CHICAGO — After a nine-year run that saw three Stanley Cup titles, the good times streak ended last season for the Chicago Blackhawks. A December injury that caused goaltender Corey Crawford to miss the rest of the season played a big role in their failure, as well as “a lot of little things,” according to captain Jonathan Toews. All that combined saw them deep in a Central Division hole unable to crawl out, ending with a playoff-less spring for the first time since 2008.
Toews and the Blackhawks’ other offensive leader, Patrick Kane, understand that how last season ended will be a theme when training camp opens next week. But they also know it can serve as a reminder of the importance of each night in an 82-game schedule.
“For sure, you can’t forget about it. You can’t just throw it out. You’ve got to change habits. You’ve got to change all those little things that you do on a daily basis for the better,” Toews told Pro Hockey Talk on Thursday during the annual NHL Player Media Tour in Chicago. “When it comes to finding that confidence and knowing what we’re capable of this year, we know that we can be a top team in our division and a top team that makes a playoff run.”
Kane saw his offensive totals (27 goals, 76 points) dip for a second straight season, while Toews posted the second-lowest point total of his career (52). For Kane, he’s focused on training camp first and building off the next month.
“There will definitely be some talk about [last season] going into camp, but I think once camp gets started you want to just kind of wipe the slate clean, have a good training camp,” he said. “That’s my goal this year, is to have the best training camp I’ve had as a pro and I’ll hopefully I’ll help the team get off to a good start and just turn the season around, turn the page and realize how bad the feeling was missing the playoffs. That’s not something you want to go through.”
The injury to Crawford, who’s expected to be ready for training camp, can be placed at the top of the list of what went wrong last season. The 33-year-old netminder was an early season Vezina candidate before going down. In his place head coach Joel Quenneville used five other goaltenders, including an accountant off the street, to try and salvage the season.
“That hurt a little bit, but to be honest with you, I think our goaltenders did pretty well when Corey was out,” said Kane. “Sometimes we left them out to dry a little bit. We were in that playoff position, we were fighting for a spot and then all of a sudden we were out of it and it just kind of snowballed down and all of a sudden there’s 20-25 games left and you realize you’re in a really tough position to try to get into playoffs. It’d be nice to right the ship this year and hopefully turn things around and get ourselves back in.”
Back-to-back first-round exits followed by a complete miss will bring the urgency level up even higher coming into the 2018-19 season for the Blackhawks. It will be a battle for playoff positioning in the Central, arguably the NHL’s toughest division. But there’s still plenty of confidence that a turnaround can occur.
“There’s ownership and leadership amongst our veteran guys in the room that we can all be better as players, myself especially included in that,” said Toews. “I think when you play better you have that confidence in the room to not necessarily focus on others but also give other guys a chance to build their confidence and flourish and make them feel valued and make them feel like what they’re bringing to the table is important. That makes everybody better.”
After the success experienced since 2010, last season was a wakeup call. It was the realization that if you’re not improving you’re going to fall behind, and no team, no matter what they’ve done in the past, can rest on previous accomplishments.
“I think we can all do that on another level this year,” said Toews. “Just setting goals as a team, to hold each other accountable, to compete, to work hard every day and little things that maybe when you’re a little too satisfied and complacent after a while they catch up to you. Our league and our division are getting better and better. A lot of little things that turned out to be big things last year, so we’re going to chip away at that and I’m sure our talent is going to take over.”