With the Chicago Blackhawks out of the playoff race, let's look ahead to next season -- one in which the team hopes to make the unpleasantries of 2017-18 a distant memory.
To accomplish this, improved play among the defensemen is an absolute must.
What is scary for many of you -- and many league experts, for that matter -- is that the 'D' corps may not look much different from what we see now.
After all, general manager Stan Bowman signed Erik Gustafsson and Jan Rutta to contract extensions last week. That means, barring a trade, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Connor Murphy, Jordan Oesterle, Gustav Forsling, Gustafsson and Rutta all are coming back.
GASP! What is Bowman thinking?
Well, let me try to put everyone's mind to rest.
First of all, I believe the last four players listed have the potential to make significant strides. They all possess speed, good instincts and can contribute offensively, an absolute must in today's NHL.
All of them have gone through significant growing pains, but given more time and room to grow, they ought to give coach Joel Quenneville the consistency he's looking for in the defensive zone.
Next, the Hawks obviously need Murphy, Keith and Seabrook to play better -- or at least not take a step back -- and that's certainly a decent possibility.
Finally, you have to expect Bowman to bring in a veteran free agent come July. How much he will be able to spend depends on how much the salary cap rises, and whether he decides to move a higher-priced player such as Murphy or Artem Anisimov. (And I do believe they should keep Anisimov.)
So whom might the Hawks target? Here's a look at the Hockey News' top six unrestricted free agents:
• John Carlson, Washington (12G, 42A, 25:07 TOI). I see you all salivating, but don't get your hopes up. Barring a franchise-altering move, there's no way the Hawks will be able to afford Carlson. He's only 28 and likely will get a long-term deal valued at $7.5 million or more annually from the Capitals.
• Mike Green, Detroit (7G, 25A, 22:07 TOI). Assuming Carlson re-signs with Washington, the 32-year-old Green will be the biggest name on the market. Green has averaged 11 goals per 82 games since 2013-14 and is a force on the power play. He figures to cost $5.5 million-$6.5 million per season, which only works if Bowman can pull off some magic.
• Zdeno Chara, Boston (7G, 16A, 23:07 TOI). He'll be 41 in five days. There's no way the Hawks should go this route.
• Calvin de Haan, Islanders (1G, 11A, 18:45 TOI). Not everyone is as high as the Hockey News is on de Haan, who underwent season-ending shoulder surgery in December. Still, here is their thinking on the 26-year-old: "A sturdy, physical top-four defender who blocks shots and isn't a zero on offense. Any team could use that." Especially at $3.5 million or less.
• Erik Gudbranson, Canucks (2G, 3A, 18:23 TOI). Gudbranson is 6-feet-5, 220 pounds. Sounds a lot like Cody Franson, doesn't it? No way Bowman goes this route.
• Ian Cole, Blue Jackets (4G, 11A, 17:30 TOI). A shot-blocking machine, Cole would fit in nicely on a Hawks squad that has lost this dynamic with the departures of Niklas Hjalmarsson and Trevor van Riemsdyk. Cole would come with a winning pedigree -- he won Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh the last two seasons -- and shouldn't cost much more than $2.75 million a year.
Don't forget about:
• John Moore, Devils (7G, 10A, 19:58 TOI). Moore was born in Winnetka and played for the Chicago Mission and Chicago Steel, so this might be a perfect fit. The 6-2, 210-pounder may not come cheap, but he has the potential to really solidify the back end.
• Columbus' Jack Johnson (3G, 6A, 19:40 TOI). Figures to be a high priority for the Blue Jackets, who have plenty of cap space to re-sign their assistant captain.
• Others UFAs include the Rangers' Nick Holden, Anaheim's Kevin Bieksa, Nashville's Alexei Emelin and Dallas' Dan Hamhuis.