BUFFALO, N.Y. — At long last, this Blackhawks season, one so disastrous, so embarrassing, so miserable, so drawn-out it felt like it would never end, has ended.
The Hawks closed the book on 2021-22 –a year begging to be forgotten that, for Kyle Beach’s sake, must never actually be –with a 3-2 overtime loss Friday against the Sabres, more than seven long months after it began.
The amount of change since the team’s first day of training camp Sept. 23 is hard to fathom in retrospect.
Jeremy Colliton was the coach then. Derek King was Friday. Another man altogether might be in a few months’ time. Stan Bowman was the general manager then. Kyle Davidson was Friday.
Marc-Andre Fleury made his Hawks debut, earned his 500th win and left for Minnesota all within that span. A rebuild — a full-fledged one this time — was declared. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews’ futures have never looked so tenuous.
But first, the Hawks can finally take a deep breath and wipe the slate clean. The grind –at least this particular grind — is over.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” King said. “It’s almost like, ‘What are we going to do tomorrow for practice?’ It will sink in later. [It’s] unfortunate how the season went. We made some strides here for a while, and then we just teetered off and lost our edge.”
That’s not to say this season won’t live forever in the history books, unfortunately for the franchise’s legacy.
On the ice, the Hawks’ final record of 28-42-12 — good for 68 points –was their worst in a full season since 2005-06 and tied for their fifth-worst since 1958. They posted identical 14-21-6 records both at home and on the road.
They finished 27th in the final NHL standings, 28th with 2.60 goals per game, 26th with 3.52 goals allowed per game, 21st with a 19.2% power play rate, 24th with a 76.2% penalty kill rate and on and on.
Off the ice, the brutal truths uncovered about the Hawks’ 2010 sexual assault scandal and the ensuing cover-up by some of the formerly most legendary figures in team history — John McDonough, Bowman, Al MacIsaac, Joel Quenneville –cast a dark shadow over everything. In terms of significance, the on-ice struggles paled in comparison.
The next few years ahead likely won’t bring much relief from the losing, but they’ll hopefully at least usher in positive cultural change throughout the organization.
In the short term, however, the attention can now shift away from the every-other-night pattern of bad hockey games and toward the instrumental offseason ahead. The Hawks will discover very soon, specifically on May 10, their draft lottery fate; they’ll have a 15.4% chance of receiving the first- or second-overall pick.
“It sucks when you’re not in the playoffs,” Seth Jones said. “You have nothing to look forward to after this.
“It just leaves a bad taste in your mouth, right? The competitive nature of myself and all of us is to be ready for next year. Come back with a chip on our shoulder, all the guys in the locker room stick together, and we’ll go from there. It starts this summer.”
Friday’s finale couldn’t have exemplified the season much better.
The Hawks squandered 1-0 and 2-1 leads, conceding the tying goal to Owen Power with 5:38 left in regulation and the winning goal to Casey Mittelstadt just 2:07 into overtime. They were outshot 19-4 after the second intermission, spoiling a solid final start by Collin Delia. Since late March, the Hawks blew 19 of the 20 leads they at some point held.
“Time and time again, we were leading in the third [period], or in the second, and we gave it up,” Strome said. “You’re not going to win many games when you give up third-period leads.”