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Blackhawks should get used to winning ugly

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Not long ago, the Chicago Blackhawks probably would have been fuming about the sort of win they opened the season with, not unlike Aaron Rodgers essentially subtweeting his coach after a 22-0 Packers victory.

If the Ottawa Senators aren’t written in Sharpie as the odds-on worst team in the NHL, they enter 2018-19 as easily the most miserable (you’re off the hook, Montreal Canadiens).

In trading away Erik Karlsson and Mike Hoffman during a historically bad summer, the Senators took on the Blackhawks last night with Mark Stone, Matt Duchene, and … not a whole lot else.

Yet, as limited as the Senators clearly seem to be, the Blackhawks didn’t steamroll their opponents. In fact, they trailed the Senators from Colin White‘s 3-2 goal late in the first period until Brent Seabrook tied things up with less than eight minutes remaining in regulation, needing a nifty Patrick Kane OT goal to down the lowly Sens.

You can’t just chalk this up to Craig Anderson beginning his “every other year” cycle with some awe-inspiring performance or Cam Ward conversely playing like, well, Cam Ward, either.

This was, by most measures, a pretty evenly-played game. For example: the two teams were tied in “high-danger chances” with 10 apiece, according to Natural Stat Trick.

via Corsica Hockey

To review: a team that is still built in a “win-now” mode barely beat the sad sack Senators, and with Corey Crawford‘s murky health in mind, will likely see their hopes hinge on Cam Ward. In 2018.

Chicago doesn’t boast a lot of positive difference-makers beyond its big-money players, so they’ll need their stars to carry substantial burdens. That worked out last night, but it remains to be seen if the Blackhawks’ aging core can keep this up over an 82-game season.

Now, it’s not all bad, even if it’s … mostly bad.

While it’s early, the Blackhawks integrated some new faces into the lineup, with Joel Quenneville sounding pretty smitten about Henri Jokiharju.

Maybe most importantly, the Blackhawks saw great starts from their big names.

Obviously, Kane scored that overtime game-winner, Duncan Keith played well, and Seabrook at least made a significant play. Jonathan Toews‘ play may be most crucial, and he enjoyed a great Thursday, scoring a goal and assisting on Kane’s game-winning goal. Toews did more than just scoring, firing four shots on goal and winning 20 of 29 faceoffs.

***

Heading into this season, only one PHT staffer picked the Blackhawks to make the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, while two of five picked them to finish last in the Central Division.

If nothing else, the Blackhawks are about as close to underdogs as you’re going to get when you’ve recently won your third Stanley Cup as a core group. Could they defy the odds and return to the postseason after failing last year?

To make it work, they’ll need to get a lot out of stars like Kane and Toews, the Blackhawks will probably need to win a lot of ugly games.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

PHT’s 2018-19 Central Division Preview

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(The 2018-19 NHL season is almost here. This week Pro Hockey Talk will be previewing all four divisions looking at strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

Atlantic Division Preview
Metropolitan Division Preview
Pacific Division Preview

It’s been widely regarded as the toughest (and arguably the most talented) division in the NHL, and the Central Division certainly lived up to that moniker last season, sporting the top two teams league-wide in the Nashville Predators and the Winnipeg Jets, finishing with 117 and 114 points, respectively. The division doesn’t look like it will take a step back this season, either.

It’s one of the most interesting arms races in the NHL and there are no signs of that slowing down.

What will the division look like this year? Let’s take a look:

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: 

Better or Worse: This one depends on how the Corey Crawford situation plays out. It appears he’s getting close to returning, but it takes one puck or one bump in the crease to send Chicago’s season into a spiral again. Cam Ward is a serviceable backup, if not still a fringe starter in the NHL, so Chicago has that going for them at the moment.

The ‘Hawks are only getting older. See: Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, etc. Jonathan Toews’ production is slipping. Patrick Kane is likely still going to put in work, but I’m not certain it will be enough.

Strengths: Goaltending, if Crawford plays. His numbers last season were otherworldly until injuries derailed his bid for the Vezina. Ward, as mentioned above, should be a solid backup that could allow Crawford to rest a little more throughout the season but Crawford needs to play for the Blackhawks to have a shot.

Weaknesses: Defense. Keith and Seabrook at the team’s top defensive pairing and aren’t getting younger and are playing more minutes than what would be considered optimal. Both are overworked and it showed last year. Adding Brandon Manning over the summer offers some depth on the back end, but it’s simply not what it used to be in Chicago.

2017-18 Highlight: One name: Scott Foster.

MVP Candidate: Patrick Kane. He’s still one of the best playing the game currently, a point-per-game player that can put the Blackhawks on his back on any given night.

Playoffs or Lottery: Lottery. The Central Division is simply too good to allow mediocre teams into the playoffs.

COLORADO AVALANCHE: 

Better or Worse: Was it a fluke? A team that was dismal a year prior went on to make the playoffs with their last possible chance on the final day of the regular season and then looked pretty darn good against the Nashville Predators at times in the first round.

They added depth in Matt Calvert and Ian Cole and made things interesting in the crease after acquiring Philipp Grubauer via trade. Can they build off last season, or will they experience the bumps young teams do as they grow together? There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered.

Strengths: Special teams were a tremendous asset to the Avalanche last season. They finished eighth on the power play at 21.9 percent and fourth on the penalty kill at 83.3 percent. Those are some solid numbers from a young team like the Avs.

Weaknesses: The expectation that Nathan MacKinnon (and his line) needs to do it all. We saw it last year, and the Avalanche made the playoffs (barely) because of it. But that can’t be the expectation going forward. They’re still a team rebuilding, so the expectation is that will be cured with time.

2017-18 Highlight: Clinching a playoff berth in Game 82. (Don’t miss Landeskog getting mauled by his teammates after the clinching empty-netter.)

MVP Candidate: Nathan MacKinnon. Some say he got robbed of the Hart last year. He put the team on his back on the way to a playoff spot.

Playoffs or Lottery: Unfortunately, a couple teams have gotten better around them and that’s pushed the Avalanche out of the playoff spot and into the lottery.

DALLAS STARS:

Better or Worse: It has to get better, right? A new coaching style courtesy of Jim Montgomery might just do wonders for this team. It’s not like the talent isn’t there. They have one of the best top lines in all of hockey. Simply, if the Stars can score more, they have the rest of the tools to be a playoff team. A top 10 defense and solid goaltending are in place. Score. More. Goals.

Strengths: Defense. This seems to be a theme in this division. Dallas, despite their inability to score outside of their top line, was consistent on the backend, allowing the sixth fewest goals against in the league. Part of that is John Klingberg and Co. The other part is Ben Bishop. They had a decent penalty kill and allowed the fourth fewest number of shots per game.

Weaknesses: The Stars simply need more goals. It was their burden last season. They simply couldn’t find the back of the next enough to win hockey games. The teams’ top power-play unit needs to be better than their 19th ranking last season.

2017-18 Highlight: Here’s Jordie Benn hitting brother Jamie while their parents were in the stands to watch their sons play. Classic.

MVP Candidate: Tyler Seguin. No contract worries to think about. Just a sheet of ice and a swath of opportunities for goals.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. I simply don’t believe the Stars were as bad as their record showed last season. The switch of Hitchcock to Montgomery is a big one. And, to harp on the goals again, the Stars are a few more of those away from being a playoff team given their defense and goaltending.

MINNESOTA WILD:

Better or Worse: Better because Ryan Suter will be healthy. Better because they will start the season with Zach Parise.

Suter was ruled out for the rest of the season on March 31 and could only watch as the Winnipeg Jets decimated the Wild in the playoffs. Suter’s return is big for the team that added some depth in the offseason. The Wild dealt with a litany of injuries last season to top players such as Parise (who missed many games due to offseason back surgery), Nino Niederreiter and Charlie Coyle. While Eric Staal may not score 42 goals again, a healthy Wild team is a dangerous Wild team.

Strengths: Devan Dubnyk has been rock solid in goal, and couple that with the Wild’s stingy defense, and there’s no reason to think he won’t have another great year again. The Wild are a good defensive team that can also score a pile of goals.

Weaknesses: The Wild are their own worst enemy. Minnesota is a good team that just can’t figure it out in the postseason. They finished 11th in goals for last season but only scored nine in five playoff games against the Jets. You can only shoot yourself in the foot so many times before it falls off. Calling on Bruce Boudreau to figure that out — it’s his job.

2017-18 Highlight: Eric Staal was sensational last season. Here’s a five-point night that included a hat trick for good measure.

MVP Candidate: Matt Dumba. A workhorse defenseman who anchors the power play and can score. He achieved career highs in goals with 14 and points with 34 last season and could take another step toward that elite plateau this year.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. They showed even without star players for various lengths last season, they had the depth to find a way in the back door. The Wild are a great team that shouldn’t have an issue making the playoffs.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS:

Better or Worse: They added a veteran presence on the backend in Dan Hamuis and have Eeli Tolvanen to look forward to upfront. They’re basically the same team that was in the Cup Final two years ago and have all that experience to lean on once again this season. They’re better through experience and a couple of added pieces that could finally fit this puzzle together.

Strengths: There’s still no better defensive core in hockey, right? Josi. Subban. Ellis. Ekholm – their top four is the envy of the NHL. They added third-pairing depth in veteran defenseman Dan Hamhuis, too. It heads into the regular season as the best back end in hockey (with San Jose hot on their heels).

Weaknesses: The Predators are one of those teams with few flaws. Adept at scoring, solid at defense and proficient at goaltending. Where’s the weakness? It could come from Pekka Rinne. I know, the Vezina winner from this past season? He’s set to turn 36 and struggled in the playoffs when the Predators needed him the most. Juuse Saros should help reduce the workload. That’s good, because if the Predators are going to win in their current window, they need Rinne at his very best at the most important time of the year.

2017-18 Highlight: The Knob Save (Josh Morrissey caught some mean whiplash on the play).

Bonus round: Viktor Arvidsson’s pre-game marriage proposal win.

MVP Candidate: Filip Forsberg. Became a point-per-game player last season even after missing time due to injury, and set a career high in assists.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs, a no-brainer. They’re one of two legitimate Stanley Cup contenders in the Central Divison.

ST. LOUIS BLUES:

Better or Worse: The Blues were in upgrade mode all summer, adding the likes of Ryan O'Reilly, Tyler Bozak and Patrick Maroon, while welcoming back David Perron after his year in Vegas.

The Blues were on the bubble last season, and may have made the playoffs if they sort of give up around the trade deadline and deal Paul Stastny away. The Blues added scoring in the offseason, which will help their bottom-third showing in goals-for, and should help equate to more wins.

Strengths: Undeniably, it’s St. Louis’ defense. On a team with a starting goaltender that had a .906 save percentage, the Blue still gave the sixth-fewest number of goals last season. That’s no small feat, given the struggles Allen achieved last season.

Weaknesses: It has to be in goal. Jake Allen is the ultimate Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde goaltender. There are days where he appears elite and days where he belongs in the American Hockey League. If Allen can be steady, the Blues are going to be a playoff team. If not, welcome to the lottery.

2017-18 Highlight: Brayden Schenn‘s remarkable season.

MVP Candidate: Vladimir Tarasenko. It’s time for him to hit 40 goals again.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. Despite the question of Allen, the Blues just look like a solid team in front of him, one that can potentially make up for any shortcomings their goaltending may have.

WINNIPEG JETS:

Better or Worse:  Better by virtue of the team getting one year old and coming into this season armed with the knowledge of what it takes to get into the Stanley Cup Playoffs and then what it takes to make a deep run, as the Jets did last season.

And it should be noted that their Western Conference Final elimination should serve in the growth department. Learning to lose and learning from losing can be just as important. They lost Paul Stastny, but were a good team prior to Stasny’s arrival at the trade deadline last season.

Strengths: Winnipeg’s offense was one of the best in the NHL last season and there’s no reason that should change, barring catastrophic injuries to the likes of Patrik Laine, Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele. Laine could easily top 50 this season, and Wheeler and Scheifele are point-per-game players.

Winnipeg’s power play is lethal and they found secondary scoring in abundance last season. Their projected fourth line (or third, depending on how you look at it) was one of the top 10 lines in the league in terms of puck possession, goals-for percentage and expected goals-for percentage.

Weaknesses: The Jets have few faults, which is what you’d expect from a team that won 52 games last season. That said, questions marks on defense have dominated training camp. The team is trying Tyler Myers out on the left side with Dustin Byfuglien and early impressions aren’t favorable. The loss of Toby Enstrom, who the Jets couldn’t afford to re-sign, has created a hole that needs filling.

2017-18 Highlight: Winning Game 7 in emphatic fashion in the second round against the Nashville Predators to book a trip to the Western Conference Final.

MVP Candidate: Mark Scheifele. A 16-game absence robbed him from a solid run at the Hart last season. Wheeler will be in the mix, too, but Scheifele seems poised for a season that could creep close to the century mark in terms of points.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs, and perhaps an improvement on their trip to the Western Final last year. They’re a Stanley Cup contender.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Nothing to ‘C’ here: Importance of NHL captains is changing

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Ryan Johansen remembers how the Columbus Blue Jackets didn’t have a captain until one day it clicked and everyone knew it should be Nick Foligno.

”There was just no doubt,” Johansen said. ”It’s just one of those things you don’t want to force. You don’t want to rush. You don’t want to regret. Once someone is a very clear option to being named captain, then it’s usually done.”

For more than a century, NHL teams have named one player the captain, equipment managers stitched a ”C” on his jersey and, if all went well, he was the one who’d accept the Stanley Cup and lift it first. It’s still a hockey tradition with special meaning at all levels of the game, but almost one third of the 31-team league could go into opening night without a captain, a sign of the times that it’s no longer a necessity and certainly not a distinction that management and coaching staffs want to jump into without a lot of thought.

It’s a hot topic right now in Toronto, where the Maple Leafs haven’t had a captain since trading Dion Phaneuf in early 2016 and are in no hurry to designate one. Longtime Islanders captain John Tavares and 2016 top pick Auston Matthews are the leading candidates, and each say they are fine with general manager Kyle Dubas waiting to make a decision.

”It’s very important to have a captain, but I also think the way Kyle’s handling it is the right way to do it because it doesn’t really make sense to just throw somebody the captaincy,” Matthews said. ”It should have to be the right person. I think it’s honestly been blown up a lot this summer with our team with, ‘Somebody’s going to get it, who’s going to get it?’ But I think in the end they’re going to make their decision and it’s going to be the right one.”

Sometimes the decision is not to have a captain at all. The New York Rangers reached the Stanley Cup Final without a captain in 2014 after trading Ryan Callahan at the deadline, and the Golden Knights did the same last year after not having a captain in their inaugural season.

”For us last season all coming from different places, different teams, it was a good thing,” Vegas goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said. ”Everybody chipped in. I think we had a good group of veterans who played a lot of games. I think all together we kind of took charge of helping try to lead the team. It worked out pretty good for us.”

The Golden Knights lost in the final to the Capitals as Alex Ovechkin became the first Russian-born and just the third European-born and trained captain to win the Cup. No team has won it without a captain since the 1972 Boston Bruins.

”That tells you something,” said Minnesota’s Eric Staal, who was captain of the Carolina Hurricanes for six seasons. ”Sometimes it can be overblown with saying you really have to have one or this player can’t handle this or that. I don’t think players change – or they shouldn’t- if they have a letter or don’t. … I also think it’s a cool thing to be a captain or an assistant captain. It’s been part of the game for a long time. But every team chooses to do things differently.”

Teams certainly aren’t afraid to make big decisions with their captains. Within the past two weeks, Montreal traded captain Max Pacioretty to Vegas and Ottawa traded captain Erik Karlsson to San Jose, Carolina abandoned its two-captain system and gave the ”C” to Justin Williams and Florida promoted Aleksander Barkov to succeed Derek MacKenzie as captain.

The Islanders (post-Tavares), Rangers (after trading Ryan McDonagh last season), Golden Knights, Maple Leafs, Sabres, Canadiens, Senators and Canucks (after Henrik Sedin retired) all have vacancies, and the Red Wings are in a similar spot because captain Henrik Zetterberg‘s career is over because of injury. Consider them the AAA club because without a captain, three players are alternates each game.

”I don’t think that every team needs to have a captain,” Buffalo’s Jack Eichel said. ”It’s good to have somebody that makes the executive decision at the end of the day. But if you have enough good leaders on a team, I think that if they’re all on the same page, it kind of works as just serving as a group of captains.”

Sidney Crosby has won the Cup three times since being named Penguins captain at age 20. Two years ago, the Oilers made Connor McDavid the youngest captain in NHL history at 19 years, 273 days old.

Ovechkin was named Washington’s captain in 2010, the season after Crosby won the Cup, but during the playoffs last year, he called Nicklas Backstrom Washington’s leader. When the Cup was paraded down Constitution Avenue in June, Ovechkin and Backstrom and fellow alternate captain Brooks Orpik sat in the final bus with the trophy.

”It feels like we could almost have three ‘Cs’ because they lead in different ways, and all of them together kind of make one big super leader, really,” Capitals winger T.J. Oshie said. ”It’s rare to find that kind of mixture that you have with those three guys.”

Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy said the ”C” could be cut up and a slice given to captain Zdeno Chara and lieutenant Patrice Bergeron. The Kings made a seamless transition from Dustin Brown to Anze Kopitar and the Sharks have thrived with ex-captain Joe Thornton and current captain Joe Pavelski co-existing and developing what Evander Kane called the best leadership structure he has ever played under.

More often than not it’s simple: Jonathan Toews has won the Cup three times as Chicago’s captain and unquestioned leader. But he even doesn’t think naming one captain is essential based on his years of help from players wearing ”As” like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Patrick Sharp.

”I don’t see why you can’t have success with a bunch of guys that are alternates and maybe not having one guy wearing the ‘C,”’ Toews said. ”At the end of the day, each guy brings different elements to the table.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

MORE:
Captain switch: Panthers give ‘C’ to Aleksander Barkov

Under Pressure: Joel Quenneville

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to focusing on a player coming off a breakthrough year to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Chicago Blackhawks.

You don’t hear it mentioned often enough, but since becoming the head coach of the Chicago Blackhawks, Joel Quenneville’s been one of the best in the NHL. Maybe the best head coach.

He doesn’t always have the same recognition to show for it. Much like Phil Jackson in the NBA and other coaches of perennial contenders, Coach Q isn’t piling up coach of the year awards. His lone Jack Adams came (wait for it) with the St. Louis Blues in 1999-2000.

Yes, that really happened. Indeed, it’s kind of hard to believe in 2018.

Thanks to Mike Babcock, Coach Q hasn’t been “the guy” for Team Canada, not on the same level, nor did he draw a bidding war for his services.

Walking the tight rope

Of course, there’s never been a bidding war because the Blackhawks and Quenneville managed to stick together through thick and thin. With three Stanley Cups and plenty of other impressive runs, you’d think that would be a no-brainer, yet there have been rumblings about possible changes during drier periods.

Elliotte Friedman referenced rumors in “31 Thoughts” back in January, there were reports about Coach Q being quite upset about moves such as trading Niklas Hjalmarsson in the 2017 off-season, and he admitted publicly that he wasn’t happy about assistants getting fired.

There was a fair share of drama when the Blackhawks were pumping out their best work, while sometimes falling short of the mark, but missing the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs really revved up those concerns. You could make an argument, even, for an amicable split; after all, the Blackhawks also haven’t won a playoff series since winning it all in 2014-15.

[Looking Back at 2017-18 | Where does Toews rank? | Building Off a Breakthrough]

It was no surprise, then, that the team needed to address such questions after deciding to bring both Bowman and Quenneville back for 2018-19. Team president John McDonough did just that in early April.

“I believe in continuity [and] they’ve had an incredible body of success,” McDonough said via the Chicago Sun-Times. “We’re not tethered to the past. This has been a very disappointing year and our expectations are incredibly high. We’re not going to deviate from those expectations. But I believe both Stan and Joel are the guys that are going to bring this back.”

To put things mildly, Quenneville faces an uphill battle when it comes to squeezing another run or two out of this declining crew.

Cooking with ingredients beyond their expiration date?

One of the biggest concerns comes in net, as Corey Crawford‘s health is a mystery for 2018-19. The Blackhawks claim they addressed that by adding Cam Ward. There’s no denying that Ward is “experienced,” yet you nearly need to observe the last decade of “experiences” for the Carolina Hurricanes to understand why people question if he can hold down the fort.

Coach Q will be asked to support whoever’s in net with his system, which won’t exactly be propped up by stellar defensive talent.

Brent Seabrook ranks as the latest Blackhawks contract that stands as a burden for the team, while as great as Duncan Keith is, you wonder if a big nosedive is looming considering his age (35) and the massive minutes he’s accrued between these NHL runs and international competition. The support beyond those guys is, erm, limited, and it probably doesn’t help that Chicago sent a decent depth defenseman in Jordan Oesterle to Arizona as a sweetener in the Marian Hossa trade.

(Sorry, but Brandon Manning probably isn’t the answer.)

You have to think that Q looks at that roster and hopes that Bowman has a trick up his sleeve, as Cap Friendly does show that Chicago boasts about $5.5 million in cap space.

Getting some sort of talent would certainly make Quenneville’s life a little easier. Could they swing a deal for a much-needed defenseman in Justin Faulk? Getting Artemi Panarin back is plausible considering his manageable cap hit ($6M), although it would be interesting to see how Chicago would entice Columbus. Heck, the Blackhawks could do worse than to gamble on a rental (who might stick around) such as Erik Karlsson or Max Pacioretty.

Even if there aren’t major improvements, there are some things that could go better.

Not all bad

As much of a concern as Crawford is, there’s always the chance that he can be fine and play in more games than he did last season. He’s been a huge reason why it took longer than some expected for the Blackhawks to hit the wall.

Chicago also boasts some nice offensive talent. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine things going better for Toews and Brandon Saad (who, in “NBA Jam” parlance, couldn’t buy a bucket last season), and Patrick Kane might return to Art Ross contention if the Blackhawks landed a gem or maybe elevated Alex DeBrincat.

It’s up to Quenneville to make the most of whatever Bowman gets him. Generally speaking, Coach Q’s done that. Can the coach with a cop-friendly mustache get any more jelly out of that donut, though? It won’t be easy.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Blackhawks can use cap space in quest to return to playoffs

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CHICAGO (AP) — The Chicago Blackhawks enjoy an uncustomary luxury with space under the NHL’s $79.5 million salary cap.

So general manager Stan Bowman hinted Saturday on the second day of the team’s annual convention he could be in the market for a veteran player who might help the Blackhawks return to the playoffs.

Chicago’s roster is built on big-name stars including Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford who are locked into hefty long-term contracts. Those deals usually have forced Bowman to scramble to get his team under the cap.

But this year, the Blackhawks have between $5.5 million and $6.5 million of wiggle room according salary cap tracking websites CapFriendly.com and spotrac.com.

”This is the first year that I can remember where we’ve had this much cap room,” Bowman said. ”We have a bit more flexibility than we have had in the past.”

Most of that space opened when Bowman traded Marian Hossa and his $5,275,000 cap hit to Arizona earlier this month. The 39-year-old forward didn’t play last season because of severe side effects from medication to treat a progressive skin disorder. Hossa isn’t expected to play again, but he’s signed through the 2020-21 season.

Bowman didn’t mention players he might pursue, but he did specify a scenario.

Another team might have a young player who surprises with terrific training camp, earns a roster spot and makes an impact. As a result, that team might want to unload a veteran.

”If you want to get in the game there, you have to be under the cap and have some breathing room to add a player,” Bowman said. ”I’m not sure if that will materialize. It might, so that’s something that’s different for this upcoming season.”

The Blackhawks missed the playoffs last spring for the first time after qualifying for nine straight seasons and winning three Stanley Cup during that run. Team president John McDonough emphasized on Saturday that missing the postseason again is not acceptable.

Moreover, he expects the Blackhawks to bounce back and cement their place as an elite franchise over the long term.

”What we target every year is the Stanley Cup Final,” McDonough said. ”We were off the map for a pretty long period of time.

”The Blackhawks are not necessarily going to be measured in three-to-five year increments, or three Cups in eight or nine years, but we’re going to be measured in decades and decades.

”We want to keep moving forward as an organization.”

Beyond immediate help from three free agents signed earlier this month – goalie Cam Ward, defenseman Brandon Manning forward Chris Kunitz – Bowman expects young prospects to blossom and lift his team this season.

Bowman projects more output from speedy 22-year-old center Nick Schmaltz and 20-year-old winger Alex DeBrincat, both of whom the GM said just scratched surface in 2017-18. Schmaltz had 21 goals and 31 assists in his second NHL season. DeBrincat had 28 goals and 52 points as rookie.

Bowman told fans he expects three Swedes who spent parts of the 2017-18 season in Chicago to make bigger contributions. Defensemen Gustav Forsling, 22, and Carl Dahlstrom, 23, should compete for regular jobs. He called out Victor Ejdsell, a 6-foot-5 center, as ”someone to look out for” because of his great scoring touch.

Bowman also predicted 23-year old center Luke Johnson, who spent the last two seasons at Rockford of the AHL, would play in Chicago at some point.