Ten months ago, in the wake of a stunning four-game sweep at the hands of the Nashville Predators, Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman stood at a lectern before a throng of reporters, clutched his notes, looked directly into the cameras and tried to sound as furious as possible.
“I’m completely, completely disappointed,” he said. “It’s unacceptable to be where we are today. I’m frustrated. I’m angry.”
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And that was after a 50-win season, the second-best in franchise history.
So how does Bowman feel now, 63 games into a lost season — the playoffs out of reach, his most expensive players underperforming, his star goaltender’s future cloudy at best, his promised offseason makeover a failure, the team a seller at the trade deadline for the first time in a decade?
Oddly enough, quite optimistic.
“Where we are today is equally frustrating, but it’s sort of in a different way,” he said. “We haven’t had the season that we wanted. [But] I think the one bright spot has been the progression and emergence of some of our younger players.”
It’s spin, of course. Bowman can’t do the same fire-and-brimstone routine a year later. With his job on the line, he has no choice but to put on some rose-colored glasses.
But he’s not wrong, either. Five years from now, when the Hawks look back on the 2017-18 season, they’ll see it as the year Nick Schmaltz grew into a future No. 1 center. The year Alex DeBrincat became an instant star. The year Vinnie Hinostroza proved himself an NHL player.
“The fact that they’ve been able to take that next step forward certainly bodes well,” Bowman said. “We need to get some other things better in order for our team to have a rebound year next year, but you try to look on the bright side.”
And there’s the rub. By “some other things,” Bowman means “a lot of other things.” The Hawks need to drastically improve their defense. That means turning Marian Hossa’s cap space (and perhaps Artem Anisimov’s) into a legitimate top-four defenseman in free agency, because right now the Hawks have Duncan Keith and a stable of third-pairing guys. It also means hoping that 2017 first-round pick Henri Jokiharju is that rare defenseman who can step into the league and play a significant role at age 19.
It’s going to take more than that, too. Jonathan Toews needs to have the kind of bounce-back season that the Kings’ Anze Kopitar is enjoying. Brandon Saad needs to course-correct after a baffling season of low shooting percentage, much like Hossa did last season. Patrick Kane, who has just three goals in his last 18 games, needs to return to his MVP levels. And above all else, Corey Crawford needs to come back healthy and in peak form in the fall.
If all, or even some, of that happens, the Hawks aren’t necessarily done yet. Thanks to that next wave, they can do what the Boston Bruins have done — rebuild around an aging core. Maybe Jokiharju can be the Hawks’ Charlie McAvoy on the blue line. Maybe DeBrincat can be the Hawks’ David Pastrnak up front. Maybe Schmaltz can be the Hawks’ Danton Heinen down the middle.
Maybe. But it’s asking a lot. And if it takes two or three years for that future core to fully emerge, it could be too late. Because the original core isn’t getting any younger.
Bowman was asked if the Hawks’ championship window had closed. Bowman scoffed.
“In our sport, things change pretty dramatically year to year,” he said. “You can certainly go up and you can go down. We need to be better, there’s no question about that. But as far as a window of time, I’m not sure I buy into that.”
He’d better be right. Because the sweep was a debacle. This season has been brutal. And if the Hawks flounder through another miserable campaign next year, Bowman might not be the one standing at the lectern talking about it at the end of the season.
Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus