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.
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:
“[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.