It’s hard to imagine the Blackhawks — winners of three Stanley Cup titles in six seasons through 2015 — seeing themselves as underdogs in the Patrick Kane-Jonathan Toews era. But that’s exactly where they are as they enter their season opener Thursday in Ottawa.
And Kane doesn’t necessarily view that as a bad thing.
“[In the past], a lot of teams, or a lot of media, or fans, there’s high expectations and people picking us to go pretty far,” Kane said Wednesday. “It’s a little bit of reversal this year. So I don’t want to say it’s cool to be in that position, but it’s kind of nice to be an underdog role and hopefully prove some people wrong.”
Much has gone wrong for the Hawks to reach this point. After winning the Western Conference in 2016-17, they had just 76 points last season, finishing 13th out of 15 teams in the conference and last
in the Central Division.
“Last year was something we didn’t experience before,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “And we don’t want to get there again.”
If that’s the case, the Hawks did little to address last season’s issues this offseason. Other than signing veteran goalie Cam Ward to back up Corey Crawford, who’s still not 100 percent recovered from last season’s concussion, the team didn’t make a big splash in free agency. Rather, the Hawks are relying on their aging core to bounce back and help groom their younger talent.
With Crawford’s health still a major concern, the Hawks — whether they want to admit it or not — are teetering on medio-crity for the first time in a decade.
“We think positively,” Quenneville said when asked about being considered a mediocre team. “We want to look at our team thinking that we have the right pieces here to get back to where we feel we belong, and that’s back to being a playoff team. Whether it’s everybody’s performance improves a little bit or significantly, our special teams are going to have to be better, our goals against is going to be better, our team structure, or team game, has got to be better.”
Asked what the Hawks’ expectations are this season, Kane said, “It’s tough to really say.”
“You can look at our division and say we want to play really well in the division — I mean, it could be the best division in hockey,” he said. “You can look at just getting off to a good start. I think that’s really what we want to do.”
With the Central looking tougher despite the Hawks’ regression, Kane stressed the importance of setting a tone early.
“That’s the biggest thing in hockey, whether it’s individual or a team,” he said. “You start getting that confidence, believing in yourself, things start flowing, and then the game becomes . . . more natural. It’d be nice to get a good start and some confidence underneath us.”
In the grand scheme of Chicago sports, the Hawks can’t afford to another season like the previous one — not if they want to keep their 457-game streak of capacity crowds at the United Center. The Bears are in first place in the NFC North for the first time since 2014. The Bulls added former Simeon star Jabari Parker and have identified a core group of young players to build around. The White Sox can only go up from their 100-loss season and have kept fans’ interest with a promising group of prospects. And although the Cubs were eliminated from the playoffs in the National League wild-card game Tuesday, their window of opportunity will still likely be open for another few seasons.
The Hawks are the only major Chicago team seemingly trending downward.
But despite the uncertainty surrounding them, their goal remains the same: be a playoff-bound team by April.
“[Our goal is] to make the playoffs. Priority No. 1,” Quenneville said. “And off of that, if we’re good in the special-teams department, goals against, goals scored, top half of the league, we’ll get there.”