Is there a real future for these Blackhawks or just a glorious past?
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There they were, the Blackhawks’ faithful, lined up in their Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith jerseys. The occasional Brent Seabrook jersey had elbowed its way in, too.
Just because the experts had given up on some of the names on the backs of those sweaters didn’t mean this group had. So here came the Hawks, the once-mighty Blackhawks, walking the red carpet Sunday before the home opener, to the roar of their adoring fans.
These people were seeing what they wanted to see, and what they apparently saw was greatness. Were they looking through eyes built in 2013? Perhaps.
Were they wearing those Kane, Toews and Keith jerseys because the Hawks’ future is so undefined, so unsettled? Possibly.
Or did they see what Hawks management believes it sees, an experienced team filled with hungry players who would like to prove that their best days aren’t behind them? Judging by the decibel level of the crowd as each of the Hawks was introduced at the United Center, that’s exactly what the fans saw.
It certainly was easier to see what they saw after two overtime road victories to start the season.
The Hawks’ game against Toronto on Sunday would give everyone a chance to overreact, one way or the other. A victory would mean a 3-0 record and a straight road to the postseason! A loss would remind everyone why the Hawks didn’t make the playoffs last season for the first time in 10 years.
Toews scored the Hawks’ first goal of the night, his fifth in three games. Clearly, he’s 30 going on 20! And Keith, who assisted on the Hawks’ first three goals, is back, too! Kane? Two goals in the last 1:24 of regulation to tie the game at 6.
Defensive breakdowns in a 7-6 overtime loss ruined the feel-good buzz.
We’ll need more data. And Corey Crawford.
Few experts are picking the Hawks to be anything more than a wild-card playoff team. Most have them going two seasons in a row without making the playoffs. I asked coach Joel Quenneville before the game if reports of his team’s death had been greatly exaggerated.
“We have some guys we always feel we can make the playoffs with,’’ he said. “There’s some special players in there that would love to have the [opportunity]. Let’s work on the rest of these 80 games and try to find a way. And we believe we can do that.’’
One of the hardest jobs in sports is seeing the future. That job might be hardest in the NHL, with its relatively small salary cap ($79.5 million). And for the Hawks, who have brought three Stanley Cups to the city since 2010, it’s trickier still.
How do you build a team when the recent past is so glorious and still so present? When do you push aside aging players who are household names in Chicago? Better yet, how do you do it?
If Toews plays the way he did earlier in his impressive career, the questions will be immaterial, at least for a while. He certainly has played that way in the first three games, which included a hat trick Saturday in St. Louis. If Keith looks less like a 35-year-old defenseman and more like a 25-year-old one, the Hawks will be fine. He looked like both Sunday. They’ll also need more from Seabrook, who is 33.
This is difficult territory, and we were reminded of bad endings at the pregame festivities inside the United Center atrium. In the middle of the crowd stood the Michael Jordan statue, legs splayed, arm stretched out in mid-dunk. Jordan retired a second time, bitterly, when coach Phil Jackson left the Bulls after the 1998 championship. He came out of retirement in 2001 to play for the Wizards, but he was a faint outline of the player he used to be.
Nobody here wants to see anything like that with the Hawks and their stars.
Between the regular season, the playoffs and the Olympics, the core of the Blackhawks has played an incredible amount of hockey over the past 12 years. If nothing else, we’ll learn two things this season:
Whether time has caught up with those players.
Whether not making the playoffs last season was a blessing for their bodies.
“We had a good training camp,’’ Quenneville said. “Some good things were going on. The intensity was higher, the focus was in the right place. The top guys had good camps, and they demonstrated that in the first two games.
“It just seems like there’s more enthusiasm, be it in the locker room, in practices, on the ice, the bench during the games. The captain [Toews] having two games like that certainly helps lead the charge.’’
Whether Toews can bounce back from his 52-point output last season, the lowest total of his career (aside from the 2012-13 lockout) will help decide where the team goes.
“One thing about Jonny, you’re going to get everything you can out of him every single game,’’ Quenneville said.
So far, so pretty good. A 2-0-1 record, some life from the older players and a lot of work to be done on defense.
Here come the Hawks. The might-be-mighty Blackhawks? We’ll see.