The waters have calmed after the annual free-agent feeding frenzy, so let’s take stock of what went down in the Western Conference.
The Blues traded some flotsam to Buffalo and landed Ryan O’Reilly, the second- or third-best center available. They also signed two-way center Tyler Bozak and brought back winger David Perron. The conference champion Golden Knights signed Paul Stastny, the other top center not named John Tavares. The rising Avalanche signed defenseman Ian Cole. The Flames signed high-scoring winger James Neal and solid center Derek Ryan. The Predators and Jets largely stood pat with their already-outstanding teams.
Then came word that the Stars were making a hard push to land the Senators’ Erik Karlsson, the best defenseman in the world, before the Lightning emerged as front-runners.
As for the Blackhawks? The team that finished 13th in the West last season? The team that was eight points behind Calgary? Sixteen points behind Dallas? Eighteen points behind St. Louis? Nineteen points behind Colorado? Forty-one points behind Nashville?
They signed a nearly 39-year-old winger, a third-pairing defenseman and a backup goalie who hasn’t had a solid season since 2010-11.
Good luck with that.
In a vacuum — or even in the recent past, when the Hawks had a perennially stacked roster — Chris Kunitz, Brandon Manning and Cam Ward would be perfectly fine acquisitions. Kunitz is a former 35-goal scorer and a four-time champion who can play up and down the lineup and who is hailed as a great locker-room guy. Manning is a physical, stay-at-home defenseman coming off his best season. And Ward is a proven winner who provides needed stability in goal.
But on this Hawks team? A team coming off a 33-39-10 season, its worst in a decade? A team in desperate need of a top-six left wing, a top-four defenseman and a 1B goaltender? They’re Band-Aids on a gaping wound.
The prevailing opinion of the Hawks’ brass is that the current roster is good enough to get back to the playoffs next season — just as long as Corey Crawford is healthy and back to his old self. Oh, and Brandon Saad rebounds from the worst season of his career. Oh, and 30-year-old Jonathan Toews starts playing like 26-year-old Jonathan Toews again. Oh, and Nick Schmaltz and Alex DeBrincat take the next step toward stardom. Oh, and Dylan Sikura and Victor Ejdsell prove to be viable NHL players right away. Oh, and a stable of young defensemen all realize their potential in a hurry.
All of those things, on their own, are plausible. But all of them actually happening in the same season is awfully far-fetched. And with so many division and conference rivals getting noticeably better, we can no longer simply say a healthy Crawford gets this team back into the playoffs.
Despite having cap space to burn, general manager Stan Bowman likely is done with free agency, so the trade market is his only hope for drastically improving this roster. Carolina traded for Dougie Hamilton and signed Calvin de Haan, leaving three-time All-Star defenseman Justin Faulk expendable. And the Hawks have discussed Faulk — who would be an ideal fit alongside Duncan Keith on the top pairing and the top power-play unit — with the Hurricanes.
But at what cost? Bowman always has been a win-now GM with his star-laden core. But as the Hawks have slid into a stealth rebuild in the wake of an eye-opening sweep by Nashville in 2017 and Crawford’s head injury last season, is Bowman willing to sacrifice a young, promising player to make one last Cup run during the current core’s dwindling prime? Is he willing to throw in a Teuvo Teravainen-like sweetener to unload Marian Hossa’s contract, too, giving him even more flexibility for the current core’s window?
Or is he just biding his time for the future, content to tread water for a year or two until the next wave rises and the core becomes complementary?
We have the rest of the summer to find out. Because if Bowman stands pat with this roster — in this division, in this conference — he’s making his intentions quite clear. And the Hawks would be wise to temporarily shelve their “One Goal” slogan for something a tad more realistic. Like “Wait till next year.”
NOTE: Adam Boqvist, the Blackhawks’ first-round pick, is leaving Sweden and will play with the London Knights of the OHL next season.