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Rebuild, reload ... whatever. The Blackhawks need to move on to the next step

With an eye on the past, some thoughts on what the Blackhawks should do this summer to return to the playoffs in 2022.

Chicago Blackhawks v Columbus Blue Jackets Photo by Ben Jackson/NHLI via Getty Images

You’ll sit alone forever
if you wait for the right time
What are you hoping for?

I doubt Jimmy Eat World was singing about professional sports franchises in that song, but hearing it over the weekend sent my mind towards the Blackhawks and their current state of affairs after missing out on the Stanley Cup Playoffs yet again, with no pandemic-induced playoff expansion to save them this time around.

Here the Blackhawks sit, on the outside of the playoff party but with a sense of direction that’s much different than the last three times Chicago arrived at this position. With a slew of young players debuting last season and others taking steps forward, there are plenty of reasons to believe that this team might be building something that can resemble a legitimate playoff contender in the near future.

But this team needs something to take that next step, a move that kickstarts the franchise from its present state of rebuilding/reloading/retooling/whatevering towards the mindset of playoff qualification and — hopefully — Stanley Cup contention.

And that’s why my mind keeps coming back to the ‘07-08 and ‘08-09 Blackhawks.

The idea of a “rebuild” wasn’t as prevalent in the mid/late-2000s as it is now, although the Blackhawks had been doing that for several seasons before ‘07-08, acquiring a wealth of talent that ultimately won three Stanley Cup titles in the 2010s. In the ‘07-08 season Chicago was red-hot in February before cooling off in March, ultimately missing the playoffs by three points (sound familiar?).

Several of the players who became key cogs down the road debuted that season: Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Kris Versteeg and Niklas Hjalmarsson. Dustin Byfuglien and Dave Bolland also had their first significant glimpse of NHL action that season.

But the real story here is what happened in the offseason: the Blackhawks landed the biggest fish in the free agent pond in 2008, signing Brian Campbell to an 8-year contract worth just over $57 million. Part of the reason for this acquisition was to shed the penny-pinching stigma of the Bill Wirtz era. But it also signified that this team wasn’t content, that it wanted more and wanted it now.

Chicago went from 88 points and outside the playoff picture in ‘07-08 to 104 points and the No. 4 seed in ‘08-09, ending the season as the runner-up in the Western Conference Final. And we all know what happened in the next season.

(Here’s where it bears mentioning that the ‘08-09 Hawks entered the season with a coach just 143 games into his career behind the bench and he lasted all of four games before he was replaced by a more veteran coach. But let’s save further exploration of that storyline for another day.)

There were other player moves made between ‘07-08 and ‘08-09, and several other up-and-coming players started realizing their potential in that latter season, turning the Hawks aspirations of contention from fantasy to reality. But the acquisition of Campbell in the offseason signified that it was time to start winning again, that missing out on the playoffs again wasn’t going to be an option.

And that brings us back to the ‘21 Blackhawks.

After several seasons of focusing on young talent, Chicago’s financial situation is as healthy as it’s been in years. Youngsters like Adam Boqvist and Ian Mitchell and Pius Suter and Philipp Kurashev and Kevin Lankinen and Kirby Dach and Brandon Hagel are no longer strangers to the NHL game. Alex DeBrincat has shown he can be counted on for top-of-the-line production. Veterans like Patrick Kane and Connor Murphy and David Kampf and Duncan Keith — fingers crossed — Jonathan Toews are still here, too.

But this team needs a new spark.

It’s going to need more top-end talent, for sure: the ‘08-09 Hawks made to the Western Conference Final and still added Marian Hossa in the offseason. More than the addition of talent, though, this team needs to bring in someone as a sign that it’s going to start winning again, to create a sense of urgency among its players to take that next step in their careers or risk being tossed aside in a trade or AHL demotion.

It’s time for this team to take a big swing in the offseason. It just so happens that there’s a defenseman with a skill set similar to that of the aforementioned Campbell who should be available in free agency this summer and would fit Chicago’s need of a top-pairing blue-liner. Other options are likely to emerge on the trade market with the flat cap wreaking havoc on salary cap budgets across the league.

This isn’t to say that the Blackhawks are going to run to the Western Conference Final next season, nor does it mean they’re on the verge of another glutton of Stanley Cup championships.

But it does mean they need to try.

Or they’ll sit alone on the outside of the playoff picture once again, waiting for the right time, as everyone else wonders what it is that they’re hoping for.