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Playoffs a must, but not a guarantee, for new-look Blackhawks

Tommy Wingels was in the middle of answering a question about all the changes the Blackhawks are undergoing in the wake of their disastrous first-round exit against the Nashville Predators when he had to stop and offer a little perspective amid the panic.

“The roster’s a bit in flux and things are changing, but people seem to forget that this was the No. 1 team in the West last year,” Wingels said. “It’s still an unbelievable team.”

That may be true, but next year, it’ll be an almost unrecognizable team. Beyond the dwindling core of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford, the Hawks will look drastically different next season. Gone are Marian Hossa, Artemi Panarin, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Scott Darling, Marcus Kruger, Dennis Rasmussen, Andrew Desjardins, Johnny Oduya, Brian Campbell, and Tyler Motte, along with assistant coach Mike Kitchen. The newcomers are familiar faces Patrick Sharp and Brandon Saad, along with Wingels, Connor Murphy, Laurent Dauphin, Lance Bouma, Jan Rutta, and Anton Forsberg, along with assistants Ulf Samuelsson and Don Granato.

That’s 14 Stanley Cups worth of experience out the door, with just five (Sharp and Saad) incoming.

General manager Stan Bowman has reshaped the Blackhawks roster this offseason. (Getty Images)

It’s the Hawks’ most dramatic offseason overhaul since 2010. And while Stan Bowman insisted that it wasn’t all just a big overreaction to one awful week against a very good Nashville team, it’s fair to wonder if all of this would have happened had the Hawks won a round or two or three in the postseason (Hossa exempted, of course). Because Wingels is correct. While it sure doesn’t feel like it, the Hawks are coming off a 50-win season (second most in history), which earned them the top seed in the Western Conference.

It was a regular season that saw Joel Quenneville’s best coaching job since coming to Chicago, working five or six rookies a night into the lineup without missing a beat. And it was a regular season that illustrated Stan Bowman’s drafting and recruiting acumen, with so many of those new faces proving NHL-ready.

Then came the playoffs, and the Hawks suddenly looked old and slow. Quenneville’s game management was suddenly in question. Bowman’s roster suddenly looked poorly constructed. In hindsight, it became clear that the regular season was a product of brilliant goaltending and unsustainable timely goal scoring as much as anything else. Not a mirage, not a fluke, but not quite as impressive as it looked on paper.

And now, this drastic offseason makeover. The Hawks’ top six is better, as Saad is an all-around upgrade over Panarin. But the bottom-six is underwhelming at best. The blue line took a significant step back. And Forsberg is an unknown for 20-25 games after the reliable excellence of Ray Emery, Antti Raanta and Scott Darling. The Hawks will be able to make a splash during the season or at the trade deadline once Hossa’s cap hit is placed on long-term injured reserve, but by that point, how desperate will they be?

Nashville is the team to beat in the division after its run to the Stanley Cup Final. Dallas loaded up with Ben Bishop, Alexander Radulov, Martin Hanzal and Marc Methot. The Wild are still good. The Blues are still good. The Hawks? Who the heck knows? For the first time in several years, they might be scratching and clawing just to get into the playoffs.

Bowman has put his neck on the line with all these moves, and much of the problems already fall at his feet after two consecutive years of failed trade-deadline moves (wouldn’t Phil Danault look great at third-line center?) and overpaying players such as David Rundblad, Seabrook, Kruger and Richard Panik. Now it’s up to Quenneville to pull off his best coaching job yet and make it all work.

Because if it doesn’t, and the Hawks flame out early again next spring — or heaven forbid, miss the playoffs altogether — next summer will be another one of dramatic change. And this time, it won’t be only players who get moved out.

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

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