Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman talks plan, timeline for return to being contender
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BOSTON — The Blackhawks think the worst is over and that they’ve begun the climb back to being a championship threat. They’ve looked like a playoff team lately, but their standards are higher than that after three Stanley Cups, and general manager Stan Bowman sees potential to be a contender soon.
Considering the Hawks’ precipitous fall from No. 1 in the Western Conference two seasons ago to the bottom of the NHL in December, that will have been a rapid rebuild if he’s right.
‘‘We’re not where we need to be to be an elite team,’’ Bowman told the Sun-Times before the Hawks faced the Bruins on Tuesday. ‘‘ . . . That’s where we want to get to. That’s our goal over the next 18 to 24 months — to build this thing up and be a team in that elite tier.’’
The Hawks are in danger of missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season, though they’ve fought to within reach of a wild-card spot by going 14-7-4 in a two-month span (a 105-point pace) and had a season-long seven-game winning streak before falling to the Bruins 6-3.
Scrapping for a playoff berth is a drastic recalibration for a franchise that spent a decade thinking championship or bust, but no dynasty lasts forever.
Not that Bowman didn’t try, and his effort to prolong that run came with long-term consequences. He writes off the sizable salary-cap hits for Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith that continue the next several seasons as a cost of trying to keep the core together and extend the Hawks’ window. Plus, he reasoned, they earned those contracts.
Having Keith and Seabrook on the books doesn’t stress Bowman out — ‘‘We’ll make it work,’’ he said — the way it does the fan base. The Hawks are in good shape cap-wise going into next season, and he doesn’t think they will be priced out of any free agent.
The other ramification of the title runs was a roster light on upstarts. The Hawks made veteran role players a priority at a time when the league increasingly has gone young. Once their glory years faded, they weren’t set up to move forward.
‘‘Sometimes your success can catch up to you, and you do your best to try to stave off that inevitability,’’ Bowman said. ‘‘There were stretches of years there where you can’t always have those young guys because you’ve gotta make moves to try to supplement your team, and there is a cost to do that.
‘‘But I think we’re past that now. We’ve been able to, in relatively short order, transition to having some really good young players — some here and some on the verge in the next year or two — and that should bode well for us. There’s a lot of reason for optimism.’’
Conveying optimism is part of Bowman’s job description, but it’s a valid point. He picked wing Alex DeBrincat 39th overall in 2016, and DeBrincat quickly turned into a dangerous scorer. Goalie Collin Delia appears to be on his way up, and the Hawks secured him with a three-year, $3 million extension this week. Center Dylan Strome, a 21-year-old acquired from the Coyotes this season, is sixth on the team with 31 points.
It also helps that their two best and highest-paid players, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, are rejuvenated and on pace for the most productive seasons of their careers.
DeBrincat, also 21, led the team with 28 goals as a rookie and exceeded that total by scoring his 29th in the first period against the Bruins. He has one season left before becoming a restricted free agent, and the Hawks can pre-empt that by locking him up with a long-term deal this summer.
‘‘Whether we do it this summer or a year from now, I fully expect him to be with us for a long time,’’ Bowman said.
As for Delia, the Hawks are sold on him as goalie-in-waiting. Whether Corey Crawford returns for the rest of this season and next (the last on his contract), plans are in place for Delia to take over. He is a decade younger than Crawford and has proved in the last two years, including a solid 13-game start this season despite a rocky night against the Bruins, that he’s worth the investment.
Coach Jeremy Colliton called Delia the most athletic goalie in the league, and he has the right mentality for the ups and downs of the job.
‘‘We signed him to a three-year deal because we expect him to be part of our future,’’ Bowman said. ‘‘He’s covered a lot of ground in a short amount of time. He hasn’t even scratched the surface of what he could become as a goalie.’’
Two stars still in their prime, a young scorer surging to join them, other prospects rising and a prudent blueprint at goalie — that’s a good starting point. And even with the Hawks being a work in progress, they go into the final 25 games still having a chance to make something of this season.
They aren’t what they used to be, and it’s hard to be patient. But there are signs Bowman is right about the Hawks rising.