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Will Blackhawks really commit to rebuild now?

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A recent flurry of moves suggests a different philosophy emerging in Chicago’s front office.

NHL: JAN 28 All-Star Skills Competition Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

There was a noticeable shift the tone of Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman during his media availability Thursday.

While prior media sessions with Bowman were typically vague and left fans wondering about nature of the behind-the-scenes discussions occurring in Chicago’s front office, Bowman seemed to offer a hint of what’s to come in the Blackhawks short-term future.

“Now that we’ve made the decision the way that we’re going to move forward [with youth], there’s going to be a lot more things that we’re going to talk about over the coming days as far as planning next year’s team,” Bowman said.

“The NHL is relying more and more on young players. We’re gonna embrace that moving forward.”

For the first time in his tenure, Bowman sounded like an executive who was eyeing a long-term plan to embark on the rebuild option that has been available for the past few years.

Some of Bowman’s actions in the past week suggest that is the direction this franchise is headed. The largest piece of evidence was the decision to not re-sign goaltender Corey Crawford, ending his lengthy tenure with the team. Instead of reaching out to the plethora of veteran goaltenders available in free agency this year, Bowman sounds like he’s putting his faith in the young, unproven goaltenders making their case to be the next Crawford.

“The message to Corey and to everyone else today is that we’ve decided we’ve got some young goaltenders here in Chicago we believe in,” Bowman said.

Other moves this week add more support to the notion a rebuild is on. The decision to let forward Drake Caggiula and defenseman Slater Koekkoek to enter unrestricted free agency by not extending qualifying offers to them provides two additional roster spots that can be won by players with a longer NHL future ahead of them. The same could be said for the decision to trade Olli Maatta earlier this week. All three players are 26 years old.

It remains the opinion of this writer that calling any Blackhawks plan a “rebuild” is incorrect when veterans such as Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith still make up about one-third of the team’s salary cap hit for the 2020-21 season. There’s also the $10.775 million of salary cap space belonging to Andrew Shaw (through ‘21-22) and Brent Seabrook (through ‘23-24) that seem difficult to move given the extensive injury histories of both players. Until some of those contracts come off the books — one way or another (*cough* long-term injured reserve *cough*) — it’s hard to call this a true rebuild. Don’t forget about all the no-trade or movement clauses associated with Kane, Keith, Toews and Seabrook, all of whom helped Chicago win three Stanley Cup championships in 2010, 2013 and 2015.

But we’re also about to enter the portion of the NHL calendar where trades most commonly occur.

Better grab a drink, folks. Things could get quite interesting around these parts.

A final word on Crawford

I don’t know what else to say about Crawford that wasn’t already expressed in this follow-up from Game 4 of the playoff series with the Golden Knights, which Crawford basically won by himself.

For the last decade, he’s been as consistent, as reliable as any player on the roster. Any brief moments of subpar play were quickly amended by dazzling performances. He deserved the Conn Smythe Trophy as Stanley Cup Playoffs MVP in 2013. That he never finished higher than fifth in the Vezina Trophy voting as the NHL’s most outstanding goaltender is about as bad as the lack of Selke Trophy consideration Marian Hossa received in his career.

Even as the product in front of him trended downward in the back half of the 2010s, Crawford remained reliable in net when healthy, absorbing an ever-increasing number of shots against to keep his team within striking distance of a victory that it typically did not deserve.

His number should already be hanging in the United Center rafters. His Hockey Hall of Fame candidacy is at least in the debate stages and could be beefed up with another run to the Stanley Cup should a contender come calling.

There are too many highlights to post. But, in line with the themes of his career, let’s go with this montage of top moments from the ‘18-19 season when, the Blackhawks defense was merely a rumor but Crawford showed up and gave his team a chance to win.