For the Chicago Blackhawks, the 2018-19 season ended just one day ago, but it's already time to get back to work.
Over the coming months, the club will assess their season, evaluate their roster, scout the hockey landscape for potential improvements, set forth a plan of action and then finally begin adding and tinkering through various actions such as free agency and trades.
Video: Stan Bowman End of Season Part 1
In the immediate aftermath of a second-straight season without playoffs, there is certainly a level of disappointment. However, there are also more than a few reasons the Blackhawks say they're optimistic about the summer and the future of the team heading into 2019-20.
During the team's end-of-season press conference, Senior Vice President/General Manager Stan Bowman discussed those positive developments and reflected on the season that was. The overall message was that this season feels different than the last, thanks to a few key factors.
"First off, we're disappointed we're not playing in the playoffs. That's why we do this," said Bowman. "That's the reason these guys come and do their best to put our team in position. We came a little bit short this year but the feeling is much different now than it was a year ago."
The way the season ended under first-year head coach Jeremy Colliton provides optimism. Core veterans such as Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane celebrated career offensive seasons. Erik Gustafsson emerged as a top-notch offensive defenseman. Alex DeBrincat continued his evolution into one of the game's most dangerous goal-scorers. Corey Crawford got healthy late in the year and showed he can still provide a high level of goaltending.
Not to be forgotten, the in-season trades the club made brought in a potential core piece up the middle in Dylan Strome and complementary contributors brimming with potential like Brendan Perlini and Drake Caggiula.
"Certainly, the players that joined us in season had a big impact on our team," said Bowman. "I think that's a great sign. It shows the potential that could be there. But we need more growth from those guys as well. I think they showed a great first step in how they can help the team. But it's not just about one or two players. The guys who joined us mid-season did make quite the impact, but at the end of the day, this is a team game. It's not just one or two guys. We need to be better, we expect to be better, but there are a lot of reasons for optimism knowing some of these guys came in for their first year in Chicago and they've got more to give and are going to be even better as we go forward."
As the Blackhawks march into the summer, they're armed with some tangible pieces on the roster to build around. And points-wise, Chicago - as a team - showed the ability to produce at a playoff pace, although their slow start to the year kept them from that ultimate goal.
Video: Jeremy Colliton End of Season Part 1
"We have a clear path forward of how we're going to be better next year," Bowman said. "Just reflecting back on this season, there have been a lot of things happening. Obviously, with a new coach coming in, our team getting adjusted to that took some time. But when you look at the last 50 games we were playing at about a 100-point pace. That's a pretty good chunk of the schedule. It's not a 10-20-game segment where we got hot. I think over the last 50 games we were playing like a team that could contend for the division title, but we had a lot of ground to make up. The goal now is to build on that."
From Jan. 20 through the end of the season, Chicago went 20-10-3, a 107-point pace over the course of a full season. That would put them first in the Central by six points. It's tough to play the "what-if" game, but Chicago was markedly improved down the stretch.
"We showed we can be a dynamic offensive team," said Colliton. "We can put the puck in the net and play a quick-strike, transition style. If we get better defensively, it's only going to get better. We'll be even more dangerous with the puck. We made progress and that's good. If we can just continue on we'll be a much tougher team to play against."
Falling short is not enough for an organization that prides itself on sustained success and winning championships, but this season's conclusion provides a decent starting point for a better 2019-20.
"We showed progress from a year ago to today and we expect progress again going forward," said Bowman. "Obviously, we look at it on a couple-year horizon. Last year was sort of the low point. We were building to where we are now and next year we expect to be even higher. We're on the right path. There is a lot to be excited about. There are things we need to improve and that's our job between now and training camp."
With a core group of veterans intact and the youth movement already underway, the Blackhawks now set their sights on roster tweaking intended to yield better results. And, rest assured, Bowman says there will be moves made.
"We're not going to bring the same group back, that's clear," said Bowman. "We don't do that really any year. There are changes to every team. Even the team that ends up winning the Cup this year will have different players. We're going to have some new players next year. What we're going to do is try to improve in areas where we think our team needs some help. The way that looks isn't completely clear right now, but we have time over the next couple of months to dive in and look at our team in greater detail and figure out how we're going to make that happen."
For the first time in years, Chicago will enter the free-agent bidding period with plenty of coin to spend. They could also take on a hefty contract should the proper hockey deal become available on the trade market. There's more wiggle room for the Blackhawks and the options are plenty for a team ready to make moves this offseason.
"Obviously, there are free-agent signings, there are trades, there's growth from within and those are the ways your team improves year to year, and we're going to do that," Bowman said. "We're going to have some new players here next year, for sure, but we also have a lot of players who will be back. I think a lot of the key guys who had big season are coming back for sure. We don't need across-the-board changes, but we do need some new players."
Bowman declared the Blackhawks would be "more active in the summer free-agent market than we have been in years past," signaling confidence in their current cap situation to be able to make room for more talent. Cap flexibility adds to the Blackhawks arsenal of weapons this summer.
"We haven't been in this position before," said Bowman, who will lead the franchise into this important offseason. "This is probably the first time we've had this much money to spend. Doesn't mean we're going to spend all of it on July 1. We have to sort of look over the horizon at the next years and plan for that, but we weren't in this position a year ago or two years ago. We were shopping in a different marketplace. We have the capability to look at that and trades as well. Sometimes that's another way, depending on which type of players you're looking for and if they're available in the summer. Sometimes they are, sometimes you have to do it through trades. There will be some moving parts. I wouldn't expect 'sweeping changes,' we've got a lot of good things here and I think we showed that our last 50 games. We played some really good hockey. We're trying to build on that, not change it dramatically."
The Blackhawks are already planning their next steps as the path to 2019-20 starts today.
"For me, it's exciting because we finally have time," Colliton said of the coming weeks. "We haven't had any time since I got here to take a step back and evaluate anything, whether that's our team as far as the players we have or how we're playing and what's going to be the recipe to win going forward. So now we have some time and it's important not to waste it. We have to get to work right away and we will."