“This is the end”.
That is the growing consensus in the hockey world nowadays when it comes to the Chicago Blackhawks. The “sweep” by the Nashville Predators has left the Hawks more vulnerable than ever. The Cup window is closed. The dragon has been slain. The dynasty is over. Most have even gone far as to say that the Blackhawks will miss the playoffs this year for the first time in the Patrick Kane- Jonathan Toews era.
I call bullshit.
Are there questions? Sure. GM Stan Bowman made some significant changes to the team this offseason, arguably more so than any in recent memory. Also, apart from those changes, health concerns have made demigod Marian Hossa unavailable for the year, maybe forever. But the core of this team (Kane, Toews, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Corey Crawford) have 14 Stanley Cup rings in between them. The projected top nine is the best that the team has enjoyed since winning the Cup in 2015. Kane is still the most dynamic right wing in the league right now. Toews is still considered one of the best leaders in sports. Crawford is an elite goaltender, no matter what the NHL Network says.
Does the blue line pose any concerns? Well, yes. Will we miss Nik Hjalmarsson and the warrior-like way he would sacrifice his body to block a shot? Definitely. But the young (and veteran) group of defensemen that will play this year behind Keith and Seabrook are full of potential. Connor Murphy has the makings of a top-pairing d-man. Jan Rutta had an effective camp, acquitting himself well when he was used in the special teams. Gustav Forsling and Michal Kempny, both with one year’s worth of NHL experience in their belts, have shown flashes of dynamism on the ice, as well as the ability to bounce back on the play when they do make mistakes.
A good start is key.
Now, 82 games is a slog. It’s a long way from Opening Night on Thursday to the first game of the “second season”. In my opinion, the way this team starts this season will, more than anything, impact how they do for the entire year. Hockey guys always say that the way you start a game will more often than not determine how you will end it. The Blackhawks’ first eight opponents (vs PIT, vs CBJ, @ TOR, @MTL, vs MIN, vs NSH, @ STL, vs EDM) are all playoff teams, all averaged 102 points last season. If the Hawks acquit themselves well these first eight games and emerge with a winning record, they should be on pace for a successful season.
A sudden windfall
A good start for the Hawks will also be beneficial in another aspect. Today, the NHL, after conducting its “inquiry”, has allowed the club to place Marian Hossa on LTIR. What does this mean? Well, suddenly, Stan Bowman has $5 million to play with, a luxury that he has not had for a while now. A luxury that he can use to identify what holes the team has as the season begins and plan ways to fix those holes. Bowman doesn’t even have to hurry to make a deal. He can take his time and properly assess what needs to be done, and a good start from the Blackhawks will do nothing but strengthen his hand in any negotiations.
On the kill
Last season’ penalty kill was BRUTAL. During the opening games of last the season, the Hawks allowed 14 power play goals on the first 26 power play opportunities by opponents. It was so bad that by the time the team was able to stabilize itself and actually become decent/borderline good on the PK, the Hawks ended the season with its penalty kill 24th in the league.
Suffice it to say, this cannot happen again.
But the Blackhawks had a huge turnover on the PK this offseason. They lost Hjalmarsson, Hossa, Marcus Kruger, Johnny Oduya and Dennis Rasmussen. This means more time on the kill for the likes of Artem Anisimov, Tanner Kero, Nick Schmaltz, Tommy Wingels and John Hayden. Since the 2008-2009 season, the Hawks had 4 seasons where there PK was top-ten in the league. Three of those seaons, they won the Cup. That is not a coincidence.
As Mark Lazerus said, “the season might hinge on Patrick Sharp’s hip joint”.
Sharp, who just came from his most disappointing season, can either be a low-cost “nostalgia” experiment failure, or the best bargain in hockey. By all indications, he is proving to be the latter. The Blackhawks, and Sharp for that matter, claim that he is 100%. Toews was waxing poetic about how he doesn’t seem to age. And it seems like they can back it up. In the preseason games that he played, he is clearly still a dynamic forward. The shot is still as lethal and as precise as ever, and his legs still have that thrust, that extra gear (how many icings did he save on that last game vs. Boston). He can replace Artemi Panarin’s role on the power play, and help Brandon Saad fill Hossa’s blades with his strong two-way game. He can also provide some offensive boost if he ends up on the third line. His chemistry with Anisimov and Ryan Hartman was obvious in some of the preseason games they played together.
There is something to be said about the phrase “been there, done that”. And with the Hawks, that phrase is pretty much an understatement. I’ve stated earlier in this article that the core of this team has 14 Stanley Cup rings between them. Now add Saad’s two, and Sharp’s three, and that’s 19 rings! That level of experience cannot be bought. Add to the fact that most of the kids will have one year’s worth of big league experience by now, and the additional grit provided by the likes of Wingels and Lance Bouma, there is no doubt that the championship mentality will permeate throughout that lockerroom.
Sure, they faltered last year, and the year before that. But I’d argue that this team is as hungry as ever to prove to rest of the league that the reports on their demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Pittsburgh Penguins @ Chicago Blackhawks
7:30 PM CT
NBC Sports Network
Saad – Toews – Panik
Sharp – Schmatlz – Kane
DeBrincat – Anisimov – Hartman
Hayden – Kero – Wingels
Keith – Murphy
Kempny – Seabrook
Rutta – Franson
Bench: Bouma, Forsling, Oesterle