(MCT) — CHICAGO — Nothing marks the return of the Blackhawks like a bit of euphoria and a bout of amnesia. It also triggers a third thing, but I forget what that is.
The end of the NHL lockout in a city hungry for hockey immediately creates excitement that the Hawks can extend a shortened 48-game season into mid-June and the Stanley Cup finals. That the compressed training camp will benefit the Hawks more than most Western Conference contenders because they already have chemistry that teams that actually added new players will need time to develop. That familiarity from playing together will offset a rigorous early road trip. That when they drop the puck Saturday in Los Angeles, the Hawks will be closer than any team in Chicago to winning a championship.
They are. Everything’s relative in our cynical sports town.
The Bears reset their Super Bowl clock by firing Lovie Smith. The Bulls find themselves at the mercy of modern medicine and the salary cap. The White Sox figure to tease us every summer, but realistic thoughts of October baseball don’t include the World Series. The Cubs’ calendar for their big moment is beginning to look less reliable than the Mayans’. The Hawks? They return anything-can-happen talent good enough to fool some people into thinking they can overcome glaring deficiencies and win a Cup.
You know, people like Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman.
Amid all the enthusiasm over hockey’s return, how easy it can be to forget that Bowman neglected a roster a bold move or two away from supremacy. With due respect to addition Sheldon Brookbank, a veteran No. 7 defenseman hardly qualifies as an offseason upgrade that changes the dynamic of a team that could use a shakeup. The focus on free-agent inactivity overlooks Bowman’s inability to pull off a meaningful trade to improve the Hawks. The lockout didn’t start until September. Seems the Blackhawks started embracing the status quo long before that.
Returning with essentially the same players suggests Bowman thinks the Hawks are closer to the team that led the NHL in points in December than the team that lost nine straight two months later.
As dangerous as the Hawks remain in a West that is deeper than ever, they still lack the same things they lacked when last we saw them getting eliminated in the first round for the second straight year. They still need a proven No. 2 center, even if Bowman endorsed the idea of playing Patrick Kane out of position there. They still need more size. They still wonder if goalie Corey Crawford, 0-for-2 in NHL playoff series, represents the solution or the problem. They still seem powerless to score on the power play. They still need that inexplicable hockey characteristic necessary to grind out victories when elite skill isn’t enough. The return of Daniel Carcillo from a knee injury will add grit, but how contagious will it be?
In case that quick start some expect doesn’t happen, remember the NHL trade deadline this season reportedly will be April 3. If the Hawks begin the 2013 season with the same inconsistency they have shown the last two, Bowman shouldn’t expect the playoffs to end any differently either. So entertain trade talks for every member of the core under contract except Jonathan Toews and Kane, even young assets such as Dylan Olsen and Nick Leddy. You protect Toews for obvious reasons and Kane because his stint in Switzerland might help the point-a-game player use his rare skill set to carry the Hawks early. Kane’s chronic off-the-ice issues mean the Hawks should provide structure, not a change of scenery. Smart teams typically avoid trading 24-year-old All-Stars.
During a July 4 teleconference called to explain losing out on free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, Bowman again stressed he believes the Hawks have players capable of winning now. If those comments didn’t put the onus on coach Joel Quenneville, Bowman allowing Quenneville to fire assistant coach Mike Haviland — whom he inherited in 2008 — and replace him with Kings assistant Jamie Kompon, Quenneville’s assistant in St. Louis, did.
It was as if Bowman was telling the Hall of Fame-bound coach with 624 victories this season is on you, Coach Q. As if Bowman was saying if there will be no more meddling, the way the front office awkwardly imposed Scotty Bowman ally Barry Smith on Quenneville, there can be no more excuses. As if Bowman was identifying where to place responsibility in case all this delicious anticipation of the Blackhawks season leads to disappointment.
As if Quenneville suddenly has something to prove to his GM.
Funny, I remember thinking after last season ended it should be the other way around.