘a really tragic event, and they’re in our thoughts and prayers’’ — seems like an appropriate finish here. The tragedy of the Humboldt Broncos junior-hockey team — and Eddie Olczyk’s battle with cancer — put a difficult Hawks season into proper perspective. We can lament a disappointing season, but it’s still only hockey.

Eddie O won his battle, but 16 people lost their lives in the Humboldt accident, leaving teammates, family and friends with a hole in their heart that will never heal.