Are Chicago Blackhawks positioned to become perennial playoff team?

                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews skates during NHL hockey practice at Fifth Third Arena on Monday, July 13, 2020, in Chicago.

    Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews skates during NHL hockey practice at Fifth Third Arena on Monday, July 13, 2020, in Chicago.

 
 
Updated 5/13/2021 5:55 AM

After the Blackhawks were swept by the Nashville Predators in 2017, a seething Stan Bowman addressed the media at the United Center.

The frustrated, angry general manager said it was "unacceptable to be where we are today."

 

He promised to be better. And he promised change was coming.

In the four years since, the Hawks have missed the playoffs three times and only qualified last season because the NHL gave eight extra teams the chance to move on.

Change certainly came. But not all for the better.

After what was a successful season for a team that admitted it was rebuilding, the big question is: Now what?

Does Bowman have the Hawks positioned properly to become a perennial playoff team? Or are more near misses in the future as Duncan Keith, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews see their skills decline with age?

There are no clear answers.

Bowman and coach Jeremy Colliton addressed the media for 90 minutes Wednesday on a variety of topics.

Jonathan Toews

Bowman "had a good chat" with the Hawks' captain a couple of weeks ago and said "he's doing well." They spoke for 15 to 20 minutes.

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While Bowman is hopeful, he would not say if Toews will be back next season.

"It's a bit of unchartered waters here," Bowman said. "We're taking it as it comes."

TSN's Darren Dreger said last month Toews is improving and expects the future Hall of Famer to return. What kind of player would Toews be after 15 months away from competitive hockey?

If Toews can return and play well it would be a massive boost to a team that wasn't that far from a playoff berth.

Playoffs?

So what is the timeline for the playoffs? It's a question Bowman is often asked and Wednesday was no exception.

Bowman said what the Hawks are going through is "a process." They gave young players opportunities -- and big opportunities at that. We had little to no idea how Pius Suter, Brandon Hagel, Philipp Kurashev, Adam Boqvist, Wyatt Kalynuk, Ian Mitchell, Nicolas Beaudin and Kevin Lankinen would perform.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

For the most part, they all reached or exceeded expectations.

Now they must take big steps heading into 2021-22.

"When you look back at our year, what I noticed most was when we were really on our game, we could play with anybody and we could beat anybody," Bowman said. "The challenge was, when we didn't have everything going at one time, then it was hard for us. Our minimum level of performance isn't as high as some of the top teams."

Bowman went on to say you're not going to have your "A" game every night. But you can't bring your "C" game and expect to beat Tampa, Carolina, Florida and Nashville.

"That's a learning process for our team," Bowman said. "When we were playing well for that stretch ... everybody was really focused. Their details were good and that gave our team a chance every night. And then when one area slipped -- whether it was the forwards, the (defense), the goaltending, the special teams -- we didn't have enough to overcome it."

Who's coming?

Like any evolving squad, we can expect moving roster parts between today and Opening Night. There will be trades, free-agent additions, and one player will be taken by Seattle in the expansion draft.

Two players to keep an eye on are forwards Henrik Borgstrom and Lukas Reichel.

The Hawks signed Borgstrom, whose rights were acquired from Florida in April, to a two-year, $2 million deal Wednesday. Although he fell out of favor with Joel Quenneville, Bowman is high on the 6-foot-3, 198-pound Finland native, who scored 11 goals in 30 games for HIFK Helsinki in the Finnish Elite League.

He'll compete for a spot at center next season.

Reichel was drafted 17th overall in 2020. He scored 10 goals in 38 games for the Berlin Polar Bears in Germany.

"Style-wise, he's going to fit in nicely with our team," Bowman said. "We're going to be aware he's only 19. I'm not putting high expectations on him. ... It might take him a year or two, but that's OK.

"We like the skillset he brings, and I think he's going to be a player to help us out in the coming years."

Goaltenders

For most of the year, Kevin Lankinen proved he could be a No. 1 goalie. Can he keep it up for an 82-game season?

If he can't, there's no way the Hawks can become a consistent force. With that in mind, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Hawks add a veteran in free agency.

Don't forget that they took Drew Commesso in the second round last year. If he progresses as the Hawks hope, it's possible the 18-year-old could be a factor in two to three years.

Hard as iron

As I wrote a while back, one of the biggest issues is the Hawks' lack of size.

They outworked opponents the first half of the season. And it led to a surprising start that helped them compete for a playoff berth.

But talent and physicality usually beats heart over the long haul.

The Hawks need more size and talented guys who are tough to play against. Think Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov on the Panthers; Roman Josi on the Predators; Yanni Gourde, Alex Killorn and Victor Hedman on the Lightning.

Just to name a few.

"We want to ... play a relentless style, have the capability of being a hard forechecking team. More physical," Colliton said. "Especially when you go into playoff series, you've got to have that element where you're getting in on their 'D' and finishing and wearing them down.

"We have some skill guys and we want to score off the rush and be dynamic in transition. But against teams that really clog it up ... it's gonna be hard to out-skill teams. We're gonna have to be able to grind teams to create offense and win 3-1 or 3-2.

"We've got to be able to develop that part of our game. We're making strides, but we've got lots of work left."

We'll see if they do enough of it over the coming months to finally end this run of mediocrity and once again join the ranks of the elite.

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