As the mystery surrounding Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford commands Chicago's attention, an unsettling reality goes mostly unnoticed.
With or without Crawford returning this season, the end of the Hawks dynasty looms.
A team with such lofty standards missing the playoffs would serve as the impetus for making changes potentially involving men responsible for winning three Stanley Cups. An organization that prides itself in chasing "One Goal" would stand to lose too much credibility by embracing the status quo after such failure, regardless of the vote of confidence President John McDonough gave general manager Stan Bowman and coach Joel Quenneville on WBBM-AM 780 last week.
Say hello to the urgency greeting the Hawks back from their week off Saturday against the Islanders, the first of 37 remaining games that all mean something. Every. Single. One. Do the math. The Hawks returned with 50 points, the 12th-highest total in the Western Conference, on the outside looking in at the postseason. Last year, the Predators qualified for the last wild-card spot with 94 points. A team prone to inconsistency through 45 games would have to finish 22-15 to hit 94. Internally, the Hawks believe the playoff cutoff likely will be closer to 97. Have they done anything lately to reasonably expect a 24-13 finish?
The Crawford conundrum only complicates the equation. The awkward way the Hawks addressed the situation did nothing but raise more questions. After reports surfaced that Crawford experienced vertigo-like symptoms, the team stayed mum except for senior adviser Scotty Bowman going rogue on a Canadian radio station. Bowman denied the existence of vertigo and told Toronto radio station CJCL-AM 590 that Crawford suffers from "post-concussion syndrome" — a declaration he softened in subsequent interviews with beat reporters. How clumsy to allow the 84-year-old father of the general manager be the singular voice on such an important matter until Quenneville said Friday that Crawford still was recuperating at home.
Crawford's prolonged absence fails the smell test. Vague responses to questions about the team's most valuable player only piqued curiosity. Maybe the Hawks simply weren't sure themselves, for whatever reason, whether they could count on Crawford for the stretch run of the season. But everyone would welcome some clarity.
Actions speak louder than words, so the Hawks declining to place Crawford on long-term injured reserve suggests they expect him back this season. A player on LTIR must miss 10 games and 24 days — and Saturday marked the 11th game without Crawford since he was last spotted leaving the crease Dec. 23 against the Devils.
Placing Crawford on LTIR would create as much as $6 million in salary-cap space, but without him, the Hawks might think twice about getting too aggressive before the Feb. 26 trade deadline.
Crawford covered up for defensive lapses that, without him, threaten further to expose the weakest part of the Hawks. With due respect to backups Anton Forsberg and Jeff Glass, a terrific human-interest story, the Hawks without Crawford resemble a rebuilding team more than a Cup contender.
Marian Hossa has proved to be irreplaceable, underscoring everything he meant for all those years. Of the remaining stars, only Patrick Kane has lived up to his reputation. Jonathan Toews lacks offensive potency. Duncan Keith, who hasn't scored a goal in almost a year, finally has begun looking 34. Brent Seabrook, with one of the worst contracts in town, shows signs of decline. It's as sad as it is inevitable.
The roster confirms the metamorphosis: As Stan Bowman pointed out after trading Richard Panik for Anthony Duclair, the Hawks now have 13 players younger than 25 — as opposed to four a year ago. After the Predators embarrassed the Hawks in the playoffs last April, the change Bowman promised implied a 2017-18 team capable of contending — not one fighting for a playoff berth.
If Bowman had sounded more like a GM putting the future ahead of the present — hardly a novel concept in Chicago sports these days — the context of this season might feel different. But instead of lauding how many young players the Hawks have developed, we are left criticizing a flawed team falling short of the expectations Bowman undoubtedly raised.
Bowman's offseason moves merit enough scrutiny to reconsider whether they improved the 109-point team the Hawks were last season. The Brandon Saad-for-Artemi Panarin trade incorrectly assumed Saad would return to Chicago a more consistently dangerous player and help revive Toews offensively. The Niklas Hjalmarsson-for-Connor Murphy deal depended on Murphy playing better than he has. The nostalgic Patrick Sharp signing proved to be more about wistfulness than winning. The bloated two-year, $5.6 million contract awarded Panik resulted in Bowman correcting that mistake by unloading him to the Coyotes for Duclair.
Would Bowman similarly rethink his evaluation of Saad by shopping the forward for a top-four defenseman the Hawks desperately need? What else do the Hawks have besides fourth-liners Tommy Wingels and Lance Bouma — Bowman's smartest offseason acquisitions — to offer before the trade deadline anyway? Is Bowman the right guy to plot the future?
If the Hawks miss the playoffs, the toughest conversations for McDonough and Chairman Rocky Wirtz will revolve around the futures of Bowman and Quenneville. Just one opinion in the ongoing debate: A Hall of Fame coach would be harder to replace than a good executive, even one who has served the Hawks as well as Bowman has. Nothing lasts forever.
Look at the Kings. They won Stanley Cup championships in 2012 and 2014, yet last April, after missing the postseason for the second time in three years, they fired general manager Dean Lombardi and coach Darryl Sutter — the two guys who brought the franchise unprecedented success. Lombardi had been on the job 11 years, and Sutter was the winningest coach in Kings history. Management unsentimentally severed both, hoping to head in a new direction.
Unless the Hawks change their direction this season, the organization will arrive at the same crossroad.