The timeline for a return to contention for the Chicago Blackhawks is unknown, general manager Stan Bowman said, but it will rest heavily on the development of prospects.
Eight days after the Blackhawks published a letter urging patience while they go through a rebuilding process, Bowman put much of the onus on the young players in the organization, those who have started to make an impact and the wave coming behind them.
“The biggest thing is going to be how quickly these young players that we’re going to give opportunities to can seize the moment and show progress to the point where they’re helping our team win on a regular basis,” Bowman said Wednesday. “With some of these players, it’s going to take a little bit longer for them to make that jump forward. If they do improve quickly, then I think it’s going to help push our team up the standings quicker.”
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Though defenseman Adam Boqvist and forwards Kirby Dach and Matthew Highmore are the three players who will be in the brightest spotlight this season, the Blackhawks are also counting on contributions from Philipp Kurashev, Pius Suter and Ian Mitchell.
“We saw that last year with young players, they all had flashes of really good play,” Bowman said. “Now you have to figure out, can you do it night in and night out? That’s what separates the talented players from guys we remember and talk about. Those guys are able to do it even when they’re the focal point of the other team.”
The Blackhawks (32-30-8, .514 points percentage) finished last in the Central Division last season and were the No. 12 seed in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers. They defeated the No. 5-seeded Edmonton Oilers in four games in the best-of-5 Qualifiers and lost to the Vegas Golden Knights in five games in the best-of-7 Western Conference First Round.
Chicago has not advanced past the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs since winning the Cup in 2015, its third championship in six seasons. It did not qualify for the postseason in 2018 or 2019.
The Blackhawks believe the core remaining from those glory years, led by forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, their leading scorer for five consecutive seasons, can pave the way for the younger players.
“Jonathan, Patrick, they not only started well and got a lot of attention, but they were able to build on it and consistently impact the game,” Bowman said. “That’s where some of our young players, they haven’t figured that out yet. How do I do it, not just in flashes, but can I do it when I get more attention, when I’m the guy the other team is focused on?
“They’ve lived that life not that long ago, where they’ve transitioned from being a hotshot young player to being the guy who the other team is focused on, and it’s not easy. You get the other team’s best players paying attention to you and harder matchups. So I think they can explain to those young players that there are going to be some ups and downs and you have to try to work your way through it.”
Entering this season, which is targeted to begin Jan. 1, 2021, Chicago’s average age on its active roster is 25.8 years, second youngest in the NHL after the New York Rangers (25.4). The Blackhawks traded 28-year-old forward Brandon Saad to the Colorado Avalanche on Oct. 10, one day after Corey Crawford agreed to a two-year contract with the New Jersey Devils. The 35-year-old was the starting goalie for the Stanley Cup championships in 2013 and 2015.
Dach was the No. 3 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft. The 19-year-old scored 23 points (eight goals, 15 assists) in 64 regular-season games last season and six points (one goal, five assists) in six postseason games. Highmore was signed as an undrafted free agent March 2, 2017. The 24-year-old scored six points (two goals, four assists) in 36 regular-season games and four points (three goals, one assist) in nine postseason games. Boqvist scored 13 points (four goals, nine assists) in 41 regular-season games and zero points in eight postseason games. The 20-year-old was Chicago’s first-round pick (No. 8) in the 2018 NHL Draft.
The Blackhawks will also look at newcomers including Kurashev, Suter and Mitchell. Kurashev, a 21-year-old forward, scored 19 points (seven goals, 12 assists) in 36 games for Rockford of the American Hockey League last season. Suter, a 24-year-old forward, signed a one-year contract as an undrafted free agent July 16, 2020. He was the most valuable player of the top professional league in Switzerland after leading National League A with 30 goals and 53 points in 50 games playing for ZSC. Mitchell, a 21-year-old defenseman, scored 32 points (10 goals, 22 assists) in 36 games as a junior for the University of Denver.
Chicago plans to use a goalie committee featuring Malcolm Subban, 26; Collin Delia, 26; and Kevin Lankinen, 25. Subban has the most experience with 66 NHL games.
Blackhawks coach Jeremy Colliton said there will be adversity for young players, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
“When they come through it, they will be stronger, they’ll be better, they’ll be more prepared,” Colliton said Tuesday. “That’s another thing we’re trying to communicate better with media and fans, it’s going to be up and down. Sometimes a player’s going to play 20 minutes, sometimes they’re going to play eight, sometimes they’re not going to play. It’s part of their learning curve and it’ll make them better in the end and it’ll make our team better down the road.”