Why the Chicago Blackhawks are at a crossroads

 
 
Updated 5/3/2016 5:40 PM
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  • Blackhawks stars Jonathan Toews, left, and Patrick Kane will each deliver a $10.5 million hit to the team's salary cap next season.

    Blackhawks stars Jonathan Toews, left, and Patrick Kane will each deliver a $10.5 million hit to the team's salary cap next season. Associated Press

The season wasn't supposed to end this way.

Not in the first round.

Not to a Blues team that couldn't find its way out of that first round if it was given a compass, a road map and the Waze app.

Not with players like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith playing in the prime of their careers.

But end that way it did for the Chicago Blackhawks, who were unceremoniously ejected from the Stanley Cup playoffs by St. Louis in seven games in the opening round.

So, now what? Is this magical run over? Have Toews, Kane, Keith and Co. won their last Stanley Cup?

Or are there more championships on the horizon?

Let's take a look at why the team is truly at a crossroads and why fans could easily view the short- and long-term future of the franchise with their glasses half-full, or half-empty.

• • •

Half-full:

Look, the Hawks were one bounce away from taking care of St. Louis. If Brent Seabrook's double-post shot goes in, it's a 3-3 contest late in Game 7. If, eight minutes earlier, Troy Brouwer's initial shot doesn't bounce right back to him, he doesn't score the game-winning goal.

If Duncan Keith doesn't get suspended, maybe the Hawks win Game 1 and prevail in six.

The bottom line is they faced one of the toughest teams in the league and nearly emerged from a series that Ken Hitchcock said reminded him of the NHL Final, and Joel Quenneville said felt like the conference finals.

All of that should remind you that the Hawks didn't exactly fall flat on the ice in falling to the Blues.

Half-empty:

The Western Conference will be strong again next year.

Nashville's core is young and hungry; Dallas, thought to be a year away, won the division; St. Louis might have the best team top to bottom; Los Angeles, San Jose and Anaheim aren't getting weaker; and a team like Edmonton is only going to get better as Connor McDavid and other young guns grow their games … and their bodies.

Half-full:

If the Hawks couldn't win it all, it's just as well they were eliminated early. This will give the core a chance to recharge the batteries and return with a fire in their bellies and more zip in their skates.

Half-empty:

The salary cap continues to be a major obstacle for GM Stan Bowman. Every year, he's giving up young, quality players and this year will be no different.

The nine forwards, four defensemen and two goalies who are locks to make next year's team will cost the Hawks $64.34 million against the cap. Throw in retained money from Rob Scuderi and bonus earnings for Artemi Panarin, and that's about another $4 million.

There is talk that the cap could rise from $71.4 million to $74 million next year. If that happens, it offers a glimmer of hope that the Hawks could keep Andrew Shaw … if he accepts a one-year qualifying offer of $2.5 million.

The Hawks also want to re-sign restricted free agent Richard Panik, who impressed down the stretch, and they will likely try to keep center Dennis Rasmussen.

The biggest issue is on the back end, and it will be interesting to see how Bowman addresses a D-corps that's awfully thin and remains extremely inexperienced once you get past the Big Three of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson.

Half-empty:

Marian Hossa's age is officially a factor. While the future Hall of Famer flashed in the playoffs, he doesn't appear to be a top-line player anymore. If that's the case, he'll certainly thrive in a third-line role … but who steps up to play with Toews if Kane, Artem Anisimov and Panarin remain together on the second line?

Half-full:

Any team with Kane, Toews, Panarin, Keith, Seabrook, Hossa, Hjalmarsson and Corey Crawford and coached by Quenneville has to be a serious contender every year.

Players like Teuvo Teravainen and Trevor van Riemsdyk should step up their games with a full NHL season under their belts. And chemistry between Kane and Panarin should only improve as they enter a second campaign.

Bowman also expects help from players in the Hawks' system. Asked who might be able to step in next season, Bowman mentioned forwards Vinnie Hinostroza, Tanner Kero, Tyler Motte, Kyle Baun and perhaps Mark McNeill and Ryan Hartman. He also hopes Ville Pokka could help on the blue line.

"We're going to need some of those guys to step forward," Bowman said. "I'm not sure which ones are most likely at this point. We don't really handicap it.

"We're looking for those guys to have good summers and come in prepared to show us they're NHL players."

• • •

So, do you feel better? Or worse?

Probably a little bit of both, but by the time October rolls around, most fans will probably be brimming with confidence that the Hawks can put it together and make the 2016 postseason just a speed bump on the way to more championship glory.

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