VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Some might see it as a wasted year for the Blackhawks, and they wouldn't be totally wrong.
After all, the Hawks had an inconsistent regular season, were mediocre at the United Center and lost in the first round of the playoffs.
Other will choose to look at the bright side.
The Hawks still have one of the top core groups in the NHL, and the playoff experience gained by young players such as Corey Crawford, Michael Frolik, Nick Leddy and Ben Smith should mean they can get back to being a Stanley Cup contender in 2011-12 with a few tweaks here and there from general manager Stan Bowman.
Hawks captain Jonathan Toews prefers to look back on a difficult season that ended with a thud Tuesday night with a 2-1 overtime loss to the Canucks in Game 7 as a learning exercise.
"With the core group that we have here and the supporting cast, we thought we had a good team, but to exit in the first round you're not as good as you want to be," Toews said. "You can look at how long of a year it was and how tough it is to come back after winning the Stanley Cup last year. You can go down the list of excuses, but it doesn't matter.
"When you play 82 games to get to the playoffs you don't want to waste that chance. It's frustrating to go down, but we lost to a good team."
The Hawks lost the series by not playing well in the first three games. They fell into a 3-0 hole before valiantly fighting back to force a Game 7 against the team that won the President's Trophy in the regular season.
"We never gave up," Toews said. "It's easy to ask yourself what you could have done, the little things that went wrong that could have made the difference, but it is what it is and it's over."
Several Hawks agreed in the quiet of the visitor's dressing room following the dramatic Game 7 loss that they had nobody but themselves to blame for having to play the Canucks in the first round in the first place.
With their talent, speed and skill level, the Hawks had no business being the eighth seed in the Western Conference, sneaking into the playoffs on the last night of the season when Dallas blew a game to Minnesota.
"I'd say our regular season cost us a playoff run," winger Troy Brouwer said. "We struggled every game. We had a lot of stumbling here and there and we put ourselves in a position where we had to hope for another to lose to make the playoffs. We made it so we were playing the No. 1 seed. It's not like anyone did this to us."
Added defenseman Duncan Keith: "I was proud of the way we fought back and made it a series, but at the same time it's still tough to take knowing if we had been better in the regular season it might have enhanced our chances here, whether it's home ice in the playoffs or things like that."
The Hawks found out how difficult it is to defend the Stanley Cup. Winning it is exhausting, it makes for a short off-season to train properly, then once the next regular season begins everyone is gunning for you and the motivation and compete level suffers.
Four months of off-season certainly will help Keith, Toews, Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane, Brent Seabrook and Marian Hossa -- guys who have played a lot of hockey the last two seasons.
Bowman doesn't have a lot of holes to plug. There is a need for more size and sandpaper, but a lot of the key pieces are already in place in place for a serious Cup run.
Bowman has decisions to make with certain restricted free agents such as Brouwer, Viktor Stalberg, Chris Campoli and Jake Dowell -- re-sign them or use them as possible trade bait.
Signing restricted free agents Crawford and Frolik must be a priority for the second-year GM.
As for unrestricted free agents Tomas Kopecky, Ryan Johnson, Marty Turco, Fernando Pisani and Jordan Hendry, perhaps only Johnson returns if the price is right.
Kopecky is coming off a career year numbers wise with 15 goals and 42 points, but if he wants too much more than the $1.2 million he earned this season he likely would be allowed to walk with the likes of forwards Smith, Marcus Kruger and Jeremy Morin waiting in the wings.
Perhaps the Hawks look to deal one of their big-ticket players such as defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, who has three years left on his contract that carries a hefty $3.5 million cap hit. The Hawks are deep on defense if they're looking to go that route to acquire a big forward.
Bowman's cap problem isn't nearly as bad as last summer, especially with the $4.1 million bonus hits for Toews and Kane coming off the books and the cap expected to rise by at least $3 million.