The Blackhawks made the playoffs — albeit, on a technicality — this season, but there is still a lot of work to be done before they can become perennial contenders again. Priority No. 1 for the past several years has been tightening up on defense. No team has given up more even-strength high-danger chances since the start of the 2017-18 season than the Blackhawks. Which raises the question: Are the answers on the roster? And how can the Blackhawks figure out a solution?
GM Stan Bowman touched on a couple ways in his end-of-the-season media availability, but mostly keyed in on the mindset of the team. "The ways to do that are multiple," Bowman said. "And certainly some of it could be personnel. I think a lot of it, for us, is a mentality. What I mean by that is, we have a lot of players who have a lot of offensive skills and they want to make things happen to help the team win. And their intentions are good to try to generate offense, and in the process of doing that, it’s a little bit of a double-edged sword because you can create some really good opportunities and you can be an offensive team, but the other side of that is you put yourself in tough spots, often times; too often. "It’s learning as a group when to take those chances and when not to. So, of course you can improve a number of ways. It can be personnel, it can be changes to the way you play but I think the mentality of our group, maybe a little bit more awareness of what you do in the moment can affect something 20-30 seconds later and you can put yourself and the team in a bad spot, and that probably happens too often with our group." Bowman said the younger players will get better at this as they mature as pros. But he also acknowledged the veteran players are "guilty" of it, as well. Head coach Jeremy Colliton concurred when asked whether the mentality and buy-in of the entire group is the biggest hurdle if the Blackhawks want to take the next step next season. "That’s basically it," Colliton said. "I think we’ve made strides there, but just finding a way to do it every shift, every game. And part of that is building more depth, developing our young players so that they can do it every shift. As a young player, sometimes you only get 10 shifts. Can you do it eight or nine of the 10? If they can, then it really has an effect." Colliton singled out Matthew Highmore as a "perfect example," and gave a long-winded answer on why. "He doesn’t play 25 shifts in a game, but the shifts he gets, he knows exactly what he’s supposed to do," Colliton said. "He goes out there, he does it 100 miles an hour, he doesn’t cheat, he wins 50-50s, he advances the puck, he gets it in, he goes to the net. That line scored three or four goals, at least, in the series playing against top-line competition and it’s just because he’s willing to do the right thing. "I thought the other guys did too, and then he gets off. He doesn’t extend his shift, he doesn’t hang around in the offensive zone hoping to get a goal or get a second assist or get a plus [rating]. If he started in D-zone, he gets it out of D-zone, gets it in and 35 seconds in, the alarm bells are going off in his head that he’s got to get off so that Patrick Kane can step on in a good spot, maybe playing against tired guys in the offensive zone or on an offensive zone faceoff. "We need more of that. We need it up and down the lineup, and we’ll be a much better team defensively because we’ll be defending when we’re fresh, we’ll have a better forecheck because we’re forechecking against tired guys, we’ll draw more penalties, you build energy in your group because you see people making team decisions and having a team-first mentality. And that’s how you win."
There are certainly holes on the roster, which falls on the management group. There are also challenges with the system, which falls on the coaching staff. And if the players aren't fully bought in yet, then the Blackhawks won't be able to take the next step without addressing the disconnect because the organization, from top to bottom, can't afford to be on different pages going into next season.