Can optimistic Blackhawks really turn things around next year?

Late last week, I went back to listen to Stan Bowman's opening statement from a year ago after the Blackhawks were swept from the playoffs by the Nashville Predators.

It was jarring, to say the least.

A fuming Bowman said it was "unacceptable to be where we are today." He was frustrated and angry, and called the season "a complete failure when you measure it against the expectations that we have of ourselves."

Yet, here we are - less than a year later - and the Hawks were cleaning out their lockers while 16 teams prepared for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

This wasn't the plan, so where did it all go wrong?

Start with the obvious - the loss of Marian Hossa to a skin condition. That setback weakened the Hawks on both ends of the ice. The consistent, smart hockey we were so used to suddenly disappeared.

The Hawks stumbled along for 35 games and were still in the thick of things when Corey Crawford went on injured reserve. He never returned and that was that.

Looking forward, you have to wonder what shape this team is in. There was plenty of optimism at the United Center on Monday, but that seems to be the Hawks' MO, even when things look bleak.

Yet, how optimistic should fans be?

Bowman's decision to trade Artemi Panarin for Brandon Saad could become one of the worst deals in franchise history. Panarin racked up 82 points in Columbus and should be an MVP candidate for the way he exploded down the stretch (29 points in last 16 games) to help lead the Blue Jackets to the postseason.

Saad, meanwhile, scored 12 times in the last 73 games.

Bowman said it isn't fair to judge the deal on one year. And he doesn't expect Saad to produce the way Panarin does.

"(Saad) did a lot of underlying things which were really good," Bowman said. "When he was on the ice, our team had a lot of chances. His conversion rate (7.6 percent) was just really low this year.

"We look at that as kind of an anomaly. We think he's going to get back to his normal production."

Still, did it make sense to take Panarin away from Patrick Kane? Isn't that a bit like taking Scottie Pippen away from Michael Jordan?

Maybe Saad rebounds next season. Maybe the Hawks make the playoffs and he can show everyone why he was reacquired. But if both don't happen, the Hawks will be trounced on that deal.

The other major theme from Monday - and a popular storyline for 2-3 years - was that the Hawks' top players must find their form again.

Jonathan Toews had a career-low 20 goals and 52 points. Duncan Keith scored twice on 187 shots, he turned the puck over 73 times for a second straight year and had a career-worst minus-29 rating. Brent Seabrook looked better in the final 20 or so games, but he carries a $6.875 million cap hit and needs to be a difference-maker every night.

"They're elite players," Bowman said. "We have a lot of faith that they're going to get back to that level."

Said Toews: "(I) put a lot of pressure on myself to create offense and put numbers on the board. Sometimes when that didn't happen, it just seemed to snowball in the wrong direction. In some cases maybe that pressure kind of trickled down and was applied to my linemates a little bit."

As I said, this is a tired storyline and one that has to stop.

Bowman believes it can, and he pointed to three players as the good examples: Anze Kopitar, 30, went from 12 goals and 52 points in 2016-17 to 35/92 this season; Dustin Brown, 33, went from 14 to 28 goals; and Zdeno Chara, 41, bounced back from a rough 2014-15 to have three solid campaigns.

"I feel good," said Keith, who will be 35 in July. "I know my age. I know I'm not getting any younger. But at the same time, I don't feel old. I know that I have a lot left in the tank."

Said Toews: "I'm really excited about the potential for what a great summer of training and coming in excited to start over and start anew."

OK - the above happens: Crawford returns to an elite level, and the superstars find a way to rebound.

Then the Hawks should compete for a playoff spot next season. Bowman has done a good job drafting and signing players such as Nick Schmaltz, Alex DeBrincat and Vinnie Hinostroza. Dylan Sikura figures to be an important piece next season too. Others such as Tomas Jurco, John Hayden, David Kampf and Anthony Duclair may take another step, as well as defensemen Jan Rutta, Jordan Oesterle, Erik Gustafsson and Gustav Forsling.

Maybe D-man Henri Jokiharju is ready and - if you really want to dream - the Hawks leap into the top three in the draft and bring in an NHL-ready player.

Then, hey, who knows?

"We've all got to improve," Toews said. "It seems like we were saying the same things at the end of the year last year and sometimes you don't really see those things coming until it's too late.

"But I think we're all pretty optimistic as far as where our team's heading and where we're going to be next year."

It's a familiar theme. Only time will tell if it becomes reality.

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