A second straight season without the playoffs cost a Hall of Fame coach his job.
A third season without the playoffs? There’s no way a general manager survives that, right? Considering that franchise has won three Stanley Cups this decade and still has stars like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane in the lineup, it’s hard to envision Chicago general manager Stan Bowman holding on to his job if the Blackhawks’ next season ends around the same time in 2020.
So, yes, the pressure is now on Bowman to do something — anything — to improve a dreadful defense that plagued Chicago’s playoff hopes this season.
There are reasons for optimism, of course, as the Blackhawks closed the season on a 20-10-3 stretch, a 106-point pace over an 82-game schedule. But it’s also hard to ignore the horrendous 3-16-3 stretch near the end of 2018 that sent Chicago to the NHL’s basement.
And a large share of the blame for that brutal 22-game span can be attributed to Bowman, because of the roster he assembled in the offseason.
It remains one of the biggest indictments against Bowman that both he and team president John McDonough repeatedly asserted that they believed the Blackhawks were a playoff-worthy team. But of the 18 who skaters who opened the season in Ottawa back on Oct. 4, three have been traded and two more were returned to the AHL with little belief in their NHL futures (Henri Jokiharju is not one of those two players, and his exclusion from the NHL roster is for a much different reason). Turning over nearly one-third of a lineup in just six months suggests that the original lineup was not a quality one, and that responsibility falls on Bowman’s shoulders.
Now, credit must be given to Bowman for recognizing that there was a problem and the steps he took to correct them. Acquiring Dylan Strome is proving to be one of Bowman’s best trades, and Brendan Perlini could be a decent bottom-six forward in the future. Stealing Drake Caggiula away from Edmonton for Brandon Manning is borderline criminal.
The contributions from those players are among the biggest storylines that emerged over the final months of the season. A prolific season from Kane, resurgent seasons from Toews and Brandon Saad and a 40-goal season from Alex DeBrincat add to the rosier outlook for the future of the Blackhawks, as compared to the bleak ending to the 2017-18 season.
However, all of the players mentioned above are forwards, indicative of the massive defensive struggles that affected Chicago all season long. And this comes down to a personnel issue: the Blackhawks blue-liners, as a group, were just not good enough this season. Some of the defensive blame can be shared with the forwards, of course, but allowing the second-most goals in the NHL (292) along a historically awful penalty kill (72.7 percent, worst in nearly 30 years) is a byproduct of a dearth of quality among Blackhawks defenseman. Connor Murphy is worthy of a top-four role and Duncan Keith still might be, but that’s about it. Age has caught up to Brent Seabrook, while Carl Dahlstrom, Gustav Forsling, Erik Gustafsson and Slater Koekkoek have all yet to prove they can be counted on for anything more than third-pairing minutes.
By trade, by free agency, or by promotion of prospects within the organization, Bowman has to fix those blue line issues this summer. Or, next season, he’ll be looking for a new job, too.