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As stars age and decline, Blackhawks' short-term plan seems more like a prayer

The Blackhawks’ core players got old in the same way Mike Campbell, a character in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” famously went bankrupt: Gradually, then suddenly.

Here’s how the last three seasons have ended for the Blackhawks:

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2015-16: First-round elimination in a seven-game series.

2016-17: First-round elimination in a humiliating sweep.

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2017-18: Failure to make playoffs. (In fact, they will miss the playoffs by a country mile and finish dead last in the Central Division, just one year removed from having the best record in the Western Conference.)

The effects of aging can be sneaky. Things that once were done automatically and with ease begin to require more effort, more energy, more focus. You adjust and compensate, and for a while, you stave off the inevitable.

Then at some point, the bell tolls and your youth is irretrievably behind you.

Next season, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will be 30. They were still teenagers when they made their NHL debuts in the 2007-08 season, the last year before this one that the Hawks failed to qualify for the playoffs. Over their 10 seasons in the league, Toews and Kane have played in more than 120 postseason games, the equivalent of 1½ regular seasons.

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Toews and Kane aren’t washed up by any means. Toews, despite his decline in production, is still a formidable player — or at least he was the last time we saw him; he has missed the last three games with an unspecified injury. Kane, while well off the pace he set a couple of years ago when he led the league in scoring and won the Hart Trophy, remains one of the game’s most dynamic performers.

But time is not on their side anymore. In terms of their NHL careers, they are playing on the back nine. This is the beginning of a second decade in a young man’s league.

General manager Stan Bowman’s plan for this year’s team was heavy on hope and heavily reliant on his core of stars. With so much of the salary cap devoted to veteran players — Toews, Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford — the Hawks would rely on them to be their best selves while filling the rest of the roster with inexpensive youngsters and role players.

It didn’t work. Expecting it to work next year, when all of those players will be a year older, seems more like a prayer than a plan.

"I think next year's team is going to look very similar to this year's team, not identical," Bowman said in February. "We're going to have some changes."

The phrase “very similar to this year’s team” is probably not something Hawks fans want to hear. But Bowman’s ability to make changes is limited by the salary cap and the no-movement clauses he gave his stars. Of the five players mentioned previously, only Crawford — 33 and inactive for much of this season with a puzzling injury — has no such restriction in his contract.

The Hawks’ biggest need for the 2018-19 season is not an acquisition from outside the organization. More than anything, they need their core players to return to form, to play up to their contracts. Unless that happens, it’s hard to see them improving enough to get back to the playoffs.

A mash-up of a few highly paid veterans and a supporting cast of youngsters and role players can succeed. The Penguins are a similarly constructed team, with a bulk of their payroll going to a handful of stars. But the difference between them and the Hawks is that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin still are performing like $10 million-a-year players despite having passed their 30th birthdays.

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The Penguins also effectively made the transition from an aging goaltender, Marc-Andre Fleury, to a tandem of youngsters, 23-year-old Matt Murray and 22-year-old Tristan Jarry. They found a terrific young defenseman, Olli Maatta, with the 22nd overall pick in the 2012 draft. And, needless to say, they will be in the playoffs again and competing for their third straight Stanley Cup.

Back in October, the Hawks opened the season spanking those Penguins 10-1. Brandon Saad hit for the hat trick, making the Artemi Panarin trade look like a smart gamble. Things seemed promising for the Hawks then, didn’t they?

But that was before the Crawford injury in December. It was before an atrocious January stretch, a 2-10-2 slide from which the Hawks never recovered. It was before Saad’s inexplicable offyear, a season in which he has managed only 34 points (fewer than half as many as Panarin’s 71) and became a minus player for the first time in his career.

At 25, at least Saad still has youth in his favor. It’s not inconceivable that he reverts to the productive two-way threat that he was for the first five seasons of his career.

Can his older teammates summon their younger selves and bounce back next season? It’s an open question. Father Time — who, we should point out, is undefeated — has been stalking the Hawks stealthily for some time now.

Suddenly, it seems like he finally may have caught up to them.

jknowles@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @jknowles31

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