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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    One loss from elimination, the Caps say they’re ‘not afraid’

    PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 02:  Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals looks on during the third period in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Second Round against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Consol Energy Center on May 2, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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    After running away with the Presidents’ Trophy…

    After going into the playoffs as the favorites to win it all…

    After all the talk that this could finally be the year…

    All of a sudden, the Washington Capitals must now win three straight games to keep their Stanley Cup dreams alive.

    Well, well, well, it didn’t take long for the first column about Alex Ovechkin’s legacy to come out. Everyone knows the narrative: lose to Sidney Crosby‘s Pittsburgh Penguins and the Great 8 will suffer yet another painful loss.

    How much responsibility does Ovechkin bear? Why do his teams never win? Is it something about him?

    You know those questions are coming. It doesn’t matter if they’re fair. Who says the questions have to be fair? One more loss and they’re coming. One more loss and the finger-pointing starts.

    Because it was supposed to be different this time. Not only did the Caps have the world’s greatest goal-scorer, they had depth down the middle, depth on the back end, and the Vezina Trophy favorite in net. They could score. They could defend. They even brought in Mr. Game 7 himself.

    On paper, they had it all.

    And now?

    Three straight wins to stave off elimination. That’s what they need now.

    “This group is not afraid of where we’re at,” head coach Barry Trotz told reporters Friday. “We know where we’re at. We’re realists. But at the same time, we know that we won a lot of games this year, and that didn’t happen by accident.”

    Trotz is right, it didn’t happen by accident. The Caps are a very good team. They proved it during the regular season.

    The problem is, so are the Penguins.

    And the Penguins are proving it now.

    Related: Game 5 will be ‘the most important game of our lives’

    Will Sutter take ‘punches in the gut’ and return to coach Kings?

    Los Angeles Kings head coach Darryl Sutter listens to a question during a news conference after Chicago Blackhawks' 4-3 win over the Kings in the second overtime period in Game 5 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs Western Conference finals, Saturday, June 8, 2013, in Chicago. The Blackhawks advance to the Stanley Cup finals. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
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    Darryl Sutter has an offer on the table to return as the Kings’ head coach, and GM Dean Lombardi isn’t concerned about him walking away.

    But that doesn’t mean it’s all smooth sailing in Los Angeles.

    In Friday’s conference call, Lombardi acknowledged the Kings are in a bit of a tough spot, and need to reevaluate things after missing the playoffs two years ago and getting bounced in five games this season.

    “I think there’s an offer that’s certainly respectable, but I don’t think this is about money,” Lombardi said, per Yahoo. “I think it’s ‘are we ready to do this’ because it’s going to be a lot of work. And just like building it in the past, you stick with some tough times.

    “We’re not going back to there, but to get this back on track there’s going to be some minor punches in the gut as we fight our way through.”

    Sutter, 57, has been with L.A. for the last five seasons and enjoyed a tremendous amount of success, winning two Stanley Cups. His direct, no-nonsense approach is admired (even if his players locked him out of the dressing room once) and he’s incredibly tight with Lombardi, dating back from their time together in San Jose.

    Sutter — from Viking, Alberta, population 1,041 — also enjoys life in L.A. He says living in Manhattan Beach is “awesome” and “basically a small town.”

    But for all the good stuff, the last two years have been tumultuous off the ice — Slava Voynov’s domestic violence charge, Jarret Stoll‘s drug arrest, Mike Richards‘ contract termination — and underwhelming on it.

    The Kings’ defensive depth has been whittled away, and was exposed in this year’s postseason loss to the Sharks. Veterans Dustin Brown and Marian Gaborik — who combine for nearly $11 million in cap space — have struggled, and both are on the wrong side of 30.

    The club wants to retain power forward Milan Lucic, and are working towards a contract extension. But with a tight cap situation, it wasn’t surprising to hear Lombardi explain he doesn’t see a deal getting done anytime soon.

    Lombardi later admitted the Kings are in “uncharted waters,” and “not where we want to be.”

    As for Sutter, he’s yet to speak publicly to reporters about his plans for next year.

    Jagr mum on World Cup participation

    Florida Panthers right wing Jaromir Jagr (68) reacts after a play during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Monday, Feb. 15, 2016 in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
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    Though he wasn’t named to the initial 16-man roster, Jaromir Jagr has an open invitation to join the Czech Republic team for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.

    Now he needs to decide if he’ll take it.

    Jagr was non-committal about his participation during a Friday conference call to discuss his new one-year contract with the Panthers. He declined to answer questions, explaining that he needed to speak with Czech GM Martin Rucinsky before reaching any conclusions.

    “I think we’re going to make a decision after that,” Jagr said, per NHL.com. “We have a lot of time to go.”

    Rucinsky is on record saying Jagr has a spot on the team, if he wants it. That comes as no surprise — Jagr’s a living legend and one of the most productive Czech NHLers this year, leading the Panthers in scoring with 66 points.

    The issue, though, is how much stress the 44-year-old wants to put on his body.

    Jagr played a ton this year — 79 games — and it showed in the postseason, when a compacted opening-round schedule against the Islanders (they played six games in 10 nights) seemed to hamper him.

    Jagr finished the series with no goals and just two assists.

    The World Cup runs Sept. 17 to Oct. 1, and the Czechs will play a minimum of three round-robin preliminary games. They also have three pre-tournament exhibition games.

    Rucinsky needs to submit his final roster by June 1.

     

    Frustrated by disallowed winner, Sharks coach calls goalie interference rule ‘clear as mud’

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    The San Jose Sharks would’ve had a 3-1 series lead, if not for the referees’s decision to disallow Joe Pavelski‘s overtime goal last night in Nashville.

    Instead, the Sharks are headed back to San Jose tied, 2-2, after Mike Fisher won Game 4 for the Predators in triple OT.

    Not surprisingly, what happened last night didn’t sit too well with Sharks head coach Pete DeBoer, who offered a rather sardonic opinion of the referee’s decision — a decision that was upheld upon review — to disallow Pavelski’s goal due to “incidental contact” with Nashville netminder Pekka Rinne.

    “I don’t understand. I guess incidental contact is you’re cross-checked from behind while you are in the air and you have the opportunity to stop. I guess that’s what it is,” DeBoer said, per Sportsnet.

    “You know what? That rule has been clear as mud to every coach in the league all year, so why should it be different tonight?”

    DeBoer is not wrong that there’s been confusion. What actually constitutes goalie interference has been a hot topic since the league allowed coaches to challenge it.

    For the record, here’s what would’ve been reviewed last night:

    b) Scoring Plays Involving Potential “Interference on the Goalkeeper”

    (ii) A play that results in a “NO GOAL” call on the ice despite the puck having entered the net, where the on-ice Officials have determined that the attacking team was guilty of “Interference on the Goalkeeper” but where the attacking team asserts: (i) there was no actual contact of any kind initiated by an attacking Player with the goalkeeper; or (ii) the attacking Player was pushed, shoved, or fouled by a defending Player causing the attacking Player to come into contact with the goalkeeper; or (iii) the attacking Player’s positioning within the goal crease did not impair the goalkeeper’s ability to defend his goal and, in fact, had no discernible impact on the play.

    So, based on that, it was decided that Pavelski was not “pushed” or “shoved” into Rinne by Nashville’s Paul Gaustad. Or, at the very least, it was decided that Pavelski, after he was pushed, failed to make a “reasonable effort” to avoid contact with the goalie.

    Obviously, that’s not how DeBoer saw it. He didn’t think Pavelski had a chance to avoid crashing into Rinne.

    Regardless, the Sharks will need to put last night behind them and get focused on Saturday’s Game 5. It’s a best-of-three to get to the Western Conference Final now, whether they like it or not.