Patrick Kane dazzled once again. Jonathan Toews put together one of his best seasons, and Alex DeBrincat took another step forward.
And it didn’t matter all that much. Not to them, anyway.
The Chicago Blackhawks missed out on the playoffs for the second straight year, doomed by an awful start and one of the NHL’s worst defenses. For a franchise that won three Stanley Cups during an impressive nine-year run that ended in 2017, it seems like a much longer absence from the postseason.
“The best time to play is right now, in the postseason, so no doubt it’s going to be hard to sit back and watch games on TV in the first round this week,” Toews said, “knowing that Hawks fans in Chicago would be as excited as ever, the barn would be loud and exciting to play in if we were able to find our way there. Those painful moments, you got to let them sink in and use that as motivation.”
After a couple years where it looked as if he might be on the decline, the 30-year-old Toews set career highs with 35 goals and 46 assists. Kane had a career-best 66 assists and 110 points, and the 21-year-old DeBrincat scored 41 times in his second NHL season.
But longtime coach Joel Quenneville was fired in the middle of an eight-game slide in November, and the team struggled to adjust to Jeremy Colliton’s style after he took over.
“I think it took us a little bit too long to grasp what he was preaching,” DeBrincat said Sunday. “I think if we grab onto it a little bit earlier we’re in a different spot right now. But I mean going into next year and it’s going to be a lot easier to have everyone on board.”
The Blackhawks went 3-12-2 in in their first 17 games after Quenneville was let go. They allowed a whopping 291 goals for the year, second worst in the league behind Ottawa, and finished with the NHL’s worst penalty kill at 72.7%.
“It’s frustrating,” said goaltender Corey Crawford, who missed Saturday night’s season-ending loss at Nashville with a groin injury that will need a couple weeks to heal. “We want to win again, and we weren’t even close this year.”
Chicago finished sixth in the Central Division with a 36-34-12 record, just one point better than Minnesota. The top five teams in the division made the playoffs.
But there is reason for optimism after the Blackhawks finished with eight more points than they did in the previous year.
Dylan Strome was terrific after he was acquired in a November trade with Arizona, finishing with 17 goals and 34 assists in 58 games with Chicago. The Blackhawks will have more money to spend this summer in free agency than they have in years, and young defenseman Erik Gustafsson made major strides this season.
But the biggest reason for hope might be a full training camp for Colliton to work with his players. The Blackhawks went 26-15-6 in their last 47 games.
“I had confidence when I came in November that I had a plan and we as a staff could make some progress,” Colliton said. “It took longer than we all would have liked. But I think I’m a better coach now than when I walked in, and I’m going to use that going forward.”
Chicago’s biggest offseason focus likely will be its defensemen. Duncan Keith turns 36 in July, and Brent Seabrook had a minus-6 rating this season, matching his career-worst total. There are a couple of touted prospects in the minors, but they aren’t expected to be ready for next season.
“We came up a little bit short this year. But the feeling is much different now than it was a year ago,” general manager Stan Bowman said. “I think we have a clear path forward of how we’re going to be better next year, and just reflecting back on this season there’s been a lot of things that’s been happening with the new coach coming in and our team getting adjusted to that.
“It took some time but when you look at the last 50 games we were playing at about a 100-point pace. That’s a pretty good chunk of the schedule.”