Losing a Game 7 is hard to swallow. It’s especially hard to take when you’ve battled back from a 3-0 deficit and it’s almost impossible to deal with it having lost to your biggest playoff rivals, the Vancouver Canucks.
But in many ways, overcoming that 3-0 hole was representative of the entire season of the Chicago Blackhawks.
Having won the most coveted trophy in all of sports in the 2009-2010 season, the Hawks were forced to sell most of their roster last summer, thanks, in part, to some cavalier spending by former general manager Dale Tallon. Names like Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd, both who enjoyed enormous success in Atlanta, were cut loose in the major salary dump.
Without many of their role players, the remaining Hawks players were forced to try and build chemistry with veterans and minor league callups alike. Guys like Fernando Pisani were brought in to fill roles that they never really filled, while longtime minor leaguers like Jack Skille, who was dealt to the Florida Panthers, and Jake Dowell enjoyed short-lived tenures in the Windy City.
There was also the slew of injuries that the Blackhawks had to deal with. Literally every major forward on the team missed some sort of gametime, a trend which eventually stretched to the defense. Both Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook appeared in all 82 games during the regular season, the only Hawks to do so, while Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane, and Marian Hossa missed eight, nine, and 17 games, respectively.
Yet, despite these regular season struggles through inconsistency and injury, followed by an early exit, there still remains an excitement over this team heading into next season, which is similar to that of the attitude of fans that followed the 2008-09 season.
Yes, they snuck into the playoffs, but were also considered possibly the best eight seed of all time, pushing the President’s Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks to the brink of elimination even with a roster that was depleted by injury for pretty much all of the series in some capacity.
The core of this team is still intact, and will remain so even with the desire of some fans to trade Patrick Kane. The fire that should be instilled in this group, especially Jonathan Toews, should rival that of the determination that the team carried throughout the regular season in 2009-2010. Of all those on the team, Toews may have taken the loss the hardest, and if he plays a full regular season at anywhere near the level that he played during the second half of this season, he’s going to be firmly in the middle of the Hart Trophy discussion.
The dead weight of this roster will be trimmed. Pisani is, of course, gone. As are Dowell, Tomas Kopecky, and most likely Viktor Stalberg. Three of the four will be replaced with role players, whether free agent acquisitions or young guys, that can actually contribute, while Kopecky’s decent season will make him a cap casualty.
The defense will pretty much remain intact, as well. Unless the team decides to deal, if they can, one of Niklas Hjalmarsson or Brian Campbell, the Hawks have a top six d-unit that will all be returning, assuming the team re-ups Chris Campoli on the cheap side.
There’s also that guy in net, Corey Crawford, who seems to have developed into a franchise goaltender over the course of just one season. He was solid in net all year for the Hawks, but really broke out and showed how capable he is against Vancouver, almost single-handedly winning Game 6 and falling just short of stealing the entire series in Game 7.
The big thing that will help this team heading into next season is the financial flexibility that they will have. It won’t be a great deal of money, but the Hawks won’t be nearly as handicapped as they were financially last season, with playoff bonuses and other contracts coming off the books, as well as an expected increase in the salary cap. It will be that flexibility that allows the Hawks to re-sign Crawford, Campoli, and most likely Troy Brouwer and Michael Frolik, and then go after some physical talent out on the market.
Most Hawks fans were aware of the situation heading into the season after last year’s salary dump. It was going to be a long year with the Hawks struggling fiscally and icing guys, like Pisani, that really had no business being on the ice with the caliber of team that Chicago can be when completely healthy. With a long summer to mull over the loss, and a few new faces, this team is going to be right back in the thick of things, and could head right back for a Central Division title and high seed heading into next year’s postseason.