Possibly the most startling sight for the Hawks in their sweep at the hands of the Predators was that their defensemen looked their ages.
The struggles of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were a major problem in the series, but you could argue that was a four-game aberration. Also, Toews and Kane are still in their late 20s and have several prime years of hockey ahead of them.
Instead, the biggest issue was something that might not improve next season — the younger Predators skating circles around the Hawks’ veteran defensemen.
If that’s the future of the Central Division, that ought to keep the Hawks’ restless throughout this offseason. With a lot of salary-cap space tied up in big contracts, there might not be much general manager Stan Bowman can do about it.
Duncan Keith, one of the premier defenseman in the league for a long time, is 33 and is 18 months removed from major knee surgery. Brent Seabrook, who is signed for seven more seasons, is 32 but has looked for two seasons like there is wear on his treads. Brian Campbell, 38, is a free agent who could retire or go elsewhere. Johnny Oduya, 35, is also a free agent, is coming off an injury-riddled season and, by his own admission, a disappointing playoff series in which the Predators made him look like he was skating in sand.
Bowman tried to recapture the magic of previous Cup runs with that core of defensemen. It was a patchwork solution that looked good on paper but failed when it counted. Several Hawks said they couldn’t quite reach the level of play they have had in previous seasons. Maybe it wasn’t a lack of desire or motivation to do so. Maybe the Hawks couldn’t skate with the Predators — because they just weren’t as fast, especially on defense.
This season the Hawks saw the emergence of some young forwards who might be contributors the next few years in Nick Schmaltz and Ryan Hartman.
But if the Hawks want to keep their Stanley Cup window open, next season and the years after are going to depend on the development of defensemen currently in the system to bolster the aging core.
Among the names are Gustav Forsling, who played in 38 games this season, Erik Gustafsson, who played in 41 games a season ago but didn’t crack the roster this season, Viktor Svedberg (27 games a season ago), Ville Pokka and Lucas Carlsson, who spent the year in the Swedish Hockey League.
But developing young defensemen is different from forwards. Young defensemen need time, sometimes multiple seasons, to become viable NHL players.
The Hawks don’t have a lot of time to wait.
The Hawks feel they have one young defenseman in Trevor van Riemsdyk, who could be a solid bottom pairing defenseman, but van Riemsdyk, who is under contract for next season, could be in danger of the Vegas Golden Knights plucking him in the upcoming expansion draft. Meanwhile, the Hawks would like to re-sign Michal Kempny, but Kempny is also a free agent.
Who fills up minutes beyond the top three defensemen — and how they perform — is very much a question headed into next season and beyond.
The enduring images from the first-round exit are going to be the Predators skating by the Hawks, relentlessly forcing the issue in the Hawks’ defensive zone. No matter who coach Joel Quenneville threw out there, the Hawks had no answer to slow the Predators, and looking at the defensive roster next season, it’s hard to determine who might be part of the solution.