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3 things we heard from Stan Bowman at the start of the new Chicago Blackhawks season, including how the team should be judged and the plan for Jonathan Toews

Chicago Tribune
Chicago Tribune
 2021-10-15
https://img.particlenews.com/image.php?url=3QVFdu_0cSFyHqt00
Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews prepares for a faceoff in the first period against the Ducks at the United Center on Thursday, March 9, 2017. Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune

The question for the Chicago Blackhawks this season isn’t just what will they become by the time the wins and losses are counted, it’s also what are they supposed to be.

Are they a team that gets a grace period while trying to combine developing players with established veterans acquired over the summer?

Or did they improve enough that there will be consequences if they don’t make the playoffs?

“We’ve got a new look,” said Stan Bowman, president of hockey operations and general manager. “It’s a different makeup than we’ve had last year, but (I’m) optimistic. You don’t know how it’s going to all come together, it’s going to take a little bit of time, but from what I’ve seen so far, it seems like it’s going to be a really competitive team.”

Bowman spoke with reporters before the season opener Wednesday and addressed several subjects facing the Hawks this season.

1. How should the Blackhawks be judged?

In May, Bowman called last season successful based on the number of rookies, such as goalie Kevin Lankinen, and other young players in the lineup who played well.

“It’s a process, it’s not a one-year thing, it’s a process that takes time,” Bowman said at the time.

Over the summer, Bowman beefed up the roster with forward Tyler Johnson, defensemen Seth Jones and Jake McCabe and goaltender Marc-André Fleury. Since last season, they’ve added size in the form of forwards Henrik Borgström and Jujhar Khaira.

Asked at the start of training camp whether this accelerated coach Jeremy Colliton’s timeline for contention, Bowman said, “Pressure’s always there.”

“When you’re in the National Hockey League, we’re all evaluated all the time,” Bowman said.

Bowman said the team still is young and the additions help support and develop the young players, but “it’s not a linear progression for them.”

Now, Bowman again addressed the central question: What is the measuring stick for 2021-22?

“Of course wins and losses are a big part of what we’re doing up here,” he said. “But I go back to where we were a year ago and we really want to take the next step in that progression to rely on and continue the development of our young players. It was a year ago that (Philipp) Kurashev and (Brandon) Hagel weren’t even in the lineup, and now one’s on the second line and one’s on the third line — pretty prominent roles.

“Kirby (Dach) wasn’t here a year ago for injury, but those players are going to play hopefully a big role. We’ve got (MacKenzie) Entwistle as well coming in as a young player. We want to continue to see those guys seize the moment and grow their games, but we also want to surround them with established players, which we did.”

Bowman pointed to Fleury, Lankinen, Jones and McCabe. “We’ve got strength in goal, we’ve got strength in defense,” Bowman said. “There’s no question McCabe and Seth Jones are going to make it easier on our team.”

“And the inexperienced guys we do have, those guys should help shelter (them from) that bigger load, because we’re still trying to develop our group and take the next step forward.”

But bottom line, is it playoffs or bust?

“Yeah, we want to win,” Bowman said. “I mean, we wanted to win last year. It’s that we never don’t want to win, but we’re trying to do those two things at the same time. Which is seeing our young players take a step forward, and it’s part of the reason that we left Lukas Reichel in Rockford.

“He’s talented enough to play ... (b)ut we know it’s critical for him to get a big opportunity. You’re going to see that Hagel and Kurashev are going to have pretty big roles on this team, same thing with Kirby.”

And for players that regress or aren’t “ready yet for a big role in Chicago, they’re going to be in Rockford because we’re still going to put them in the best position to grow their games.”

2. There’s no indication Jonathan Toews is on a minutes restriction.

Only Toews knows how his body feels after three weeks of training camp, four preseason games and 17 minutes in the season opener, a 4-2 loss to the Avalanche on Wednesday.

The Hawks have said they’ll take their cues from Toews, who said he has “chronic immune response syndrome” and also believes he contracted COVID-19 based on testing positive for antibodies. Toews said he’ll keep coaches and medical staff informed and involved.

Ultimately it’s Colliton’s call on how many minutes Toews will play or whether Toews takes days off from practice or games, though Colliton likely has regular dialogue about it with Bowman.

“I didn’t have any expectations coming in, and I still don’t,” Bowman said. “It’s a lot easier that way to just take what comes.”

Toews missed all 56 games last season but returned to workouts this summer. The NHL has returned to an 82-game schedule, but the calendar gets condensed in certain months — 17 games in January, for example — to clear more than two weeks in February for the Beijing Olympics.

The Hawks have forward depth, particularly at center, and easily could plug in a natural center such as Borgström, who has been playing wing. Toews’ linemate Kurashev played some center last season, and Dylan Strome could come off the bench.

Colliton wouldn’t commit to saying whether he’ll ask Toews to take off the second game of back-to-backs, and Toews repeats the mantra: “I’m taking it day by day.”

“None of us know how he’s going to do,” Bowman said. “It’s not like we know and we’re being coy about it. He doesn’t know.

“So it’s been great and I think he looks great. I’ve talked to him and he feels great, so hopefully that continues.”

3. Is Dylan Strome sliding down the organization’s pecking order?

It seems like just yesterday Strome was centering a line with Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat on a regular basis.

On Wednesday, Strome found himself a healthy scratch along with Adam Gaudette for Game 1.

“It’s just one game,” Colliton said. “They’ve both had solid camps, good camps. We had excellent competition throughout camp. There’s guys who got sent down to Rockford who could play for us right now, we’d have no problem putting them in. So they’re in the 23.”

But it’s fair to wonder if Strome fits what the Hawks want anymore. Bowman has placed an emphasis on big centers who can shift to wing but also check, defend and play low like a center when needed. Strome has played both positions but he has said in the past that he prefers center.

Bowman also indicated in May that Strome needs to show consistency.

“It’s probably more circumstantial,” Bowman said Wednesday about Strome’s status. “All players can do is control their performance. I thought Dylan has had a good camp. Same thing with Gaudette. This is just Game 1, so I don’t think we really need to try to read into the future of what the coming games will mean as far as whether we play well. ... We hope everybody plays great every night but that’s not going to happen.”

Bowman also said injuries and matchups could play a role in shifting which players get minutes.

“We have a little bit of a different look,” he said. “We’re trying to build not just a purely skilled team, so I think those guys are very skilled, Gaudette and Strome both, they did well. There’s nothing wrong with the way they played. ... All you can ask them to do is keep being ready when their opportunity comes.

“So there might be a little too much made out of that.”

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