While the ice was finally melting at Chicago’s ballparks Tuesday, so was the ice also melting at the West Side’s biggest hockey rink.
It is a strange feeling, indeed, to see the arena dark this time of year after nine straight seasons of Blackhawks playoffs.
My, how times — and expectations — have changed.
The Hawks have analyzed themselves nearly to death over the last few months, but it’s not really that complicated. The truth is you need some luck when there’s so much of the salary cap dedicated to so few players, the result of signing Hall of Famers and capturing three Stanley Cups.
Those are good things.
The salary cap is a nightmare. That’s a bad thing.
You also can’t win without a goaltender and you can’t win if you can’t roll six defensemen.
Pretty basic stuff.
The good news is they have one of the best goaltenders in the league, assuming Corey Crawford returns healthy.
The much more difficult part is developing young defensemen so the Hawks won’t rely so heavily on Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, who looked old and a fraction of their former selves this past season.
There’s no shame in that. The miles and minutes have been well documented.
So what’s fair to expect from them going forward?
“We have a lot of faith in these players,” GM Stan Bowman said Monday when the Hawks cleaned out their lockers. “We would all like it to be a nice straight line of performance for players year after year after year, and sometimes there’s a little bit of a down before they go back up.
“That’s not that uncommon in sports or in hockey players.
“They’re not 40 years old. Some of them aren’t even 30 yet,” Bowman said, probably referring to 29-year-old Jonathan Toews, who had an ugly season. “So I think for that reason, age is not really a factor.
“They had played a lot of hockey for a number of years with our long playoff runs. The last few seasons we’ve only played the regular season and one round of the playoffs, so I think they’re going to be physically capable of doing it.”
There may be some whistling past the graveyard here, but it’s not like the Hawks have a choice. They have to hope Keith and Seabrook can be better in fewer minutes, also knowing the pair again led the Hawks’ defense — by miles — in minutes played this season.
“Those guys have been here the longest and deserve to play the most,” said head coach Joel Quenneville. “(Seabrook) had a good finish to the season. He improved his overall game, was better with the puck offensively.
“As a group on defense, we can still be better offensively. Predictability on the back end — how we defend — has got to be better.”
Seabrook’s last two months were better than the first four, but the Hawks have to have more from him.
“As I get older, it’s tougher to play (against) all these young water bugs,” Seabrook admitted. “My main focus this summer is trying to get in the best shape I can.”
The 32-year-old Seabrook never moved his feet like Keith, but his size, length and smarts made up for it in his own end. Still, he’s getting slower while the game’s getting faster.
“The game’s still the same. It’s speed, right?” Seabrook asked rhetorically. “Working on speed and quickness is only going to help.
“I think positionally I’m fine. It’s just trying to work on the speed and the quickness. I’m very confident in myself and my abilities. With a long summer to train here, I can get back to where I want to be and back to a place where I can really help this team.”
Keith is more likely to return to form than his teammate, but it’s a big ask given what he’s been through the last 10 years.
“It wasn’t the year that I expected,” said the 34-year-old Keith. “It was frustrating in a lot of ways. You want to do certain things out there. It just seemed like there’s a lot that went wrong.
“When you’re a successful team, everything seems easier. We’ve got to have good habits, whether it’s practice or preparation. Just going to start with that.”
For his part — like the rest of us — Keith doesn’t believe what the calendar says. But the reality is he has already played more minutes than most his age will play in a career.
“I know I’m not getting any younger. But at the same time, I don’t feel old,” Keith said. “I know I have a lot left.
“I know that question kind of comes up as you go along. It’s something that’s to be expected, especially in a year where you don’t have the success you want.
“Looking forward to having a good summer of training and trying to be in the best shape of my career (to) give me the best chance to feel good, and to do the things that I want to do.
“We played a lot of hockey in our own end this year. You have to train for that.”
For the first time in a decade, there won’t be any playoffs to slow him down.
• Listen to Barry Rozner from 9 a.m. to noon Sundays on the Score’s “Hit and Run” show at WSCR 670-AM and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.