Blackhawks look back at season with frustration, but see reasons for hope in 2024-25 and beyond

LOS ANGELES — Seth Jones will look back at the 2023-24 season as a step — a small step, but a step nonetheless. What else can he do?

From a distance, it seems as if Jones has been a little looser this season, a little more jocular, a little more comfortable in the Blackhawks’ dressing room during his third year in Chicago.

And he has been. But don’t mistake comfort for acceptance, or humor for a lack of seriousness. The losing is still eating up the 29-year-old defenseman, the frustration at times all-consuming.

“I’ve just tried to be positive to the media and understand the situation we’re in as an organization,” Jones said before the Blackhawks lost for the 59th and final time this season, a wild 5-4 overtime loss to the Los Angeles Kings in the season finale. “But I have not been happy by any stretch of the imagination.”

Jones missed 15 games earlier in the season with a shoulder injury, but only three players in the NHL have averaged more ice time per game than his 25:29. Yet he said he’s more mentally tired than physically tired. That, perhaps more than any other reason, is why he’ll be headed to Czechia to represent the United States at the World Championships for the fourth time in his career, and just the second time in 10 years.

The guy just wants to play in some meaningful hockey games for a change.

“A hundred percent,” he said.

Jones is so desperate to be competitive again that he was one of the ringleaders of the so-called “California Cup,” an internal, half-in-jest way to juice up all these late-season games against Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Jose. Thursday night’s finale was for all the imaginary marbles.

“It is Game 7,” Jones said with a smirk. “I said we’re going to get the champagne and the Oakley goggles out. If we win, we’ll have to tarp the room down.”

Jones immediately signed an eight-year contract extension upon being acquired by the Blackhawks in the summer of 2021 because he believed the team was in win-now mode. And it was. But it quickly became clear that the team was in no position to actually win, and when Kyle Davidson took over as general manager for the ousted Stan Bowman, he quickly stripped the roster down to the studs. That left Jones with a bunch of kids and unfamiliar faces.

Jones said the losing “takes a toll on you,” but he’s clinging to the same glimmers of hope that Blackhawks fans are. Every time a new kid steps in and succeeds, such as Connor Bedard, Alex Vlasic, Kevin Korchinski, Landon Slaggert and Frank Nazar, it feels like the organization has taken another little step in the right direction, back toward contention. And Jones, locked in through the 2029-30 season, knows he has to play a big role in that progress. This year, he’s helped Vlasic become a high-end defender as his regular partner.

But he knows patience is a virtue. The New Jersey Devils seemed to skip a few steps last year and were thought of as possible Stanley Cup contenders this season. They missed the playoffs. Progress isn’t linear for individuals, or for teams.

“You just don’t know,” Jones said. “A lot of it’s luck. A lot of it’s a team being healthy, little things like that. When you look at a lot of these young players, a lot of them forwards — Jack Hughes had like 20 points (21) his first year. And then sometimes they go through injuries. It kind of takes that (three-year) entry-level deal to really start budding. Which is not a big deal. It’s just two or three years of their career to learn the game, the speed and the schedule of the game. So it is what it is.”

Logically, rationally, he knows “just two or three years” is “not a big deal.” But each year that passes without much to show for it tears him up all the same. Jones hasn’t made the playoffs for the last four seasons. He’s never made it out of the second round. He’s aching to get back to competitive hockey.

But he’s not stewing on it, the way he used to. He understands where the Blackhawks are, and believes in where they can go. For now, that’s enough. It has to be.

“No one likes losing,” he said. “But you have to look at the big picture, and where this thing could go. Our young guys took a step this year in the right direction, and that’s really what we’re most concerned about.”

Taylor Hall will look back at the 2023-24 season a golden opportunity squandered, as one that got away.

Hall was the second person on the ice for Thursday’s morning skate (after Bedard, of course), and that in and of itself was significant, even if he’s still months away from returning to an actual hockey game after having knee surgery on Nov. 27.

“For me to come on this road trip at the end of the year, get some sun, it’s a little reward for me, for the hard work that I’ve been putting in,” Hall said.

It’s obviously been a difficult season for Hall. The former Hart Trophy winner came to Chicago along with Nick Foligno, expecting to be Bedard’s left wing, with a chance to show himself and the league that he can still be a top-line player  after being more of a depth scorer in Boston. Instead, he played in just 10 games, posting two goals and two assists while dealing with a variety of injuries.

Hall tried to put his lost season in a positive light, as it gave the 32-year-old a chance to “refresh” and “recharge,” and to spend time with his son, who was born just before the start of the season.

But he should be at 100 percent by the start of training camp, and he’s clearly eager to get back to playing. He’s been around the team a fair bit throughout the season as he rehabbed, but not being on the ice or on the road has left him feeling left out.

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Taylor Hall is hoping for a rebound after an injury-interrupted season. (Daniel Bartel / USA Today)

“I watched the games as much as I can, but as a new player on the team this year, to only play 10 games (is hard),” he said. “I’m as close to the guys as I can be, but at the same time, it’s been difficult to feel part of the team.”

This season was largely a waste for Hall, another prime year gone. But next year, he’ll be in the last year of his contract with everything to prove and everything to play for. That can only benefit the Blackhawks.

“The next step is to play meaningful games at the end of the season,” he said. “I don’t think that realistically we’re looking at next year as being a Cup year or anything like that. Hopefully next year we can have some new fresh faces in here and we can take a step into playing meaningful games. Maybe at the trade deadline we’re adding some pieces to make a playoff push. That type of thing would be a really positive thing for us next year — and, honestly, realistic.”

Bedard will look back on the 2023-24 season and will probably cringe at the pedestrian — by his impossible standards — numbers. After going without a point against the Kings, he finished the season with 61 points in 68 games, the league’s top-scoring rookie by 14 points despite playing 14 fewer games than his nearest competitors, New Jersey defenseman Luke Hughes and Minnesota defenseman Brock Faber.

But when you’re coming off a junior season in which you post 71 goals and 72 assists in 57 games, it can be tough to recalibrate your expectations.

“I don’t know, it’s been a frustrating year, too, with the (team’s) record,” Bedard said. “Personally, I think I was OK a lot, but not maybe as good as I hoped, or whatever. But that’s part of it. Just learning. I feel like I improved throughout the year, which is big. But for this summer, I’ve got a lot of areas to improve. That’s a positive to be able to go in (to the offseason) knowing you can get better.”

One focal point will be his defense. The Blackhawks were outscored 65-37 at five-on-five with Bedard on the ice, and among everyday forwards, Bedard was on the ice for a team-high 3.81 goals-against per 60 minutes. Of course, he wasn’t asked to play much defense, just like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane weren’t back in 2007-08. That’ll change as he gets older, though. He’ll have to become more responsible away from the puck.

“He’s going to have to understand what that means as an elite player on this team and the responsibilities that come with it,” Foligno said. “Along with a lot of other guys in here, right? The defensive side of it and all that. I think, as you mature and value those things, you’re only going to become more effective. Probably the best example is his favorite player, Sidney Crosby. I played against him when he was first in the league, and he was all-out offense. He learned. And he had guys that could compensate for his offense on the defensive side, then once he learned to be that complete player, there was no stopping him.”

Bedard knows that will be expected of him, too, and he welcomes the burden.

“I’m excited to get the chance to try to improve in some areas,” he said.

Voting by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association on NHL awards ends on Friday, and the Calder Trophy race between Bedard and Faber has garnered nearly as much attention as the incredible Hart Trophy race between Nathan MacKinnon, Auston Matthews, Connor McDavid, Nikita Kucherov and Connor Hellebuyck.

One person who hasn’t been locked in to the discourse? Bedard.

“I haven’t paid attention at all,” he said. “It’s a good rookie class and there are a lot of guys that have been fun to watch come into the league and have success. I’m just trying to be the best I can be and not focus on stuff like that.”

Bedard has been and will continue to be focused on by the rest of the hockey world, a hockey world that will look back at this season as the start of something big for Bedard, who somehow managed to live up to the hysterical hype that accompanied him into the league.

But elite players have elite standards, and Bedard is no different. Next season, he’ll be better. He’ll produce more. And most importantly, he’ll win more. And to hear him tell it, he doesn’t just believe it, he knows it.

The 2023-24 season is over. And now the work begins.

“Everyone is going to go into the summer a little pissed off with how things went this year,” he said. “All we can control is how much we get better throughout the summer.”

(Top photo of Connor Bedard: Bill Smith / NHLI via Getty Images)

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