Last October, the Blackhawks made public their already internal operating mantra to set the focus on the future.
"Developing young players and rebuilding our roster," the message read, was the goal to return the team back to an elite NHL level. "The influx of youth and their progression will provide roster flexibility and depth throughout our lineup."
Before the 2020-21 season even began, it was already to be one that looked unlike any in recent memory. The younger players would see more ice time in important situations. Mistakes would be teaching opportunities. The long-term vision the ultimate goal beyond wins and losses -- though of course wins would be important, too.
"We were going to give opportunities to younger players. That was the goal coming into the year and I think it was certainly a success, from the opportunity that we gave and the number of players who not only got in the lineup, but played prominent roles," President of Hockey Operations and General Manager Stan Bowman said looking back. "Through that lens, it was a successful year."
The 310 games played by Blackhawks rookies was, by a wide margin, the most in the NHL during regular season. They accounted for nearly a third of Chicago's game total across the roster (29.05%), and, as Bowman noted, played leading roles all season long.
Pius Suter, Brandon Hagel and Philipp Kurashev -- fourth-, fifth- and seventh-place finishers in team scoring. Kevin Lankinen -- the go-to guy from almost the moment he took the crease on Jan. 19 in Florida. Ian Mitchell, Wyatt Kalynuk and Nicolas Beaudin -- stalwarts on the blue line for differing stretches of the season.
"A ton of guys got opportunity to play," head coach Jeremy Colliton said. "Guys like Suter and Kurashev and Hagel and Kalynuk, we didn't even know when they would get their first games. A lot of cases, those guys would be getting a cup of coffee late in the season and they play in 40-50 games [with the exception of Kalynuk]… It wasn't like they were coming in, playing eight minutes and then coming out. They were playing 15, 20 minutes, a lot of them in games that had huge playoff implications.
"We didn't get the result we wanted, and that's part of learning, too. It's not just learning how to play in the league, but how compete in the league against excellent teams, and then how to win."
"Now, what we need to do is continue that process," Bowman cautioned. "It's a process, it's not a one year thing."
All things considered, hardly anyone was giving the Blackhawks a chance before the season started.
"I can remember the conversations we had in December, getting ready for the season, looking at our team and talking about the goals for the year. Then, we end up losing a couple of guys that we expected to play pretty big roles for us (Jonathan Toews and Kirby Dach)," Colliton said. "Understanding where we were kind of expected to finish, one of the goals that we set going into the season is that we wanted to be competitive, we wanted to be relentless, we wanted to make sure that we established a mentality of how we were going to approach every game. We led off training camp with that message. We're human. We hear how we're being evaluated on the outside. Let's make sure that we prove to people that we're more than we say we are."
It was, to put it mildly, a rough start. Chicago picked up a single point from the opening four-game trip to Florida with three lopsided losses to the Lightning and Panthers before squeezing an overtime point away from the latter in the trip finale.
The team returned home, found their footing at the United Center and, from there, it was off to the races.
"I was really impressed with the resiliency of the group to fight through that," Bowman said. "It's mid-January, we're still reeling a bit from missing a couple prominent forwards and then we're coming home after not being really too competitive in those first four games. It wasn't looking great and we found a way. Sometimes it just takes one win. I don't know if it was our best game (in the home opener against Detroit) but we got a win. And then we played really good. And then we started to really believe in ourselves."
Soon enough, Suter and Kurashev were battling it out near the top of the NHL leaderboard among rookies. Lankinen was being considered a top candidate for the Calder Trophy. Mitchell was finding his groove as a playmaking blueliner. And Hagel was quickly becoming a fan favorite with his tenacity and work ethic on both sides of the puck.
"We played at a really high level for two, three months," Colliton said. "We were in a great spot and I think that, as a coach, you're so proud of the progression of a bunch of young guys."
"When you're a young player, the challenge is to try to not just get a game or two in the NHL, but you want to establish yourself as a regular player. The one benefit we had this year was we had games essentially every other day, and once they got going early in the year, they got into a bit of a rhythm," Bowman said. "I think we saw some of those young players, they really performed well in the beginning. You're trying to prove yourself. You're probably attention to detail is very high. You want to do the right thing."
The emergence of the young players and established veterans across the opening two months had the Blackhawks five points above the playoff line with a .609 point percentage as the calendar turned to March, going 12-4-3 after those first four games.
Both inside and outside the Hawks dressing room, an impending three-game home set against the defending champions was circled as the ultimate measure to, not only the team's progress since the 10-3 aggregate defeat in the year's first two skates, but as a litmus test to their legitimacy as a playoff hopeful in the Central Division.
"We pushed the team hard at that point. Let's see if we can compete. And, man, we played so good those three games," Colliton said. "Obviously we still had some lessons to learn and we kept pushing hard and I think that was the right thing to really ask to do even more."
In game one against the Lightning, Chicago controlled much of the opening two periods and took a 2-0 lead into the final frame. Two quick Tampa goals in the third forced overtime, where the visitors ultimately took the second point.
The next night, Tampa took a turn controlling early. Down 2-0 just 11 minutes in, the Blackhawks climbed level on a pair from DeBrincat by the midpoint of the contest. The sides exchanged third-period goals to force overtime and eventually a shootout, which Kurashev won with the lone goal in the skills competition.
Through the opening two games, each team had three points in the standings. It might not have been perfect, but Chicago was holding its own with, at that time, the best team not based in Toronto.
Night three got off to a great start for the home team again, with Kurashev and Suter scoring as Chicago raced out to a 3-0 lead. From there, though, Tampa showed how they could take hold of a game as the Lightning rattled off six unanswered goals for a 6-3 win in the rubber match.
"I remember talking to [Lightning GM] Julian BriseBois a couple weeks after that series," Bowman reflected. "He said, 'You guys played so well against us in Chicago. We eventually wore you guys down,' and I think that's the thing. We dominated some of those games that we lost up until like the third period and then for a five-minute stretch, their best players who hadn't played well and we had really kept them under wraps, they came through. And bang, bang, bang, they scored and we lose the game. It's demoralizing in the moment because you're so close… We didn't get rewarded enough, but I felt like we did a lot of really good things.
"It was kind of a microcosm of our season," Bowman continued, "where we can hold it together for stretches and we play really well, and then we just can't quite keep it all together and that's when the other teams can pounce on you. I was proud, though, that we got to that point… Obviously we have to learn to be able to do that all the way through."
"That's a great example. It's part of the journey. That's part of what we need to go through as a team to learn how to be like them," Colliton added of the series. "Of course you want to have your games where you dominate the whole way through, but they found a way to just survive (when) we were better than them, and then they were still in the game and found a way to break through and win it. We've got to learn those lessons as well, but going through that experience is part of how we're going to learn how to be that team in the end."
Looking back at the season now, the energy expended in the three-game set with the Lightning seemed to be nearly all that the surprising Blackhawks had left in the tank.
The team won three of the next 10 games through a gauntlet of the remaining March schedule against Tampa, Florida, Nashville and Dallas. By the end of the month, the hard-charging Predators had overtaken Chicago for the fourth playoff spot in the division and never looked back.
"Once you get to the middle of the season, you've played a lot more games than you normally would in a six- or eight-week period," Bowman said of the once-beneficial schedule's toll as the season wore on. "What ended up happening was some of our guys, the term is they hit the wall a bit. What that means is they probably can't find the consistency because they get worn down a little bit physically, but probably more mentally with the stress of continuing to perform almost day after day after day. You never get that break."
As the season wore on, the individual production for some rookies slowed -- Lankinen wasn't as overtly dominant night in and night out, Mitchell fell out of the lineup for stretches, Suter's goal total no longer climbing at its previous rate and Kurashev the same on points. All bounced back at differing times, but the consistency across the board that led to success early in the year wasn't fully there to keep the engine full steam ahead.
"We were (playing) six, seven, eight, nine, 10 (rookies at a time). When you have trouble keeping that consistency, we would be totally unrealistic to expect more," Colliton said of the late-season ups and downs. "That's part of what we expected to get. We've got to give these guys a ton of credit for how they responded to that and then just kept bouncing back. It's really going to help us going into the next year and the year after that and the year after that."
"When we played well, when we were really on our game, we could play with anybody and we could beat anybody," Bowman said. "The challenge was when we didn't have everything going at one time, then it was hard for us. Our minimum level of performance isn't as high as some of the top teams… They can play at like 70% and still find a way to win the game and I feel like with our group, if we were playing at 70%, we wouldn't win those games. We had to be really on it with our performance. Part of that is learning as a young player… I think that's a learning process for our team."
The proverbial wall and the roster openings following the trade deadline and late-season injuries did, however, provide new opportunities for even more young faces to make their mark. Guys like Kalynuk, Mike Hardman, MacKenzie Entwistle and Alec Regula seized their chances over the season's final weeks -- in important games nonetheless -- and only tightened the roster competition heading into next year.
"We faced some more adversity and the results didn't go our way, but I still think going through that and getting a taste of what it feels like to play in those big games, that's really going to help our group going forward," Colliton said. "We were excited with how we responded to that adversity. Disappointed wanting more here as far as the last six weeks, but we can use that adversity to get to another level."
"If you look at the young players, not only did they get the chance, they really did dig in and for the most part, they all got better," Bowman said of the year as a whole. "They held it together for a long stretch of the season and we were competitive and then at some point, the part which they haven't quite nailed yet is to be able to sustain it. That's what you learn to do over time."
As has been cautioned, the 2020-21 season is just the beginning. Whether players saw five games or 50 games alike, they now know the rigors of the NHL level against some of the league's top talent.
"It's a lot to ask, a young guy playing his 10th game or 20th game or 50th game in the league, to go head-to-head against (Brayden) Point or head-to-head against (Victor) Hedman or whoever it may be. (Aleksander) Barkov. A lot of times they were up to the task," Colliton said of the rookies. "It's not like these guys were playing bit parts here. They were playing big roles and it's not just one guy. It's at times, like (the last two games) 10. It's stressful on them, it's a lot of pressure, but the fact that they've been exposed to it now is really going to help them going forward… We have so many of them that showed they could potentially contribute and play in the league."
The offseason will prove crucial in who is able to take the early lessons and build on them, coming into camp to compete for an opening night roster spot -- something that is not a given with names like Toews, Dach, Adam Boqvist and Alex Nylander ideally back in the fold. Plus, there's any summer acquisitions and the expected additions of Henrik Borgstrom and Lukas Reichel to account for as well.
"They're going to train hard and come here competitively to show us they can do it," Bowman said. "That's ultimately what we want is for them to push each other and then to push the other players in the lineup. If they're coming on and showing that they're going to take someone else's role, that's going to bring out the best in others. We're expecting some of those players to take steps forward."
"You've got to keep going. I think for the most part our group did a pretty good job of that and we've seen improvement as the year's gone on. We have to continue it," Colliton said. "No one should be satisfied with where we're at. We're happy that we're progressing in the right way, but we've got to be as hungry and determined and relentless as ever to get better here."