The Chicago Blackhawks came into the 2015-16 season with one goal: To repeat as Stanley Cup champions.
Being eliminated in the first round then, even in a seven-game thriller, just doesn't cut it.
"A huge disappointment for me," coach Joel Quenneville said in the wake of Monday's season-ending 3–2 loss to the Blues.
But while the season itself has to be viewed objectively as a failure, it's just a bump in the road for an organization that's built to contend for years to come.
The core that helped capture three titles in six years—Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford—is in place at least through 2020. Quenneville signed a three-year extension in January. So did GM Stan Bowman. Top-to-bottom, the Hawks are the envy of the league, the model of stability and the standard for success in the salary cap era.
There are issues to deal with. This team was far from the possession monster it has been in years past. It averaged 3.5 shots fewer per game than it did a year ago. The defense sagged from second in 2014-15 (2.27 goals-against per game) to 10th (2.52). The penalty kill dropped from 10th to 22nd. And the blueline depth was exposed as the team's fatal flaw.
Blame the salary cap for that last one. It's taken a toll on this team over the years. And it will again this summer. Those cuts would have been easier to swallow in the wake of another celebration at Soldier Field, but win or lose, there were going to be casualties.
According to General Fanager, the Hawks have $65,858,460 committed to nine forwards, six defensemen and two goaltenders next season. While we don't know the exact ceiling yet. Even the sunniest estimate wouldn't leave much room to fill out a roster.
They'd love to keep deadline acquisition Andrew Ladd, who was a solid fit on both the first and third lines, but they'll have to part ways with the pending UFA. Dale Weise, Thomas Fleischmann and Brandon Mashinter will all move along. So will UFA defensemen Christian Ehrhoff and Michal Rozsival.
RFA winger Richard Panik, though, could be back. The first star in Chicago's Game 6 win is cheap and versatile and seems like a good fit in Quenneville's system. RFA Dennis Rasmussen could stick around as a low-dough option who brings size and defensive responsibility.
But the Hawks will be hard pressed to re-sign RFA Andrew Shaw. The fractious winger proved his value time and again in the postseason, scoring three goals and wreaking havoc down low. But he also displayed his ugly side, taking an undisciplined penalty with the Hawks pressing late in Game 4 then drawing a suspension for spouting a homophobic slur in the penalty box.
They'll miss him, but not as much as some think. That's because Bowman has done a masterful job planting seeds along the way. Ryan Hartman, a 2013 first round pick, could fill the role vacated by Shaw while 2012 draftee Vincent Hinostroza battles for a job up front with savvy college free agent signings Tanner Kero and Kyle Baun.
Ville Pokka, acquired in the 2014 cap crunch deal that sent Nick Leddy to the Islanders, could be ready to fill a role on a blue line that wasn't up to the task this time around.
And who knows what else Bowman has up his sleeve? It was a year ago Thursday that he signed a relatively unknown free agent out of the KHL named Artemi Panarin. That turned out pretty well. He's not likely to get that lucky again, but the lure of playing with a perennial contender will always make the Hawks a desirable destination—even if they can't afford to pay what other teams do.
It's worth remembering that many of those roster fixes will be temporary. The cavalry will arrive just ahead of the trade deadline, as it always does in Chicago. Just in time to mount another run at the Cup.