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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    Canada beats Team Europe 3-1 in Game 1 of World Cup Final

    TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 27: Steven Stamkos #91 of Team Canada is congratulated by his teammates after scoring a first period goal against Team Europe during Game One of the World Cup of Hockey final series at Air Canada Centre on September 27, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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    The good news for Team Europe is they were able to hang with Team Canada for most of the night in Game 1 of the World Cup final on Tuesday night.

    The bad news for Team Europe is Canada, while playing perhaps its worst game of the tournament, was still good enough to win, 3-1, and take a 1-0 lead in the series. Canada is now in a position where it can win the tournament with a victory on Thursday night.

    Early on this seemed like it was going to be Europe’s chance to get the upper hand in the series, but they just could not generate enough offense, especially on the power play that has still not scored a goal in the tournament, to take advantage of what was probably an off night for Canada. That sort of off night from Canada probably will not happen again on Thursday.

    Even though it did not look as dominant as some of their other performances in the tournament, it was still pretty much the same recipe for Team Canada. The Sidney CrosbyBrad MarchandPatrice Bergeron line provided the bulk of the offense, they shut the game down over the second and third periods defensively, and Carey Price built a wall around his net and made the saves his team needed him to make.

    Marchand, just one day after signing his eight-year contract extension with the Boston Bruins, opened the scoring just two minutes into the first period when he scored his third goal of the tournament. Ten minutes later Steven Stamkos gave Canada a 2-0 lead when he scored his first goal of the tournament, finishing an odd-man rush with Ryan Getzlaf.

    After a Tomas Tatar goal cut the deficit to just a single goal for Team Europe in the second period, they had a great opportunity to tie the game when Andrej Sekera had a breakaway that was turned aside by Price to keep the lead. Even though the game remained close, they never really had a better opportunity to tie the game. They were clearly missing Marian Gaborik who was injured in the semifinal game against Sweden. He could be sidelined for eight weeks as a result of that injury.

    Bergeron added to the Canada lead and pretty much put the game out of reach midway through the third period with his second goal of the tournament. That goal was assisted by Crosby, his second point of the game, giving him a tournament leading nine points.

    Canadiens’ Andrew Shaw ejected for boarding Capitals’ Connor Hobbs

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    Will Montreal Canadiens forward Andrew Shaw be the first player to get a phone call from the NHL’s department of player safety this season? Based on the second period of Tuesday’s preseason game against the Washington Capitals, he certainly could be.

    Shaw, playing in his first exhibition game with his new team, was ejected from the game late in the second period for boarding Connor Hobbs.

    Immediately after the hit, Shaw found himself in a fight with Washington’s Nathan Walker, a sequence that involved Shaw earning 30 penalty minutes — a five-minute major for boarding, a five-minute major for fighting, a 10-minute misconduct, and a 10-minute game misconduct. As Shaw was involved in his fight with Walker, he was gesturing to the Montreal crowd for noise and then managed to get one extra shot in at Walker after he was down on the ice.

    It was a eventful period for Shaw who found himself in the middle of multiple incidents in a short period of time. Along with everything mentioned above, he was also taken down in the neutral zone by Jay Beagle on what looked to be a slew foot. Here is a look at both of those incidents (the Beagle on Shaw incident, and the Shaw on Hobbs hit) via @MarcDumont.

    Shaw was a major addition for the Canadiens this offseason, along with Shea Weber in the P.K. Subban trade, as they tried to add more toughness to their lineup.

    Islanders goalie situation could leave Jean-Francois Berube in tough spot

    NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 02:  Jean-Francois Berube #30 of the New York Islanders watches a shot just miss the net during the first period against the Pittsburgh Penguins on April 2, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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    The problem with having two capable NHL goaltenders is that only one of them can play at a time, and somebody that probably deserves to get more playing time is going to be stuck on the bench.

    That situation gets even more complicated when you have three capable goalies, all of whom are signed to one-way contracts.

    That is the situation the New York Islanders are looking at as they enter training camp with Jaroslav Halak, Thomas Greiss and Jean-Francois Berube all under contract for this season. It is a similar situation to the one they faced at times last season when all three goalies were healthy and Berube spent most of the year sitting in the press box as a healthy scratch, never really getting any meaningful playing time at either the NHL or AHL levels.

    With Halak and Greiss both playing for Team Europe at the World Cup (Halak is stealing the show, and perhaps the tournament) it is allowing Berube to get some early playing time in camp. But once Halak and Greiss return, things are going to get very crowded, very quickly.

    Berube acknowledged that possibility on Tuesday. Here he is talking about the situation this week, via Newsday‘s Arthur Staple:

    “I know it’s a possibility to happen again. I have no idea what’s going to come when those guys get back. I’m trying to focus on getting as much work in as I can and use this time to get prepared for the season.”

    “We all know it’s not the greatest situation,” Berube said of having three goaltenders. “For me, I play my best when I play a lot and I’m used to playing a lot. We just have to see what happens.”

    Halak is by far the most established of the three goalies, both in terms of experience and performance.

    His overall career numbers don’t put him among the NHL’s elite at the position, but he has always been a solid starter. Plus, as he has shown in the World Cup (just as he did in the 2010 playoffs) he is capable of going on hot streaks where he carries his team. There is a lot of value in that. He still has two years left on his contract.

    Behind him you have Greiss and Berube. Greiss has turned into a rock solid backup over the past few years and played great for the Islanders in the playoffs last season while Halak was sidelined due to injury. Berube has pretty much established that he has little left to prove in the AHL and is probably ready to be a full-time NHL player in some capacity.

    A trade at some point is probably the easiest way to remedy this situation for the Islanders, but even that isn’t going to be easy. Trading Halak (which the Islanders reportedly considered over the summer until he had surgery) doesn’t seem like it would make a great deal of sense at this point because there are almost no teams that are in the market for a starting goaltender. That would make it next to impossible to get a worthwhile return, and you don’t want to just give him away.

    Berube is still only 25 years old and still eligible for restricted free agency after this season, is still cheap against the cap, is still the youngest out of the trio (by a few years), and seems to have an upside that the Islanders like. That leaves Greiss, an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

    The only other option, outside of a trade emerging at some point (even though the market is slim now, it should pick up once the season begins as teams need upgrades for starters and backups), is a repeat of most of last season where they carry three goalies until one gets injured, which means Berube is likely to once again be the odd man out.

    The NHL will reveal its 100 greatest players as part of centennial celebration

    TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 27:  NHL icon Wayne Gretzky attends the unveiling the league's Centennial celebration plans for 2017 during a press conference at the World Cup of Hockey 2016 at Air Canada Centre on September 27, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
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    On Tuesday the NHL announced all of the festivities that will take place during its centennial celebration that will kick off on Jan. 1.

    The first major announcement was that Wayne Gretzky, arguably the greatest player in the history of the league, will serve as the ambassador for all of the celebrations that will take place on Jan. 1 during the outdoor game in Toronto at BMO field between the Detroit Red Wings and Maple Leafs. It’s fitting that Gretzky is going to be a part of this celebration because naming the greatest player in league history is going to be a big part of the celebration.

    “A century of great players, great plays and great moments deserves a year-long celebration, and we invite everyone to join our party in 2017,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said on Tuesday, via NHL.com.

    “We are delighted that Wayne Gretzky — whose spectacular contributions on the ice matched his immeasurable graciousness and popularity off the ice — will serve as our Centennial’s official ambassador as we honor all the drama, suspense, excitement and memories that have thrilled the best fans in sports for generations.”

    Along with the outdoor game in Toronto, the NHL has a full schedule planned to mark its 100th anniversary, including the top-100 most iconic moments in league history, NHL time capsules that look back at the history of the league, and a number of documentaries that cover everything from the Stanley Cup, to all of the key moments and milestones in league history.

    But the one event that seems like it will draw the most attention (mainly because we love to argue about lists) is the announcement of the top-100 players in the history of the league. According to the league, the list was assembled by “a blue ribbon panel of distinguished members from across the hockey community – including former and current executives, media members, and NHL alumni.”

    “It’s like when you’re a kid and you collect hockey cards, you want to trade this guy for that guy, and everybody wanted to have the right cards,” said Gretzky. “Here we are now, we’re going to pick the top 100 players and it’s not going to be easy because there has been so many great players all the way back to the 30s and 40s and 50s. So obviously it’s a tough task for everyone. There are so many great young players today, there were great players when I played and before I played. So picking this is going to be difficult, but it’ll be a thrill for anyone who is part of that top 100.”

    The list will be announced in two parts.

    As part of the outdoor celebration in Toronto on Jan. 1, the league will announce the players on the list that played their career between the 1917 and 1966 seasons, covering the pre-Original Six and Original Six eras. The remainder of the list, which covers the post-expansion era, when the league doubled in size from six teams to 12 in 1967, will be announced during the All-Star weekend celebration in Los Angeles.

    The Los Angeles Kings were one of the six teams that gained entry into the league during the 1967 season.

    It seems quite likely that Gretzky, the NHL’s all-time leader in goals, assists, and points, and also the ambassador of the centennial celebrations, will top that list. He become the NHL’s all-time leading scorer while a member of the Kings.

    The big question for debate then becomes the order players like Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe, Rocket Richard and Jean Beliveau are in after him.