Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman eyes defense in critical offseason
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The Blackhawks can’t stay this way.
Some players have been softening the failed season they just finished by pointing out their rally from an early hole or emphasizing their overall progress. But even at its best, this team wasn’t elite.
Those who set the Hawks’ standard know, as goalie Corey Crawford said last week, that merely being a playoff team isn’t enough.
General manager Stan Bowman knows it, too, and he advised that it’ll be a busy summer.
‘‘We’re not going to bring the same group back,’’ he said as players cleaned out their lockers Sunday at the United Center. ‘‘That’s clear.
‘‘What we’re going to do is try to improve in the areas where our team needs some help, and the way that looks isn’t completely clear right now. But we have time over the next couple of months to dive in.’’
Defense must be the Hawks’ dominant concern after a fifth consecutive season sliding down the NHL rankings in goals allowed. They gave up 3.55 a game, which ranked 30th among 31 teams.
There are always three options for fixing anything on a roster: free agency, the trade market and internal development.
Unless Bowman is willing to ride it out with the existing personnel and hope for improvement, he’ll need to be aggressive in terms of acquisitions. Of the Hawks’ seven defensemen, five are under contract for at least one more year and two are restricted free agents.
‘‘We want to get better, so if [trades are] part of it, then that might be the way it goes,’’ Bowman said. ‘‘You always make room for good players.
‘‘If you’re able to sign a free agent or if you trade for a player who’s better than the group that’s here, then you find a way to make it work. . . . We’re going to try and upgrade our roster, and when we get to that point, we’ll see what it means for other players.’’
The oldest and highest-paid defensemen, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, have deals that run through 2023 or beyond and are protected by no-movement clauses. Are they willing to change their games in their mid-30s?
The Hawks also can hope Henri Jokiharju, 2018 first-round draft pick Adam Boqvist and other prospects work their way up, but there’s never a guarantee on that.
Bowman and coach Jeremy Colliton already are working on those assessments. This will be Colliton’s first time giving input on roster construction, and he’ll have a particular interest in defensive-minded players after a rocky season trying to get the Hawks on board with his philosophy.
‘‘We’re not far enough along with the progression in changing how we want to play,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s difficult to have a really tight gap because it’s a lot of work. Whether that’s keeping your shift short, whether that’s just being willing to commit to it — if you have a tighter gap, it’s easier to defend. But it’s tough work.
‘‘Everyone can do it. It’s not a question of skill to have a tight gap. You’ve just got to do it.’’
Colliton eventually settled on Keith and Erik Gustafsson as his top-line defensemen, and there’s promise with that duo.
Keith found his way in Colliton’s defense in the second half of the season, and Gustafsson broke out as one of the best offensive defensemen in the league with 17 goals and 43 assists. There was friction with Gustafsson early in the season because of his shaky defense, but his offense was vital and Colliton gave him some leeway.
‘‘I think you need a mix,’’ Colliton said. ‘‘We can’t all play like Gus, you know?’’
The Hawks probably can’t afford to carry more than one Gustafsson-type of defenseman, and they’ve got enough scoring among their forwards anyway. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Alex DeBrincat combined for 120 goals, and the team ranked among the NHL’s top 10 in offense.
‘‘There’s no question that we have to cut down on how many goals we give up,’’ Bowman said. ‘‘If we can find a way to upgrade our defensemen, we will. Even with the current group of guys, we’re looking for them to improve and to take a step forward.
‘‘We did see signs of that as the year went on. But we need to be better.’’