Risk Factors: Chicago Blackhawks edition

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From the same bunch of pessimists who brought you “Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup,” PHT presents a new series called “Risk Factors,” i.e. three reasons to be worried about each NHL team in 2014-15.

Chicago Blackhawks

1. Did they really solve the 2C problem? Much was made of Chicago’s lack of depth at center last year, especially in the Western Conference Final when Michal Handzus — who gamely tried to fill the second-line center spot — was overwhelmed in the playoffs.

Zeus is gone now, though, and in his place steps Brad Richards, the New York Rangers castoff that inked a modest one-year, $2 million deal to join the ‘Hawks in July. On paper, Richards is a nice fit; a veteran presence with good playmaking ability that’s been to two Stanley Cup Finals, winning once.

But that’s on paper.

There’s no denying that Richards, 34, is in the twilight of his career. The Rangers opted to buy out the remainder of his nine-year, $60 million deal this summer following a tough postseason in which he scored two points over his final 10 games and was dumped to the fourth line during the Cup Final.

Chicago will rejuvenate Richards to a certain degree. He’s going to be surrounded by talent on a (projected) line with Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad, and will run the point on the second powerplay unit. But in terms of strictly upgrading the 2C position, other contenders in the West did more.

The Anaheim Ducks acquired Ryan Kesler from Vancouver to slot in behind Ryan Getzlaf. The Dallas Stars traded for Jason Spezza to play behind Tyler Seguin. The Blues, who often used David Backes as their No. 1 center last year, added Paul Stastny to the mix. And lest we forget the quality tandems already in place in Colorado (Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene) and Los Angeles (Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter).

The Western Conference has become an arms race down the middle and if you can’t keep up, you could be out — just ask Stars GM Jim Nill.

“If you want to be one of the elite teams, you have to have it,” Nill told the Globe and Mail earlier this summer. “You look at the other teams that are winning on our side now, you need to have two elite centermen.”

2. The cap crunch. Per CapGeek:

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“[The salary cap’s] gotten a lot of attention, and rightfully so,” Hawks GM Bowman explained, per CSN Chicago. “But what I’ve tried to say all along is that we’re going to get it worked out and we’re going to be compliant come [the start of the season].

“It’s one of those topics where we’ve had a lot of discussions internally, we know how we’re going to make it work.”

Bowman wouldn’t reveal how Chicago will get cap compliant, though many have speculated one two defensemen — Johnny Oduya or Nick Leddy — will be traded. If that happens, it’s going to chip away at one of the club’s strengths; the next men up on defense are David Rundblad, Kyle Cumiskey, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Adam Clendening, and one of them might get called into action earlier than expected now that Michal Rozsival’s sidelined with an upper-body injury.

There’s another wrinkle to this cap situation. Compliance is one thing, but what about wiggle room?

Teams like to operate with some breathing space beneath the ceiling in the event something unforeseen happens. Injuries, slumps, ineffectiveness can often cause for a roster shakeup… and then there’s the trade deadline.

The ‘Hawks were hamstrung last year, resulting in Rundblad and Peter Regin being the lone acquisitions of significance — nice pickups, but ones that were relatively minor compared to what Los Angeles (Marian Gaborik), St. Louis (Ryan Miller, Steve Ott), Anaheim (Stephane Robidas) and Minnesota (Matt Moulson) did. Granted, not all of those deals worked out and the Kings were the only Western team to best Chicago, but the value of having trade deadline flexibility can’t be understated; during Chicago’s Cup championship in 2013, the Handzus pickup proved invaluable.

3. Age and health. Rozsival (36), Marian Hossa (35), Richards (34), Oduya (33), Patrick Sharp (33 in December) and Duncan Keith (31) have played an awful lot of hockey over the last two years, be it regular season — especially during the condensed ’13 campaign — playoffs, and international (everybody but Richards played in the Sochi Winter Olympics.)

At some point, it’s going to have an effect.

As mentioned above, Rozsival is currently sidelined with an upper-body injury. Hossa’s been dealing with a lower-body issue throughout camp and has a lengthy history of ailments while Sharp looked lethargic at times during last year’s run to the Western Conference Final, scoring just two goals in his first 14 games.

Health-wise, one of the more underrated stories over the last two seasons was the durability of Chicago’s regulars. Patrick Kane missed 12 games last year to a lower-body ailment, which was a rarity; he’s played 80 games or more four times in his career (and played 47 of 48 during the lockout-shortened ’13 season). Bryan Bickell missed 23 games with a variety of bumps and bruises, yet rebounded to show up when he often does — in the playoffs — scoring seven goals in 19 games.

But in the NHL, injuries are unavoidable. The grind and physical toll often wears down even the fittest of players and we’re talking about a collection of Blackhawks players that are getting older and have played a remarkable amount of games over the last 24 months.

Blackhawks’ Boris Katchouk sidelined by ankle sprain

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CHICAGO — Blackhawks forward Boris Katchouk will be sidelined for four to six weeks with a left ankle sprain, the team announced.

The 24-year-old Katchouk played almost 12 minutes during a 3-0 preseason loss to Detroit on Saturday night. He was acquired in a multiplayer trade with Tampa Bay in March.

The Blackhawks open the season on Oct. 12 at Colorado.

The team also said forward Jujhar Khaira is day to day with a right ankle injury.

Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.

Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

The NHL team announced that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

“This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

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TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

“Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.