“There will be change,” a frustrated Stan Bowman promised upon his club’s ousting in a blink-and-you-missed-it Round 1 upset orchestrated by the Nashville Predators.
Then the Blackhawks general manager sharpened his sword and made good on that threat, severing ties with a number of key pieces that helped Chicago finish best in the West, but flamed out in April. “A complete failure” was Bowman’s take.
Head coach Joel Quenneville remains, but the ground underneath him has been shaken. Ulf Samuelsson and Don Granato are his new assistants.
Gone are Artemi Panarin and his seamless chemistry with the creative Patrick Kane. Ditto the reliable, minutes-eating top-three defenceman Niklas Hjalmarsson; arguably the NHL’s most reliable backup, Scott Darling; and the ailing Marian Hossa, who was still one of the best two-way wings in the game despite his advanced age.
Some of the new faces are welcome old ones (Brandon Saad, Patrick Sharp), but this cap-strapped superpower appears, on paper at least, to have taken another hit as it sheds salary and injects youth.
Bowman’s been ruthless before in his pursuit of adding to this modern dynasty, and his business-first approach has yielded results, so we’ll wait a few months before declaring Blackhawks down.
UP-AND-COMING PLAYER TO WATCH
A virtual lock to make the opening-night roster after making the leap from Rochester in 2016-17, 21-year-old Nick Schmaltz is the type of young, cheap forward Chicago must depend on if it’s to keep pace with Pittsburgh in cap-era dynasty conversations.
The 2014 first-rounder out of nearby Madison, Wisconsin, scored six goals and contributed a nifty 22 assists over 61 games last season. With so many veterans leaving town, notably depth pivot Marcus Kruger going to Carolina by way of Vegas, Schmaltz can expect to see more ice than the 13 minutes he averaged as a rookie.
A skilled passer and takeaway craftsman who will be counted on to play with more confidence and improve in the face-off dot, Schmaltz could see time running Coach Q’s second and/or third line.
WHAT A SUCCESSFUL 2017-18 WOULD LOOK LIKE
When your core group owns championship rings for three fingers, the bar for success is about as high as you can dream.
Despite the rash of off-season departures, we’re talking about a perennial contender guided by one of the best minds in hockey. Chicago still holds claim to a Norris-winning quarterback, an all-star goaltender, and two of the best forwards in the sport.
The Hawks’ embarrassing sweep to the Predators may have caused you to forget that they put up more points than any other team in the West last year. Analysts will have them taking a step back, but captain Jonathan Toews is happy to be reunited with Saad. He’s had a long summer to taste defeat and will be ready.
“It always stings a little bit more,” Toews told Chris Johnston of watching the Penguins’ victory. “It kind of lights that fire a little bit, too.”
BIGGEST REMAINING QUESTION
Can Connor Murphy really replace Niklas Hjalmarsson?
Head coach Joel Quenneville was so ticked off by the draft-day trade of Hjalmarsson, he left the United Center on tilt. ‘Hammer’ was the quiet glue that held a top-heavy Chicago D core together when Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook took a rare breath for air.
In his stead comes a 24-year-old who had largely flown under the radar in Arizona. Murphy doesn’t generate a ton of offence, but he’ll be leaned upon to log about 20 minutes a night and improve one of the league’s poorest penalty-killing squads.
The spotlight will be bright. Keith is 34; Seabrook is 32. Will Murphy, who is signed through 2022, be able to not only help keep this Cup window open, but lead a fresh wave of Chicago D-men?