2010-2011 NHL season preview: Chicago Blackhawks

GYI0060694354-toews-brucebennett-getty.jpgLast season: (52-22-8, 112 points, 1st in Central Division, 2nd in Western Conference) The Blackhawks had themselves a good season. Winning the Central Division was good but winning the franchise’s first Stanley Cup since 1961 — ending the longest-active drought in the NHL — was a whole lot better. After getting the playoffs off to a rocky start against the Predators, the Hawks only got better and beat everyone up along the way to winning it all. They essentially put all their eggs in one basket last season to win it and they did. Kudos.

Head coach: Joel Quenneville enters his third season as coach having freshly gotten the monkey off his back. After tough seasons leading the Blues and Avalanche as their head man, and having issues with the Red Wings wherever he went, Quenneville put it all together last season and stopped toying with his goaltending long enough to get Chicago over the hump. This season, his task is a lot more difficult. While there’s still a ton of talent in Chicago, doing the delicate dance needed to repeat will be tougher with what amounts to a brand new roster.

Key departures: G Antti Niemi, F Kris Versteeg, F Adam Burish, F Andrew Ladd, F Ben Eager, D Brent Sopel, F/D Dustin Byfuglien, F John Madden, G Cristobal Huet. You might’ve heard about Chicago having to get rid of a few guys over the summer because of salary-cap problems. This a bit of a big deal.

Key arrivals: F Viktor Stalberg, F Ryan Potulny, F Fernando Pisani, G Marty Turco, D John Scott, F Jeremy Morin, F Kyle Beach, D Nick Leddy. Trade pieces and rookies dot this list of new arrivals. Turco is the man of the hour here. Everyone else will (likely) have their role on the team, but Turco is the guy that has to hold it together. Speaking of which…

Under pressure: Yeah, it’s Turco. The Blackhawks cleared out Huet to Switzerland and walked away from Niemi to bring in Turco. You can argue about how important Niemi was to Chicago’s Stanley Cup run all you want, but when they needed him he was their guy. Turco is coming off of a few rough seasons in Dallas where drama seemed to always surround him even though he was never challenged for his job. Now he comes to Chicago a little older, maybe a little wiser, and for the ‘Hawks sake, a bit more grown up. Corey Crawford isn’t challenging him for the starting role and the success of the ‘Hawks this season is all on Turco.

GYI0061874899-turco-dilipvashwanat-getty.jpgProtecting the house: With Turco and  Crawford as the goaltending duo, things take a decided turn. Last season, Niemi and Huet essentially split time in net 55-45 in favor of Niemi, an ideal kind of split when you’re not sure who your starter will be. Now it’s definitively Turco’s job, while he can be a stellar goalie, he’ll need to be more consistent with Chicago to keep the team winning and the fans at bay.

Defensively, the Blackhawks are virtually the same as they were last season and that’s key. Duncan Keith, Brian Campbell (out a month with a knee injury), Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Seabrook make up a dynamic first four set of defensemen. They signed Scott in free agency, Nick Boynton took the league minimum to come back and Jordan Hendry will try to make his way into the lineup. Leddy stayed long into camp and now looks to break into the ‘Hawks lineup as well. Leddy was Minnesota’s first-round pick in 2009, who they obtained in a trade for Cam Barker. Question is, do the ‘Hawks want to be patient enough with Leddy to let him learn on the job.

Top line we’d like to see: Load up that first line with all the talent, baby. Marian Hossa-Jonathan Toews-Patrick Kane. Yeah, we know Patrick Sharp is good too, and we dig Dave Bolland’s game now, especially shorthanded. When you’re the champs though, show everyone else you’re not there to screw around and come out blazing with all the big guns and let it fly.

Oh captain, my captain: Toews is the captain and can you really argue with what he’s done as the head man of the Blackhawks? His deadly serious demeanor and ability on the ice helped carry Canada to a gold medal and the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup. People might still be unfamiliar with him (somehow) but he’s the best player in the league that not-as-many people talk about at least when compared to Crosby and Ovechkin. If only we could get him to be as goofy and awkwardly affable as Patrick Kane is, we’d have yet another potential media darling. That said, what he does for the Blackhawks is as good as any of the great captains have done in the past and he’s still just a kid.

GYI0061873576-scott-dilipvashwanat-getty.jpgStreet fighting man: While the team lost the pugnacity of Burish to free agency, they pick up a behemoth in Scott, who was one of the Wild’s team leaders in fights including this vicious knockout of Canucks youngster Alexandre Bolduc. Blackhawks fans are so eager to see Scott fight, they’ve already given him the nickname of ‘Murdersaurus.’

Best-case scenario: For the ‘Hawks, if their top two lines do their job and the defense does their thing once again limiting opposing shots and playing beastly, making Turco’s job that much easier in goal, the Blackhawks again will be a very dangerous team. They’ve arguably got some of the best players in the league as it is in Toews, Kane, Keith, Hossa, and Seabrook. Having that many great players is a luxury and they’ll need them to be great all season and into the playoffs to have a shot at repeating. Luckily for them, most of the teams in the Western Conference also have questions so it opens things up a bit when it comes to the playoffs. The ‘Hawks can get back to the Stanley Cup finals, but they need to not have their depth players come up small and they need their top players to be at their best. Making all of the roster turnover not hurt their play will be the biggest challenge.

Worst-case scenario: Teams load up against their top two lines while the defense doesn’t play as air-tight as they did last season leading to Turco running into old problems that he had in Dallas. Chicago’s third and fourth lines play non-existent hockey and the Blackhawks bow out in the first round of the playoffs. Yes, they’ll be a playoff team so stop talking about them like they won’t be. There’s too much talent here to fall that far. That said, may the hockey gods help this team if injuries become a problem. The Blackhawks have spent their depth to fill out ranks this year and the cupboard is as thin as any in the AHL.

Keeping it real: This team will still be pretty good. They’re not the juggernaut they were last season, but anyone writing off Chicago as dead in the water is either crazy or an obsessed Red Wings fan. This team desperately needs optimum performance from their best players and they need their depth players to not be terrible. They need Turco to have a resurgence in Chicago in order to go deep in the playoffs, but they’ll be a playoff team for sure.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale of 1-5, with one being the worst and five being the best, I’ll give Chicago the champions’ benefit of the doubt and put them down as a 4. They’ll need things to break right for them in the playoffs to get back to the finals and they’ll be a very difficult team to play against no matter what. They’re not the shoe-in Stanley Cup contenders they were last year, but they’re not out of the running either. They can get there, but they’ll need some luck in doing so.

(Toews photo: Bruce Bennett – Getty Images)

(Turco and Scott photos: Dilip Vashwanat – Getty Images)

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    Without NHL players, Olympic tournament is ‘wide open’

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    When Willie Desjardins coached Canada’s 2010 world junior team stacked with future NHL players Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Brayden Schenn, Alex Pietrangelo and goaltenders Jake Allen and Martin Jones, it took a wild final game with John Carlson scoring in overtime to win the gold medal for the United States.

    Just like Canada was the most talented team back then, Russia is likely to have that role at the upcoming Winter Olympics. Desjardins isn’t concerned about that.

    ”In this tournament, anybody can win,” Desjardins said.

    Goodbye, NHL players. Hello, unpredictability.

    No NHL participation for the first time since 1994 threatens to upset the traditional world hockey order after Canada has won the past three best-on-best tournaments: the 2016 World Cup, 2014 Sochi Olympics and 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Russia is considered the favorite because it has former NHL players Ilya Kovalchuk, Pavel Datsyuk and Andrei Markov, though Finland could make gold its sixth medal in the past five Games or Sweden could win for the first time since 2006.

    Coach Tony Granato’s American team was put together with players from European professional leagues, the NCAA and American Hockey League.

    ”This Olympics is wide open for a lot of reasons,” Granato said. ”Russia’s got the most talented players in the world. They’re going to have the team that steps on the ice with the most talented players. Does that make them the best team for two weeks? No. We all know that. We all know how sports works. All you’re looking for is an opportunity to make the most and be the best that you can be for that period of time.”

    Because it’s such a short tournament with three pool-play games, a qualifying round and then quarterfinals, it could come down to which team gels first after limited preparation time. Or maybe another goaltender will pull off what Latvia’s Kristers Gudlevskis almost did when making 55 saves to give Canada a scare in the quarterfinals in Sochi.

    ”The goaltending matters, too, in an event like this,” NBC Sports analyst Pierre McGuire said. ”It always matters, but I think in this one, the underdog – if you have an elite goalie – can really do some damage.”

    Who’s the underdog? It’s fair to say host South Korea, in its first Olympics in men’s hockey, fits that bill, along with Slovenia, Slovakia, Switzerland, Germany and Norway.

    Yet being in a group with Slovenia, Slovakia and Russia is no easy task for the U.S., which boasts 38-year-old semi-retired captain Brian Gionta as its most experienced player. Granato said the U.S. ”has lots of pieces that other teams and countries don’t know about” and wonders if his team will be overlooked.

    Mistake-prone play seems likely, though Gionta doesn’t think there will be any lack of sizzle.

    ”I know there’s been some talk that not having the NHL guys in, you don’t have your high-skilled guys,” Gionta said. ”I think that’s a bad representation of the people that are going over there and competing in these games. There’s a lot of great hockey players.”

    ALL EYES ON DAHLIN

    One of the most dynamic and offensively talented players is also the youngest: Sweden defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, who’s projected to be the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft in June. Dahlin has 11 points in 29 games playing against grown men in the Swedish Hockey League and had six points in seven games at the world juniors. He’s just 17.

    WHO ARE THESE GUYS?

    When the NHL announced it was out of these Olympics, executives from USA Hockey and Hockey Canada were quick to say every team would have 25 great stories. There are players on almost every team who are familiar because they played in the NHL at one point. Most of the rosters are made up of journeymen plying their trade in pro leagues in Europe, such as Czech Republic captain Martin Erat, Germany’s Christian Ehrhoff and Canada’s Ben Scrivens. Americans Troy Terry, Jordan Greenway, Ryan Donato and Will Borgen are currently playing college hockey.

    ”The tournament in general is going to be built with teams with lots of guys that this is the greatest event for them and they didn’t necessarily think they were going to get this opportunity,” Canada GM Sean Burke said.

    BIG ICE

    If the Sochi Games proved anything, it was that the international-sized ice that’s 15 feet wider than NHL rinks doesn’t create more offense. The U.S. and Canada built rosters with the bigger ice in mind, prioritizing skating and mobility and playing a more European style. That doesn’t mean European teams won’t have an advantage, but it won’t be such a stark change as when North American NHL players need a few games to get used to it.

    OAR PRESSURE

    The Olympic Athletes from Russia team is a favorite to win gold, which would be the first since the Unified Team in 1992. But Russia hasn’t medaled since 2002, including a disappointing showing on home ice four years ago. The chance to draw all its players from the Kontinental Hockey League should benefit Russia, which has won four of the past 10 world hockey championships. But something about this stage has made Russia play like less than the sum of its parts before, which makes even a star-studded team beatable.

    Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

    More AP Olympic coverage: https://wintergames.ap.org

    The Buzzer: Pacioretty continues hot streak

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    Players of the Night:

    Max Pacioretty, Montreal Canadiens: Here’s a name you haven’t seen often in these parts this season. But Pacioretty had two goals tonight, the opener for the Canadiens and the game-winner with 1:18 left in the third period to give the Canadiens a 3-2 win over the Washington Capitals. He also added an assist on Montreal’s other goal. Truth be told, Pacioretty has been sizzling lately with six goals and an assist in his past six games.

    John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks: Gibson had a quiet night for the most part until the third period, but he was stellar when called upon and made 23 saves, including a second-period beauty (which you will see below) to help his team to a 2-1 win against the Los Angeles Kings.

    Highlights of the Night:

    James Neal had all the moves to help the Vegas Golden Knights secure a point on the road in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Florida Panthers.

    John Gibson got just enough on this puck to redirect it off the post and out for quite the save:

    Factoid of the Night:

    MISC:

    Scores:

    Panthers 4, Golden Knights 3 (OT)

    Canadiens 3, Capitals 2

    Ducks 2, Kings 1


    Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

    Henrique, Kesler too much for Quick, Kings in 2-1 Ducks win

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    Jonathan Quick did all he could.

    The posts behind him helped on a couple occasions, but Quick was everything the Los Angeles Kings needed to break out of their five-game losing streak, which they entered Friday wearing like a ball and chain.

    But while Quick was solid in the crease, making 29 saves, the men in front of him couldn’t replicate their goalie’s performance in a 2-1 loss to the Anaheim Ducks.

    The Kings have now lost six straight and just two of their past 10 and are tied with four teams, including the Ducks, who sit on 53 points and just outside the final wildcard spot in the Western Conference.

    The Ducks-Kings rivalry has become quite the grind ’em out slugfest over time, and despite their recent downward spiral, the Kings weren’t going to roll over and die when the puck dropped, even if they played 24 hours earlier.

    This rivalry doesn’t allow for one team to not show up, despite whatever mitigating circumstances may be available.

    And neither team was giving the other any allowances, evidenced by a 0-0 scoreline after 40 minutes.

    The Ducks struck first in the third frame as Adam Henrique finally willed a puck behind Quick, who had puzzled Anaheim’s offense for 42 minutes and change.

    Henrique’s individual effort on the goal began a few seconds earlier as he won a foot race to the puck to get it into the Ducks’ zone, dove to make sure it stayed there and they got up and went to the net, where he picked up a loose puck that and put it in the back of the net for a 1-0 lead at the 17:55 mark.

    That lead was shortlived, however.

    The Kings struck back two-and-a-half minutes later as some extended offensive zone time by the Kings resulted in Alex Iafallo flicking a puck up and over John Gibson off a rebound to ruin his shutout bid at 4:48.

    The Ducks would get the final say.

    Jakob Silfverberg‘s excellent forecheck kept the Kings from clearing the puck out of their zone.

    The puck found its way to the point, where Francois Beauchemin unleashed a high point shot that was redirected down and under Quick by Ryan Kesler for the eventual game-winner.

    Gibson’s night may have been a little quieter than his counterpart 200-feet away, but he was on point when he needed to be, making 23 of 24 saves, including getting just enough on Iafallo’s second-period shot to steer it off the post and out to keep the game 0-0 at that point.


    Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

    WATCH LIVE: Los Angeles Kings vs Anaheim Ducks

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    CLICK HERE TO WATCH LIVE

    PROJECTED LINES

    Los Angeles Kings

    Adrian KempeAnze KopitarDustin Brown

    Tanner PearsonTrevor LewisTyler Toffoli

    Alex IafalloNick ShoreMarian Gaborik

    Kyle CliffordTorrey MitchellAndy Andreoff

    Derek ForbortDrew Doughty

    Jake MuzzinAlec Martinez

    Kevin Gravel– Christian Folin

    Starting Goalie: Darcy Kuemper

    NHL on NBCSN: Kings look to end losing streak vs. Ducks

    Anaheim Ducks

    Rickard RakellRyan GetzlafCorey Perry

    Andrew CoglianoRyan KeslerJakob Silfverberg

    Nick RitchieAdam HenriqueOndrej Kase

    Chris WagnerAntoine VermetteJ.T. Brown

    Cam FowlerKevin Bieksa

    Hampus LindholmJosh Manson

    Francois BeaucheminBrandon Montour

    Starting Goalie: John Gibson