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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    Pre-game reading: Leonsis has Ovechkin’s back on Olympics

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    — Up top, relive Carey Price‘s blocker attack on Kyle Palmieri, but this time in French!

    — Not for the first time, Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis has said he’ll support Alex Ovechkin if Ovechkin goes to the Olympics, regardless of what the NHL decides about the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea. “Alex Ovechkin and his family and the Capitals and I are in it together. He’s given so much to our organization, and I would respect what he wanted to do and be very supportive of him. On this one matter I understand and I would support him.” Leonsis said essentially the same thing in 2013, before the deal to send NHLers to Sochi was struck. Granted, that was a bit different because the 2014 Games were in Russia and Ovechkin was going to be a big part of them, but Leonsis knows how badly his franchise player wants to win Olympic gold. (NHL.com)

    — Wayne Gretzky, who recently rejoined the Edmonton Oilers in an executive capacity, has some thoughts on the Olympic debate: “From my point of view, we play for one thing and that’s a Stanley Cup. There’s nothing more exciting than the Stanley Cup. The one spectacle that’s really remarkable is the Olympic games. I’m a big believer in the Olympic games. I happen to love everything about the Olympic Games. I think since ’98 when we first went to Nagano, the NHL players, not only promote our sport but they do a really nice job of being around the other athletes. It helps every sport in our country. I think it’s a positive but I’m not the only guy who has say in this. I happen to love the Olympic Games, but that’s my opinion.”  (Yahoo Sports)

    — Hockey is an expensive sport to play, and that means a lot of kids don’t get to enjoy it. Former NHLer Jamal Mayers is trying to change that in Chicago’s inner city. “I think it’s about kids here seeing that it’s actually possible. They’ve never seen a hockey stick before. It’s the same principles as any of the ‘ball’ sports, like soccer and basketball. You’re creating two on one’s all over the place. It’s important that we did this the right way. We can’t just put kids on the ice and say ‘Let’s play hockey.’ They have to get comfortable holding a stick.” (Rolling Stone)

    — The Blue Jackets’ power play was bound to slow down. It’s still the NHL’s best, converting at 24.6 percent, but opponents have started to defend it differently. “What we’re doing is not revolutionary,” said assistant coach Brad Larsen. “But teams have made adjustments, and now we’ve had to make little tweaks here and there to answer what they’re doing.” The Jackets went 2-for-6 Monday against Arizona, but that was after four straight games without scoring a power-play goal. (Columbus Dispatch)

    — The Toronto Maple Leafs drafted 11 players in 2016, but not all of them were 18 years old. Take Regina Pats center Adam Brooks, who went in the fourth round. He was 20, in his third year of draft eligibility, when he finally heard his name called in June. “It comes down to opportunity. I just didn’t have a chance to get a lot of ice time in my first couple of seasons.” Whether or not this strategy pans out for the Leafs remains to be seen, but general managers across the league will be watching. Brooks, by the way, has 47 points in just 21 games for the Pats this season. (Sportsnet)

    Enjoy the games!

    Goalie nods: With Lundqvist struggling, Raanta goes back-to-back

    NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 29: Antti Raanta #32 and Henrik Lundqvist #30 of the New York Rangers celebrate the Rangers 2-1 victory against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Madison Square Garden on February 29, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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    No shortage of storylines at play when the Rangers take on the ‘Hawks at the United Center this evening.

    First, the big one — Antti Raanta, fresh off stopping 17 of 18 shots in a win over Winnipeg last night, will get back-to-back starts in place of the struggling Henrik Lundqvist.

    “Of course you want to play, but Antti’s playing well,” Lundqvist said, per NHL.com. “I know I need to raise my level a little bit.”

    Lundqvist is 3-4-1 with a 3.05 GAA and .902 save percentage in his past eight starts and, as Brough wrote about this morning, admitted some “bad decisions” have been costing him.

    Raanta, meanwhile, is 6-1-0 with a 2.05 GAA and .932 save percentage in his last eight starts.

    From a personal perspective, there’s a big narrative at play for Raanta as well. This will mark the first time he’s faced Chicago since being traded to New York in 2015. The Finnish ‘tender made his NHL debut for the ‘Hawks and spent two seasons with the team, but was supplanted by Scott Darling as the club’s No. 2 behind Corey Crawford en route to the ’15 Stanley Cup win.

    (Raanta’s time in Chicago ended oddly, you may recall. A Finnish-language publication ran a piece in which Raanta appeared to be critical of the ‘Hawks, followed by Raanta denying he said what was reported. The writer that conducted the interview said the quotes were legit, but needed context — and then, just to put a bow on it, Raanta’s name was left off the Stanley Cup. Chicago insisted that decision had nothing to do with his remarks, though.)

    For the ‘Hawks, Darling gets the start.

    Elsewhere…

    Braden Holtby gets a night off, as the Caps will start Philipp Grubauer (for the first time since Nov. 25) in Buffalo. Robin Lehner goes for the Sabres.

    — No surprises from Columbus, who will start the in-form Sergei Bobrovsky yet again. The host Red Wings have Jimmy Howard back in the fold but will continue to ride Petr Mrazek, who made 31 saves in a win over Winnipeg on Tuesday.

    Cory Schneider played last night against Montreal, so Keith Kinkaid goes for the Devils. He’ll face off against Jake Allen and the Blues, who also played last night.

    — After Jonas Gustavsson was beaten six times in last night’s loss in Philly, Cam Talbot is in for the Oilers. He’ll face off against Devan Dubnyk, who continues to play lights-out for the Wild.

    Martin Jones will start for the Sharks in an all-California battle in Anaheim. The Ducks will give Jonathan Bernier a shot at redemption, as he’ll start for the first time since allowing eight goals in a loss to Calgary on Sunday.

    The Canucks have a big decision to make with Erik Gudbranson

    TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 5:  Erik Gudbranson #44 of the Vancouver Canucks skates against the Toronto Maple Leafs during an NHL game at the Air Canada Centre on November 5, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Leafs defeated the Canucks 6-3. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
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    Erik Gudbranson got his first goal as a Vancouver Canuck last night in Tampa.

    It was not the most beautiful goal ever scored, coming halfway through the first period, after Gudbranson wristed a point shot wide. The puck bounced off the boards, hit Ben Bishop‘s left pad, and slid into the net, giving the Canucks a surprising 2-0 lead.

    Vancouver would go on to win, 5-1, handing the Bolts an embarrassing loss to a team they should’ve been able to beat.

    But the night was a welcome reprieve for Gudbranson, who’s “struggled a little” since coming to Vancouver in an offseason trade with Florida. The 24-year-old defenseman is a minus-13 in 27 games, partly due to his team’s lack of goal-scoring, but also because of his own inconsistent play.

    “I personally struggled a little with the new systems and adapting to it and finding a way within that system to play physical,” he told the Vancouver Sun recently. “I want to be tough to play against. I want guys to know they’re going to get hit if they come to my side. For a while there, I was struggling to find a way to have that presence.”

    Gudbranson (1G, 4A) has been paired exclusively with young Ben Hutton, and those two have been playing big minutes with Alex Edler and Chris Tanev out injured.

    It’s actually a good opportunity for the Canucks to see what they’ve really got, because Gudbranson is a pending restricted free agent with arbitration rights. This is his sixth season in the NHL, so he only needs one more season before he’s into his unrestricted years. His current cap hit is $3.5 million, and he probably won’t be looking to take a pay cut.

    What to do with Gudbranson represents a huge decision for Canucks GM Jim Benning, who sent a good prospect in Jared McCann, as well as a second-round draft pick, to Florida to get the former third overall pick. Signing Gudbranson to a long-term contract is one option. But another has to be flipping him for help elsewhere, especially if Tanev isn’t going anywhere.

    “We have depth on defense,” Benning said recently. “We’ve rebuilt our defense. (Nikita) Tryamkin is 22 years old, (Troy) Stecher is 22 years old. (Alex) Edler at 30 is our oldest defenseman, so we have a young, good group back there. We have depth back there. So if we look to make a move, we’d have to use some of our depth on the blue line to add a forward.”

    Gudbranson, Tanev, and Stecher all play the right side, and Tryamkin can play it, too. Edler, Hutton, and Luca Sbisa play the left side. So does Olli Juolevi, who could be in the NHL next season.

    So, do the Canucks see Gudbranson as a top-four defenseman? Or, is he a bottom-pairing guy behind Tanev and Stecher? Because if he’s a bottom-pairing guy, it’ll be hard to justify paying him big money on a long-term deal.

    In fact, that’s why the Panthers traded him. It’s not because they didn’t like him. They just didn’t like him enough. They wanted puck-movers like Keith Yandle and Jason Demers, and Gudbranson is about as stay-at-home as it gets in today’s fast-paced NHL.

    To be sure, there is a lot to like about Gudbranson. He’s big and he’s tough and he sticks up for his teammates. He’s always got a positive attitude.

    “He’s a player that, in the analytics, maybe things don’t always measure out like you’d want them to,” Benning conceded back in September. “But as far as the intangibles, I really think he’s going to help our back end and our whole team.”

    But again, how much is that worth?

    Because in the salary-cap era, where every dollar counts, teams have to be very careful about overpaying for “intangibles.” The Canucks do have some cap space for next season, but remember that Bo Horvat is a pending RFA whom they’d like to get signed long term. And let’s face it, Vancouver isn’t good enough to waste cap space. If the money’s not going to good use, it needs to go elsewhere.

    Trade: Holland, who wanted out of Toronto, acquired by Coyotes

    TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 18:  Peter Holland #24 of the Toronto Maple Leafs stretches in the warm-up prior to play against the New York Rangers in an NHL game at the Air Canada Centre on February 18, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Rangers defeated the Maple Leafs 4-2. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
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    In late November, the agent for Maple Leafs forward Peter Holland confirmed the club was trying to move his client, amid reports Holland was displeased with his playing time under head coach Mike Babcock.

    On Friday, Holland got what he wanted.

    Per Sportsnet, Holland has been traded to Arizona for a conditional draft pick. Coyotes GM John Chayka has since confirmed the trade, to AZ Sports’ Craig Morgan.

    Holland has been a bit player in Toronto this year, appearing in just eight games while averaging 10:43 TOI per night. He hasn’t suited up since getting just over nine minutes in a win over the Caps on Nov. 26.

    The 25-year-old has been with the team since the middle of the 2013-14 season and has been fairly consistent in his production during that time, recording 27 points (nine goals, 18 assists) in 65 games last year. That came after a 25-point (11 goal, 14 assist) performance in 62 games the year prior.

    Holland’s production was enough to get him a one-year, $1.3 million extension from the Leafs over the summer.

    In Arizona, he’ll have a shot at replacing some of the minutes at center that became available with Brad Richardson’s injury.

    Update: Per multiple reports, the conditional pick is a 6th-rounder at the 2018 draft. The condition is Arizona will only send Toronto the pick if it re-signs Holland, or trades him.