Rozner: Playoffs would be a Blackhawks bonus
It's not surprising that the Blackhawks have gone from a relatively comfortable playoff position to fighting for their postseason lives in only a couple of weeks.
With a very young team, there's a mental and physical fatigue that inevitably creeps up at this point in the schedule, causing mistakes of the mind that lead to mistakes on the ice.
Not that veterans are immune, as some of them still freelance when the Hawks fall behind or there are potential goals and assists available, abandoning the program in search of points.
That's all it takes to let a game get away.
The Hawks are still very much in the hunt, and that's a bonus, just as was the gift of two playoff series last summer. And while no coach or player would ever think this -- as their focus is on playing in the postseason -- the playoffs were unlikely when this season began and not the emphasis of the 2021 calendar.
This is a team in full rebuild mode. They would like to win, but there's a difference between what they're doing now and what they had been trying to do since 2015, which was attempt to win and sort of rebuild at the same time.
It obviously didn't work, and it's a nearly impossible task.
What it did was leave the Hawks without a surplus of young players continuously stepping into the lineup and replacing aging or expensive veterans, a vital cog in surviving a salary-cap world.
They were far behind in that regard and are only now starting to catch up. They would never do this, but they have finally built a big enough stable of young defensemen that they could start a lineup on the back end entirely of kids.
As that is the most valuable commodity in the game, the Hawks in a year could be in a position to trade one or two to fill other needs, and the key there is self-scouting, knowing which ones to keep and which ones to deal.
This is crucial.
Thus, they continue to stockpile young assets, witness the deals GM Stan Bowman has made in advance of Monday's trade deadline.
"This year was important to try to build and to give young players an opportunity," Bowman said a few days ago. "We've been able to do that. We've seen several young players ahead of where maybe we predicted they would be. That's part of it.
"On top of that, we wanted to bring in more depth around the players we have. We're looking to have more options for our coach. When you have more options and more players, there's more competition, and you bring out the best in the players that are here and in the new players.
"They're gonna look around and see that suddenly there are some really good players around trying to get into the lineup. That's part of taking your team to the next tier, that internal competition.
"We're still looking for more. We're still trying to build it up. That's when you have a chance to have your team move forward and become a better team."
That doesn't mean Bowman, or anyone else in the organization, fails to see the value of getting these kids more ice time in stressful situations, including possibly the postseason.
"Winning is a great development tool, too," Bowman said. "We're in a fight to get into the playoffs. We play these teams down the stretch. So really, it's in our hands.
"Great position to be in, to be accumulating young players to make your team deeper in the future, but also gaining experience down the stretch."
After taking down the hapless Blue Jackets on Saturday, they'll have another in Columbus on Monday and two at Detroit this week. Those are three wins they're going to need, because after that it's three with Nashville, one against Tampa, two against Florida and three at Carolina, before finishing the season with two at home against Dallas.
It's right there for them if they get good goaltending and stick with the program, doing the little things Jeremy Colliton has been asking them to do, boring things like protecting their own net, thinking defense first and being on the right side of the puck in dangerous areas.
Young players, especially young defensemen, make mistakes, and there will be more of those before the schedule concludes. Minimizing those and paying attention to detail would go a long way toward ensuring a playoff berth.
Either way, the Hawks are making progress. That's the big picture. And that's the picture that matters most right now.