The nature of hockey and why we love it is that it's such a random game sometimes. Grown men simultaneously skating on ice gracefully and with purpose while skillfully handling a small rubber puck with a stick sounds so ridiculous without context. The NHL in particular is defined by the natural lucky bounces a team may be afforded because of this wacky game. Ultimately within reason, a team can only control it's destiny so much. Sometimes an opponent is just better and it doesn't even matter. In the playoffs, it's about making the most of opportunities while you have a talented core in place so you aren't a victim of unpredictability with the former.
Hindsight is of course 20/20 with any team that loses a playoff series in the NHL. However with the 2016 Chicago Blackhawks loss to the St. Louis Blues in the first round, one can't help but wonder about a squandered chance given the franchise's circumstances. While St. Louis was factually a better team than Chicago this season and in the series as was pondered earlier this week, it doesn't mean the Blackhawks didn't overplay their hand and put blinders on for the near future.
Given the league's tight salary cap, it's always going to be tough to repeat as champions--let alone win one title--given imminent personnel losses. The Hawks experienced this fact after losing several prominent players from their 2015 Stanley Cup champion team such as Brandon Saad, Johnny Oduya, and Patrick Sharp. Implementing a new core around your existing talent base on the fly isn't easy for any team but it's supposed to be more seamless for a team with a situation like Chicago. This championship window with generational talents like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith won't be open forever after all. It behooves those with the proper power to appropriately address all flaws as best as possible.
Not addressing the proper roster needs contributes to a team's loss with heavy playoff mileage.
General manager Stan Bowman isn't supposed to overvalue his own aging forward in Sharp in trade and supposedly demand too much of a viable return if it means throwing in a prominent young defenseman like Stephen Johns. Johns could have helped a team with defensive depth issues this season and potentially beyond, tremendously. The basis behind that trade should have always been purely salary cap relief, otherwise a different negotiation needs to be made.
With hindsight, that same general manager isn't supposed to trade away high draft picks and valued prospects like Marko Dano and this year's first round pick for an aging forward in Andrew Ladd if other more concerning roster needs aren't properly addressed. You can't really fault Bowman for looking to bolster a top six that needed a boost but only if other danger areas like defense were padded. Defensive issues hampered these Blackhawks greatly, yet Bowman instead traded away a cheap and cost effective bottom six player, center Phillip Danault as well as a second round pick, for overvalued forwards in Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann. Again in hindsight, but both Weise and Fleischmann underwhelmed, and in the end contributed to Chicago's ultimate demise.
Maybe there wasn't a true defensive answer available at the deadline so Bowman was hamstrung either way to improve this team's depth from the get go this season. A trade for Dan Hamhuis from the Vancouver Canucks did supposedly fall through though. Christian Ehrhoff, while seemingly the perfect skater and puck moving defenseman, just didn't fit with Joel Quenneville. There's nothing you can change about that. The defensive need was still there and ever pressing.
To me, there's no problem with the aggressiveness the Ladd and Danault trades put on display. This team needed moves either way to contend and maximize the year of this window. You'd be hard pressed to tell me that not addressing the defensive issues didn't cost them as well. Bowman went all-in last season as well and it payed off, at least with Antoine Vermette. No one could blame him for continuing to roll the dice, and I don't. Sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn't. It doesn't mean Bowman isn't the right man for the job because he didn't hit jackpot this season. You can still criticize him for his not making the right moves for needs this year while maintaining perspective that he can bring them back to prominence as he has retooled before.
It's just more about the lost opportunity to make history while the Hawks are in the prime of their core's championship window.
These Blackhawks of this era have already accomplished so much. Three Cups and counting will justify that. But when you're in a period of such highs, it's best to take advantage properly. That's because of the generational talent they've been fortunate enough to posses like Toews and Kane. This success and platform can't last forever. Time is cruel that way. Chicago is in that kind of delicate balance where they may continue to sacrifice draft picks and high draft picks because they recognize that their top superstar players won't be top players for as long as they'd like. However when you do so, make sure you plug all of the right holes in addition to the forwards you acquire. Don't leave room for regret while you had a chance to be transcendent.
Heavy mileage also played it's part in this team losing it's chance this year. Chicago's top three defensemen had to take on even more responsibility than usual given the struggles of guys like Trevor van Riemsdyk and Erik Gustafsson. The extra weight clearly burdened them, particularly Brent Seabrook. This team was going to be more fatigued than most given the immense amount of games they've played in recent years. Deep playoff runs eventually come back to bite you long term. You just have to recognize how to fight by having your roster prepared as best as possible. The straw wouldn't have potentially eventually broken the camel's back if there's more of a platoon available.
One could argue the Western Conference and league as a whole was as flawed as ever this season. While Chicago had it's own inherent major flaws, so did most teams on their rosters. For example, the Stars have defensive and goaltending issues. The Kings fell apart because of their own lack of depth. The Hawks even had St. Louis on the ropes for every defensive flaw they upheld. Maybe we're not even having this conversation if not for a few unfortunate goal posts but the Blues overall proved to be the better team. If more foresight was taken this season to fill the defensive holes properly then maybe the mileage and lack of depth doesn't catch up to the team. All played their own role.
Even while I picked them to win the Cup, there was a feeling from me that you needed an all worldly performance from Corey Crawford and those expectations were too high of a burden on the star goalie. All I'm saying is that it hurts to have a team with generational talent miss out when it maybe could have been avoided.
Those same Western Conference teams like the Stars or Blues, who are also in the Central Division with the Hawks, have their own young talent that will only to continue to grow. For a team with championship aspirations and the caliber of players it has like Chicago, anything but a Cup is a failure within this window, especially as other rival teams improve and build. It's as simple as that and it applies in every sport.
It's so rare to have these guys the Hawks have at the top of their roster like Toews and Kane that it behooves taking advantage of how they play and what they offer properly while you can. With the caliber of player here, it's about maximizing results.
The Blackhawks have several years left to contend with their cornerstones. There's no doubt that they'll be back successfully and that's fortunate in itself. But the clock is ticking and the pain of what this year could have potentially been, won't soon go away.
Robert Zeglinski is a staff writer for Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.