On Monday morning, the Chicago Blackhawks faced the media, days after ending their first losing campaign since the 2006-2007 season. They shared their thoughts about a challenging season, their plans for the summer ahead, and the steps the team can take to make next season a competitive one.
On how the season unfolded:
This is the second time that Bowman went before reporters in April instead of June. Last year, Bowman was openly irate. He used words like “disappointed”, “unacceptable” and “frustrated” in describing his feelings on how the Blackhawks fared against the Nashville Predators last post-season.
This time around, Bowman was more composed. Maybe the fact that the writing was on the wall as early as mid-March helped prepare him for this morning. Yet, you could still feel the frustration in his voice. “The emotion would be extreme disappointment in where we’re at as an organization”, he said. After finishing first in the Central Division and the Western Conference last year, the Hawks finished this year with a 33-39-10 record, good for 76 points, last in the Central and seventh-worse in the league. “We had high expectations and we know we didn’t meet those this year. We’re clearly not happy with where we are.”
For his part, coach Q began the presser by talking about how this year was different from the others at the get go. He discussed how the season began with high expectations, and ended with the team racking up losses early, which meant that they had to chase the playoffs “earlier than what we were accustomed to.” Q also talked about the lack of relentlessness in his team this year. “Relentless… in our game can get us back to being a top team.” He said that if the Blackhawks became a harder team to play against, they would be back to being one of the best in the league again.
Bowman also specifically laid some of the blame for the Hawks’ struggles this season on both the power play and penalty kill units. After hovering around the top 10 at the beginning of the year, the penalty kill just got worse and worse, ultimately finishing the season ranked 20th in the league. The power play, on the other hand, was bad throughout the year, finishing with a 15.99% clip, good for third worst in the NHL.
Bowman also spent some time this morning defending his signature trade from last summer, sending Artemi Panarin to the Columbus Blue Jackets and re-acquiring Brandon Saad. While Panarin posted a career-high 82 points (27 goals, 55 assists) in Ohio, Saad posted the worse numbers of his career with Chicago (excluding the lock-out season), ending the year with only 35 points (18 goals, 17 assists). While he did agree with the media that more should be expected from Saad, Bowman pushed back against those who are ready to call the trade a lop-sided one against the Blackhawks. “It’s hard to judge a trade in one year,” he said, adding that the trade was made with more long-term implications in mind for the Hawks.
Q, on the other hand, described Saad’s year as “ordinary”. He said that while Saad had a hot start, and while he was doing all the right things on the ice, the “final product” was not what he was hoping for, and he is “going to need more from him going forward.”
On the core’s struggles:
Bowman expressed his faith that the core would bounce back next season. When asked about Jonathan Toews, he said that even when his numbers were high, Toews has always had slow starts. He said he has no doubt that the long summer will help the Blackhawks captain get his game back. On regards to Duncan Keith, Bowman once again pushed back against those suggesting that Keith has lost a step. Q backed Bowman up on this one. “A lot of it was the execution was not there. Sometimes you’re not on top of your game.” Both however commented that age is not a factor into how effective Keith will be next season, as well as Brent Seabrook. Bowman also expressed confidence in Corey Crawford, saying that he has complete confidence that the injury that sidelined the Hawk’s number one goalie will not be an issue next season. “We’ve known these last three to four seasons that he is elite, and the rest of the league is just catching up now.” Q, for his part, expects Crawford to be ready. “He’s on the right track. He’s close to being ready to go.”
On a non-“cap-o-calyptic” summer:
When asked about free agency, Bowman seemed non-committal about making a splash this July. While this off-season would be the first time in his tenure as GM that he will have some significant money to spend, Bowman stated that while he will look into improving the team in free agent market, his top priority is making sure that he can keep as many of the young players that emerged this year as he can. He highlighted Blackhawks forwards Alex DeBrincat, Nick Schmaltz and Vinnie Hinostroza as main parts of the “direction we’re headed”. He also singled out the progress of defensive prospects Henri Jokiharu and Ian Mitchell. While saying that it is rare for a defenseman as young as Jokiharu to break into the league, Bowman was clearly high on the up and coming d-man, praising the progression of his play with the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL. On Mitchell, Bowman praised his skill as an effective stay-at-home defenseman, which melded well with rookie Blake Hillman when the latter was still playing for the University of Denver.
On the blue line:
After a season where uncertainty in goal highlighted the porousness that was the Chicago defense, Q said he will make it a priority in the off-season looking for ways to improve that part of the team. “I will look to tighten up the systems and make sure they don’t give up as much next season.” While the Blackhawks generated the most shots on goal against opposing goalies this season, they also allowed the most shots on goal against their goalies this year.
In keeping up with the tradition of transparency, or lack thereof, Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews did not elaborate on the injury that abruptly ended his season. Only describing the malady as “upper-body”, Toews said that he will take the summer to take stock of his game. Toews ended the season with a career low in goals (20) and points (52). He already previously stated that he will not play for Team Canada in this May’s World Championships
Saad is “not happy”:
When asked about this year, Brandon Saad did not mince words. “Definitely not happy about how the season went,” he said. While his possession numbers were off the charts (he finished within the top 5 of league forwards), his production numbers reached a career low. With the underlying numbers being good, here’s to hoping that Saad was just incredibly snake-bitten this year. Saad also stated that he will not play for Team USA at the World Championships next month and will instead focus on his offseason training. Saad also announced that he will get married in July.
Kane to captain Team USA at Worlds
Patrick Kane, for his part, will appear at this year’s World Championships in Copenhagen, his first since 2008. USA Hockey also announced this afternoon that Kane will captain the team. Kane has previously played for Team USA at the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. Kane indicated before the season ended that he was thinking of playing in the tournament. He stated that while not making the playoffs has sunk in, it still “definitely stings”, and that Worlds, apart from the last two games they played against the St. Louis Blues, will help ease it a bit. Kane ended the year with 76 points. While this was good enough for the team lead in scoring, this was, by all accounts, a down season for Kane. He finished his last two campaigns with 106 and 89 points, respectively.
Kane will be joined on Team USA by his Blackhawks teammates Alex DeBrincat and Connor Murphy. DeBrincat is coming from a stellar rookie campaign, ending up with the team lead in goals (28). He was, no doubt, one of the brighter spots of the year. Murphy, for his part, had a much harder season with the Blackhawks. Acquired from a trade that sent Niklas Hjalmarsson to the Arizona Coyotes, Murphy often found himself on the press box in the beginning of the season. But he bounced back in the second half, with coach Quenneville coming to rely on him for his skills as a stay-at-home defenseman. This will be Murphy’s fourth straight appearance at Worlds, being named captain last year.