While some fans might be wondering whether the Blackhawks are a team built for the future or the pasture, there is no doubt in the mind and heart of the talent pool's lifeguard.
"Clear path forward," averred Senior Vice President/General Manager Stan Bowman, who will bet the cell phone attached to his ear that next spring shall not result in a third consecutive playoff absence.
His optimism, and the organization's, is based on a resurgence that countermanded a bleak stretch during which musing about a postseason was folly. When the Blackhawks completed a second eight-game losing streak in mid-December, the record was 9-18-5. Rarely has a Christmas break - that Santa clause in the National Hockey League schedule - been so anticipated.
However, under Jeremy Colliton, veterans and kids took to his new ways, resisted any urge to lean on a dramatic coaching change as a crutch, and became almost everything you wanted them to be but were almost sure they wouldn't be - a unit that made checking the standings fun again. Not until the final week were the Blackhawks eliminated from claiming a wildcard berth.
They could have mailed it in. You could say instead that they ran out of games. In their altered state, they vacated a black hole, and created enough tremors that you began hearing a refrain around the league: "You wouldn't want to play Chicago in the first round." And even when they were done statistically, the Blackhawks provided an effort Corey Crawford felt was imperative. After a 6-1 triumph in the United Center finale, another sellout crowd stood roaring.
Besides rewarding fervent fan support, Crawford also allowed that the Blackhawks let a lot of points go. Only six separated them from Colorado at the end, and there was that crucial March 23 match in Denver when the Avalanche had 64 goals on the injured list (Gabriel Landeskog, Mikko Rantanen) but still prevailed 4-2. The Blackhawks didn't exhibit much appetite for trespassing the blue paint that afternoon, and three days later, they visited the reeling Arizona Coyotes and succumbed 1-0. True, the Blackhawks never gave up, but there also were nights when they never got going.
Question: how can a team with two 40-plus goal scorers in Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat, plus a career year from Jonathan Toews, on top of a 17-goal breakout by Erik Gustafsson, avoid the playoffs? The Edmonton Oilers owned two of the NHL's top four point producers in Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, but missed the party by plenty. As Kane would say, that's hockey, baby. The Buffalo Sabres boasted a 10-game winning streak and the Philadelphia Flyers had one of eight straight. They're also gone.
Next question: how can a team yield 292 goals and yet not honestly hold any of its goalies culpable? Only the Ottawa Senators were more generous this season, and the Blackhawks haven't been so magnanimous in 29 years. But Crawford, Cam Ward and Collin Delia were not the problem. Hockey 101: before the paycheck, there's the forecheck and the backcheck.
Defensively, the Blackhawks were in too giving a mood. That includes the penalty killing, such as it was. A 72.7 percent clip brought up the rear in the NHL. Bowman and Colliton acknowledge a need for repairs. While they're at it, the Blackhawks should find a path to more than 19 home victories in 41 attempts. Every night at the United Center feels like New Year's Eve. The downside is that opponents also feed off the electricity. See: Wayne Gretzky's professed delight about games at the old Stadium.
Kane authored a sensational season, his 12th, would you believe. Brad Richards, a 2015 Stanley Cup teammate, suggests that Kane happens to be a winger blessed with a center's toolbox. Another former sidekick, Artemi Panarin, gifted Kane with an expensive wristwatch, the kind one would receive upon retiring. Instead, No. 88 added to his extensive highlight film with 44 goals and 66 assists. He's only 30. Toews also recorded his NHL best with 35 and 46. He's only 30.
For aforementioned reasons, Ward, an experienced masked man, was better than his 3.67 goals against average indicated. He mentored Delia and was a worthy listen. After the San Jose Sharks toyed with the Blackhawks, 7-3, in mid-winter, Ward spoke up. It didn't have quite the effect of Jason Heyward's storied pep talk before the Cubs seized Game 7 of the 2016 World Series, but Ward commanded respect and deserved his start at the Winter Classic. Chris Kunitz, another free agent, brought character to the mix without having to display his four Cup rings.
Colliton received a good luck text from his legendary predecessor, Joel Quenneville, then embarked on a crash course of installing a different system. Just the other day, Colliton opined that the Blackhawks improved as the schedule lightened, all the better to consume more practice time. Interesting. Most teams react to a coaching change with sudden energy. The Blackhawks' response to him was more gradual but more lasting. Colliton also benefitted by an amended roster: Dylan Strome, Drake Caggiula and Brendan Perlini, none of whom began the season in Chicago.
After the Blackhawks earned their third Stanley Cup in 2015, Johnny Oduya stood by his United Center stall, staring out at the celebration that rendered the locker room into a car wash. "This isn't normal," he said. It wasn't then, and still isn't in the NHL governed by the strictest salary cap in professional sports. Those parades are expensive, as are the stars who made them possible. The Blackhawks have endured the reality of success, as has the franchise they wished to emulate a decade ago, the Detroit Red Wings.
But the Blackhawks' infrastructure is intact, and there remains a trust among management, labor and fans. The other night, Chairman Rocky Wirtz met with a group to sign copies of his red-hot book, "The Breakaway." Rocky pledged that the Blackhawks will be elite again, and soon. He is not often wrong.