General Manager Stan Bowman answered questions for 25 minutes Wednesday at the United Center. The impression he left was more "stay the course", rather than "shake it up."
Blackhawks fans, columnists, and Twitter accounts are already in debate on whether that's the right course of action after a second straight first-round playoff exit -- this time without the short summer or before opening up salary cap space that allowed him to shape this past season's roster as he saw fit.
The remainder of the week will include coaching and management skill sessions about the areas that need shoring up, either from the outside or from within. But as I wrote in my Blackhawks Talk post back on March 28th, a lot of what you've seen is probably what you'll get. Sure, this week's meetings may end up determining from within that there's more that needs fixing than Bowman shared on Wednesday, but unless there's a taker out there for a few of the Hawks' more inconsistent players who have yet to reach the organization's projections, there's a lot of money already committed within the present roster. If not, they need to gamble with packaging some promising youth for veteran pedigree and production.
It sounded as if it's been already been decided that Patrick Kane's a center next season, that he can reach his full potential in that role, rather than staying on the wing with Jonathan Toews or an imported second-line pivot. If that's the case, Kane's summer should be spent preparing himself for eight months of more defensive responsibility, and trying to make the opposition adjust to his speed and quickness over any adjustments he'd need to make against bigger opponents in a 200-foot game. But as my pre- and post-game colleague Steve Konroyd has pointed out several times, Kane loves a challenge, and has spent 23 years proving people wrong. If that's his assignment, and his immediate future, he'll try to do that yet again.
I asked Duncan Keith about the toll of all the hard minutes he and Brent Seabrook play as their careers go on, and whether they would benefit from more consistently reliable blueliners behind them to pick up at least some of the slack. I'm with him when he calls Nick Leddy reliable -- as long as Leddy uses the summer to bulk up. But he also called Hjalmarsson and Montador reliable. I wasn't about to get into a public argument with him about his teammates to his face, but there's a contractual commitment to those two to fill out the defensive corps, and they'll need to have better seasons next year. Whether the size they need for a sixth defenseman is served by Dylan Olsen or an import, the second and third pairings need more positive consistency to make Keith and Seabrook even better, not to mention Corey Crawford.
That brings us to an interesting observation by Bowman that brought some perspective about the secret to success of this year's Western Conference final four. Everyone can't help but see the keys for St. Louis, Los Angeles, Nashville, and Phoenix: Great goaltending and solid defense surrounding the net. Those four teams finished in the top ten in regular season goals-against average. After Corey Schneider in Vancouver (hellooo, Bobby Lu?), Elliott, Quick, Rinne and Smith own the next four GAA's and save percentages among the regular starters through round one. So, obviously, the Hawks need to go out and acquire an elite goaltender, right?
"It really is something that changes year-to-year, or every couple years. Styles change. Two years ago, we won the Cup, and two unheralded goaltenders went to the Finals in Niemi and Leighton. Everyone was saying, 'I guess goaltending's not that important. You don't need to have a supposed great goaltender to win the Cup.'
"Here we are, two years later, and it's shifting back the other way. Whatever's happening that season, people put emphasis on. This year, goaltending had really ruled the league. Is that the way it's going to be, going forward? It's tough to predict. You can't be too re-active to what other teams do. You have to look at your strengths and play to what they are. We have a lot of talented offensive players, and you don't want to take away from the strengths of this team. I think getting them to play responsible hockey, and not giving up too many opportunities is something we want to focus on."
Based on the tone of that, as well as other comments Wednesday, it's how the Blackhawks intend to move forward. If they do, indeed, "stay the course," we'll know a year from now whether that call turns out to be the right one. It sounds like that's what Bowman's banking on.