The good feeling engendered by the Blackhawks' near-comeback from being down 0-3 against the Canucks will soon fade. And rather than a summer of Stanley Cup celebration, it will be by necessity an off-season of hard work and back-to-basics for all aspects of Rocky Wirtz's operations.
Don't get fooled by some clutch performances in the quarterfinals by the likes of Brian Bickell and Michael Frolik, or costly fanning on clearing passes in back-to-back games by Chris Campoli. The latter turned out to be the only Stan Bowman trade acquisition to show any consistency after coming over to Chicago. Perhaps the gun was at his head in deals when he had to slash and burn the roster due to salary-cap considerations, but none of the players Bowman brought over had a breakthrough year except for some hints of long-term blue-line prowess by Campoli in the regular season.
Plain and simple, the Hawks simply lacked depth beyond their Toews-Kane-Hossa-Sharp-Keith-Seabrook-Campbell core. When Dave Bolland was lost for more than a month March 9 with a concussion, the Hawks wheezed to the regular-season finish line and in the first three games against Vancouver. Coach Joel Quenneville often was hard-pressed without the crafty Bolland to roll out three effective lines, let alone four.
Bowman must do a better job identifying talent who can make an impact to round out the roster, while hoping for effective play from a couple of Rockford callups. Of course, a given for Bowman is importing a couple of physical players who can protect the smaller Hawks skilled guys and prevent the hits-just-keep-on-coming strategy employed by the Canucks from being duplicated all over the NHL.
The Hawks were very fortunate Marty Turco, imported with a $1 million salary to start in goal, played below expectations early, giving Corey Crawford the opening he needed in the nets. Crawford was the season's greatest find. He kept getting better throughout the Canucks series, and he showed both endurance and nimbleness. Bowman can achieve some cap savings with Crawford his starter and a lower-priced-backup-to-be-named.
Marian Hossa's off-season conditioning must be a priority. The third time will have to be the charm next season after Hossa did not give the Hawks what they paid for in his megabucks 12-year-contract. Injuries and plain ineffectiveness give hints he could be the hockey version of Alfonso Soriano if Hossa doesn't turn it around. Maybe Hossa also needs to consult a shooting specialist. At times he appeared incapable of denting iron. He has to boost his production to the 35-goal range in the regular season to justify his payout while scoring at least occasionally in the playoffs. Hossa has just five postseason goals for the Hawks spread over two seasons.
On the business side, the worst thing that could have happened to the Hawks was the rapid rise of the Bulls, intertwined with a first-round playoff exit for themselves. To be sure, the Hawks won over tens of thousands of fans when they captured the Stanley Cup. Some of that affection actually was a yearning for a young, exciting Chicago team due to dissatisfaction with the town's No. 1 and 1-A franchises -- the Bears and Cubs. But if the Bulls, -- operating with a much larger, diverse fan base in a sport far more indigenous to Chicago than hockey -- revived in a big way, the Hawks' appeal could be diminished.
John McDonough, Jay Blunk and their staff must get back to basics to sell hockey in this market to ensure it continues beyond the niche basis in which it has operated. Their job will be harder if the Bulls make it to the NBA Finals or win it all. It's still a mission-possible, but there can be no resting on 2010 laurels to keep the Hawks within sight of the Bulls as a winter attraction, at a time when the average consumer is very picky about his sports discretionary income (see baseball attendance).
Rocky Wirtz just has to give a simple directive. Act like the Hawks are building from the ground up in both hockey and business operations. It's a good habit to possess as champions or also-rans.