Last 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.
Protecting 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.
Street 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)