It is reasonable to expect that the Blackhawks are better in July than they were in January. Nor would it feel like a reach to anticipate that the return of Andrew Shaw next season will provide an element lacking last season.
For example, the Blackhawks in March faced a pivotal back-to-back weekend assignment against the Colorado Avalanche. In the opener at Denver, however, it wasn't about the altitude, but the attitude. Goalie Philipp Grubauer was on a tear for the Avs, and the Blackhawks did not do much to break his momentum. They eschewed partaking of or creating havoc before him, lost 4-2, and fell six points behind Colorado in the chase for a playoff berth.
With Shaw back in the mix-and not a moment too soon-it is allowed to imagine thicker traffic in the Colorado end that afternoon because, despite his diminutive stature, the "Mutt" craves action. He might have knocked a puck in off his head, as he did in an epic 2015 Conference Final against the Anaheim Ducks. Or he might have registered a legal goal off his shinpads, as occurred during the 2015 Final to conclude a triple-overtime thriller versus the Boston Bruins. Or he might not have scored at all.
But, for sure, Shaw would have been seen-bumping, hovering, agitating-just as he now will be heard again. The Blackhawks' locker room just got noisier. Ditto for bus rides and plane trips. His energy is contagious, which is why he is so valued by teammates and so popular with fans. He's versatile too. Wing, forward, wherever.
Video: Burish on Stan Bowman's offseason moves
Shaw's homecoming after three seasons with the Montreal Canadiens represents a highlight maneuver by Senior Vice President/General Manager Stan Bowman, who for once found himself a shopper in a National Hockey League market governed by the most restrictive salary cap in professional sports. Bowman didn't enjoy parting with Shaw, although the June 2016 transaction elevated the Blackhawks to 39th spot in the NHL Draft and a chance to grab Alex DeBrincat there.
Shaw was discovered upon even deeper digging. Not your basic overnight success, he was a fifth round selection and 139rd overall in 2011, a badge of honor he should wear proudly, especially when Patrick Kane gleefully provides background information. Shawzie, he will often remind, what about those prior years when you weren't drafted at all? Seven rounds times 30 franchises….
No matter now. Bowman cited the key to Shaw's engine. He competes. He made himself into a hockey player by giving, even if that means a few teeth, and taking, even if that means a few stitches. Simply put, as Head Coach Jeremy Colliton did firmly on occasion, the Blackhawks needed to be harder to play against. They are now. The NHL projects speed and skill, yes, but as the Bruins and St. Louis Blues displayed in the gritty Final, this still is a game of contact and collision.
The Blackhawks should be better next season because they are deeper. Bowman always says his job requires one to be nimble, and he was at his dexterous best upon learning that Robin Lehner, a Vezina Trophy finalist and a vital cog in the New York Islanders' uprising last season, was suddenly available. In a matter of hours, Bowman added Lehner and his .930 save percentage to the Blackhawks' cart. Bowman believes Corey Crawford and Lehner constitute the NHL's best 1-2 combination at the sport's most important position. This isn't football, where having two quarterbacks means you don't have one.
In Ryan Carpenter, the Blackhawks secured a reliable center who can take important faceoffs when Jonathan Toews doesn't. Carpenter isn't a flashy addition, but neither was another free agent, Brad Richards, who contributed to the 2015 Stanley Cup.
Olli Maatta, bringing a championship pedigree from the Pittsburgh Penguins, and Calvin De Haan have been hired to steady a defense that is crowded. But crowds are good, because they breed competition, and the Blackhawks permitted 292 goals last season, second worst in the NHL. Because of that, myriad mock drafts pegged Bowen Byram as a must-pick for the Blackhawks at No. 3, but they were all in on Kirby Dach, a 6-foot-4 center with an enviable toolbox.
The Blackhawks were trending upward last spring, and still are. But they have company. Byram was grabbed by the Avs, who earned that last playoff berth in April and will be a handful in a Central Division featuring the defending Cup champion Blues. Tough neighborhood. Welcome back, Andrew.