David Haugh: Change Stan Bowman promised made Blackhawks look different but not betterNovember 15, 2017 3:46am

Nov. 14-- For posterity Tuesday, a smiling bunch of Blackhawks posed in front of the Zamboni after their final practice at Johnny's IceHouse West.

The Hawks will start practicing Thursday at the $65 million MB Ice Arena, ending a seven-year run at a rink where they found their way out of more than a few funks like their current one.

"A lot of good memories," coach Joel Quenneville said.

The environment felt familiar but the vibe didn't as the Hawks headed off into unfamiliar territory, which had nothing to do with their new practice facility. The 8-8-2 Hawks find themselves lost in the land of mediocrity, their noses pressed to the glass, on the outside looking in thanks to a roster general manager Stan Bowman weakened trying to strengthen it.

The Hawks have just 18 points, good for fifth place in the Central Division and status as a bubble team in the Western Conference. Their offense looks prone to droughts. Their defense too often resembles a sieve. At this rate, goalie Corey Crawford's statistics will include a special category for saving the season. The highlight of their year has been Tommy Hawk earning induction into the Mascot Hall of Fame.

"We've never been in this spot," Quenneville acknowledged. "Finding that consistency and putting ourselves at the top of the division has always been there. Now that we're not there, how we're handling it is a good test for us."

Quenneville remains the right guy to proctor the Hawks through it, scuttlebutt aside. The 59-year-old spent the crisp 45-minute workout blowing his whistle, setting up drills and doing all the little hands-on things that still make him unique. "Coach Q" is the NHL's longest-tenured coach by five years-on the job since Oct. 16, 2008-for a reason: No better alternative exists. Spending two seasons with the Stars made Hawks forward Patrick Sharp appreciate that even more.

"Coming back, you see a great coach, the guy we want behind the bench handling situations like this," Sharp said. "He has been through everything. I remember playing for Joel and we lost (nine) in a row (in 2012) and you could see Joel's intensity, his consistency behind the bench. The message he was sending brought us out of that. You can say the same thing as of late. We're talking after every game, as a team, identifying areas we can improve."

Meanwhile, whispers around town wonder if Quenneville still can reach players who, in some cases, have heard his message for 10 seasons while juggling linemates. Human nature makes that a natural question given today's pro athlete and the Hawks' coaching continuity but responsibility for early struggles falls more on Bowman than Quenneville-pressure the Hawks general manager invited.

Shortly after last season's disappointing first-round playoff sweep, Bowman vowed change. Bowman then fired assistant coach Mike Kitchen, a Quenneville confidante, symbolically putting his stamp on the offseason. His most indelible mark came later when Bowman traded the Hawks' best defensive defenseman, Niklas Hjalmarsson, to the Coyotes for a younger replacement with more contract control, Connor Murphy. Bowman's infatuation with Murphy began during their stint together with USA Hockey.

Murphy, acquired to be a top four defenseman, was a healthy scratch in three of the first 12 games. Nothing about his play has suggested he deserves to be paired with Duncan Keith. Now you know why Quenneville reacted so negatively when informed the Hawks had traded Hjalmarsson. Hjalmarsson's loss, compounded by the departure of Trevor van Riemsdyk via the expansion draft, created two holes at a position where the Hawks already lacked quality depth. The Hawks defensemen struggle moving the puck out of their own zone, generating offense and easing Crawford's burden. Why do the Hawks carry eight D-men? They have such a hard time finding four they trust. That's on Bowman, who overvalued Murphy's intangibles.

Bowman also overpaid for forward Richard Panik, who expressed surprise in July that the salary-cap strapped Hawks offered a two-year, $5.6 million deal. Sharp, Bowman's free-agent signing, shows flashes of his younger self but not often enough to make anyone forget he is 35. And the contract of 32-year-old defenseman Brent Seabrook, who has six years and $41 million left on his deal, represents a steep price for leadership. Seabrook's salary limits the Hawks' roster flexibility as much as any on the payroll.

So while the dramatically changed Hawks look different than last year, they don't look better. It goes beyond missing Marian Hossa. Has Quenneville ever tried to win with such an unproven Hawks roster?

Life comes at the Hawks fast in the next week, with the sizzling hot Rangers on Wednesday at the United Center before road games against Eastern Conference powers-the Penguins and Lightning. Jonathan Toews must resume skating the way he did last month. Patrick Kane can start playing like an MVP again any time he wants. Brandon Saad, solid at both ends, needs to rediscover the back of the net. Maybe Keith, goal-less so far, can kick-start his season by discovering it.

"There has to be urgency in the place we're in right now," Quenneville said. "We're not happy with where we're at."

Once upon a time, you could say everything will end happily ever after for the Hawks.

Those were the days.

___

(c)2017 Chicago Tribune

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