Tonight, the Chicago Blackhawks will raise four banners to the rafters and your team will not. Unless your team is the Capitals, of course, who upon returning home will raise one for their Southeastern Division Championship, Alex Ovechkin’s Hart, Rocket Richard, and for each First Team All-Star position he won an award for. The only other exception is Los Angeles, who is still conducting their 2012 Cup banner ceremony.
As soon as those banners go up, Chicago’s cup defense begins. Unlike 2010 when GM Stan Bowman had to jettison half of the team because of the impending Capocalypse, this team remains mostly intact from last season. The core group of players remains. Some were even signed to extensions, ALA Nick Leddy, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Corey Crawford. Bryan Bickell re-signed on a 4-year deal, Michal Handzus came back on a 1-year deal and Michal Rozsival returned on a 2-year deal.
A number of faces will not return, however. Ray Emery went back to Philadelphia, Viktor Stalberg and his porn signed with Nashville, Jamal Mayers retired, Michael Frolik was traded to a barren wasteland, Dave Bolland was shipped to his hometown Toronto and Dan Carcillo was traded to LA presumably to protect Raffi Torres from damaging Jeff Carter’s frosted tips.
The Hawks replaced these players with Mike Kostka, Nikolai Khabibulin and some kids from Rockford. Coach Joel Quenneville thought keeping eight defensemen was necessary for whatever reason. Thus, Mike Kostka. If Nikolai Khabibulin’s save percentage is as high as his BAC was during his DUI, it’ll suffice. Forwards Jimmy Hayes, Joakim Nordstrom and Ben Smith all will begin the season with the big club. Hayes and Smith have played on the Blackhawks before but Nordstrom has not. Hayes looked somewhat overmatched in previous stints in Chicago but he’ll look to stick around for good this time. Ben Smith did this once. Nordstrom doubles the United Center Joakim factor and runs a major department store chain found in many significant malls. He’ll also begin the year playing on the PK alongside Marcus Kruger, who has been in need of a PK buddy ever since Frolik was dropped out of an airplane and abandoned in the Canadian wilderness.
The rest of the team looks pretty much like it did when the 2013 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks won the shiny chalice. Jonathan Toews, Jonathan Toews’ impeccable bubble butt and Patrick Kane will combine with Bryan Bickell to destroy worlds and defenses alike. My nipples explode with delight at the prospect of what this first line could do. As long as Bryan Bickell can play physically, help on the forecheck and quit flinging wristers from the blue-line, he should be productive enough to stick with Kane and Toews.
The second line consists of Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and currently a decrepit Michal Handzus. This line’s production depends on how healthy they can stay. Sharp dealt with nagging injuries throughout the 2013 season. This decreased his point production…. sharply. At this point, Marian Hossa is basically in a perpetual state of injury, which makes his production seem even more absurd. The only reason Michal Handzus is going to play second-line center minutes is because the Hawks have a black hole at the center position and Blackhawks prospect Brandon Pirri (go ahead and google that name) isn’t ready yet. Once management feels Pirri, who led the AHL in scoring last year, is ready for NHL action, they’ll call him up and he’ll be eased into his role as the probable second-line center.
The bottom six consists of Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw, Kruger, Hayes, Smith and Nordstrom. Quenneville will probably mix and match these guys up to see who works best with whom. Chicago’s bottom six last year was deep and it’ll need to be again if they want to repeat, especially after a short summer. The good news is the Blackhawks have plenty of forwards in Rockford who could step in and take the place of a struggling young’un if need be. Brandon Bollig made a funny video where he basically implied he sucks.
The defense corps looks exactly the same except Kostka joins it, I guess. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook form a very formidable top pairing that the Blackhawks can use to shutdown any opponent. By Seabrook’s standards, last year wasn’t his best by any stretch of the imagination. But it’s reasonable to expect his production will return to a level more in line with hist past. Corsi really liked the Oduya and Hjalmarsson pairing last year. Hjammer is becoming the rock solid defender people thought he could be and despite occasional meltdowns, Oduya paired well with Hjammer.
Nick Leddy will probably begin the season paired with his buddy from last year, Michal Rozsival. Leddy took a huge step forward last season but he’ll need to take another one if he’s going to reach his potential. He was flat-out lost during the postseason and was subsequently benched. If he does take that step forward, however, he could see his role on the power play expanded as well as his minutes increased. Leddy right now is a better PP QB than Keith is and Leddy is 22. Maybe after Keith hits his 50th pair of shinpads this year Q will finally make the switch. Sheldon Brookbank is a guy, that’s for sure.
Continuing on the power play discussion. It is garbage and it makes everybody who watches it want to gouge their eyeballs out and throw them as far as they can. “Passersby were amazed by the unusually large amounts of blood…” With Assistant Coach Jamie Kompon behind the bench, it feels like an inevitability.
Maybe this is the year when the team goes “hey, we have Toews, Kane, Hossa, Sharp, Leddy, Seabrook and Bickell all on the same team. We should be scoring every time we’re on the man-advantage.” Probably not though. The trade-off for a Kompon-led special teams phase is a fantastic penalty kill. The Blackhawks boasted one of the best penalty kills last year. It somehow got even better during the playoffs. But one of the team’s best penalty killers is no longer on the team. The PK efficiency could suffer without Frolik. Nordstrom, Smith or one of the other Rockford forwards will have to step up in order to preserve the PK’s elite status.
Goaltending was one of the biggest question marks going into the season last year. Corey Crawford handled most of those questions in a brilliant regular season and a spectacular postseason. In a reverse of philosophy, Bowman handed him a fat ole 6-year contract extension. The contract is risky, in spite of the season he had last year. Crawford only played a few more games than backup goalie Emery did and that was in a shortened season. This will be the first full season the “new and improved” Crawford will play. He won’t have to put up the numbers he did last year. That’s good because he probably won’t in an 82 game season. The team in front of him is more than capable of making up for the drop-off he’ll probably see in production this year. They only need him to be good; great is a luxury.
The Bulin Wall is back on a 1-year deal and will back up Crawford. Khabibulin always seems to perform well in contract years so there’s that. How much that’ll outweigh the fact that he is 40 and not very good anymore remains to be seen. Hopefully, he can at least be passable enough to the point where the Hawks can give Crawford a decent amount of nights off, especially following the short summer.
Tired legs and fatigue always seem to follow the Cup-winning team throughout their Cup defense. There’s no reason to expect it’ll be any different this time around. In fact, it could be worse. Quenneville will have to find a way to balance rest and practice so the players can shake off the rust while simultaneously warding off fatigue. This is something Quenneville has done well over the last few years. It seems unlikely he’ll neglect to do that this year.
All of the pieces the Blackhawks would need for a repeat are there. The skilled forwards, the steady defense, the decent goaltending and the solid PK put the Hawks among the NHL’s elite yet again. Their season likely hinges on the Rockford kids’ abilities to adjust to the NHL game and staying healthy over a grueling 82 game season was preceded by a Cup run that ended a week before July. If they can stay healthy and rested, another deep run is a distinct possibility. But if their depth fails them or fatigue catches up with them, summer may come a bit sooner in Chicago than it did last season.
What this season will hold is anyone’s guess. But leave the prognosticating to the “experts.” In the mean time, it’s time to sit back, relax and watch the Blackhawks work their f****** nuts off. Hockey’s back.