Ah, to bring Jeremy Roenick to tears again.
Make no doubt about it, that’s the mission this year. After suffering through the worst post-Stanley Cup cap crunch of any team since the lockout, the Chicago Blackhawks have re-emerged with most of that core still intact and retooled for what we hope is another deep run in 2012.
Looking at the names on the roster, one can’t help but get giddy with anticipation. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Dave Bolland, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook; is there a better core group in the NHL? The simple answer is “No.” Aside from solid years from the departed Brian Campbell and rookies Corey Crawford (.917 Sv%, 2.30 GAA) and Brian Bickell (17 G, 37 Pts), these guys for the most part dragged around a group of has-beens and never-should-have-been-yets, and still came within an overtime goal of taking down the Presidents’ Trophy winners and hated rivals, the Vancouver Canucks. With a long summer to recharge and another year’s experience under their belts, this still young crew will have a much better – and much deeper – supporting cast this season.
GM Stan Bowman pulled off this summer what many thought impossible just one year earlier: upgrade the bottom half of the roster, replenish the supply lines, and create additional cap space for potential in-season reinforcements.
The biggest of Bowman’s summer moves was trading Brian Campbell and his $7.14 million contract to the Florida Panthers for oft-injured Rostislav Olesz, a former 1st round pick who had worn out his welcome in the Sunshine State. Although Olesz never developed as a goal scorer, he had some success in a checking line role and will most likely be used again in that manner in Chicago. Dave Bolland, arguably the league’s best checking line center when healthy, has managed to elevate the play of less talented players in the past, so I expect Rusty to finally eclipse the 15-goal mark for the first time in his career. If he doesn’t pan out, there are a number of talented forwards, among them speedy Viktor Stalberg and the Hawks’ top AHL prospect Jeremy Morin, waiting in the wings to get their shot.
Next, Stan traded the rights of jack of all
rakes hoes anything-you-could-possibly-trip-over spades and part-time bullfighter Tomas Kopecky to the Island of Misfit Overpriced Toys known as Florida, where Dale “Yukon Cornelius” Tallon, the greatest talent prospector of the south, promptly made him rich with silver and gold. Bowman sent the conditional 7th round draft pick he received in return to Buffalo for the rights of solid defenseman Steve Montador. Now that’s a magic trick. Anyone who can turn a lump of coal into a diamond in under two weeks is either a wizard or named Cameron Frye (Hmm. They do both have that whole unfortunate Red Wings affiliation in their past).
Bowman was able to stockpile draft picks while shedding contracts during the Capocalyptic summer of 2010. He added yet another 1st round pick this year by trading LW Troy Brouwer to the Washington Capitals. The often inconsistent Brouwer was replaced with the more dependable services of Andrew Brunette. Brunette’s biggest contribution will likely be to an already impressive PP squad, where he should provide a much needed presence in front of the net. Although 37, the former Wild player has only missed 3 games in the past 9 years, and 14 games in the past 12. He’s also never scored less than 15 goals in a season since 1999.
Two major concerns this summer were the dismal PK and lack of goaltending depth. The Blackhawks’ penalty kill dropped from 4th in the league in 2010 to 25th the following year. Many consider the loss of names like Byfuglien, Ladd and Versteeg as being the main reason the team narrowly made the playoffs on the final day last season. Instead, I point to the names John Madden and Russia-bound Brent Sopel, who were stalwarts on the PK unit that gave up the league’s fewest net goals (26) in 2010. Without those two, who combined for 4:38 minutes of SH TOI (only Kris Versteeg from the previous group played on the PK and he logged less than 1 minute SH TOI/G), the Blackhawks gave up 47 net goals while shorthanded in 2011. Take away those extra 21 goals and the Hawks actually would have had a better GAA last season than in 2010 and an almost identical point differential for the season.
Just how bad did the PK get? So bad that Brian Campbell was forced into 2nd team PK duties, a role not suited for an offensive defenseman. It is doubtful the penalty kill gets all the way back to the 2010 level since Bowman was unable to sign any standout PK forwards this summer, but the additions of Montador and Sami Lepisto on defense should help. The real bonus though was the signing of PK and shot-blocking specialist Sean O’Donnell. At 39, O’Donnell will likely split time with Lepisto, but could prove valuable come playoff time.
In net last season, rookie Corey Crawford took over for the less-than-stellar Marty Turco and never looked back. With very little organizational depth at goaltender, the Hawks were able to fleece (wait for it…) Florida GM Dale “Don’t you know you don’t work here anymore?” Tallon in a mid-season trade that sent 1st round bust Jack Skille to the Panthers for solid two-way forward Michael Frolik and promising goalie prospect, Alexander Salak. But heading into 2012 with two goaltenders with less than a season of NHL games between them was far from the perfect plan. Enter Ray Emery, who came back from hip surgery and posted a .926 Sv% in 10 games for the Anaheim Ducks last year. Emery signed a tryout contract with the Hawks and unless he completely craps the bed, should make this year’s opening day roster.
Another thing to watch is whether 20 year old Nick Leddy can fill the skates of veteran puck-moving defensemen Brian Campbell. Leddy had a solid rookie campaign in 46 games last season, but he won’t be forced to bite off more than he can chew in 2012. Montador will likely pick up a fair share of Campbell’s minutes and has an offensive upside that is often overlooked. Plus, as a whole, Leddy, Montador, O’Donnell, and Lepisto are much stronger than Campbell, Nick Boynton, Jassen Cullimore, Jordan Hendry, and John Scott. How big of an upgrade is it? It is possible that not one of those last four players will even skate in the NHL this season (we’re holding our collective breath on Scott, but if Bowman’s early summer statements are to be believed it might be wishful thinking). The Hawks may have downgraded in one spot, but they upgraded in three others and gave themselves about $3 million in cap space to make further improvements, if necessary, prior to the trade deadline.
Other notable additions were pesky forwards Jamal Mayers and Daniel Carcillo, who along with Montador and O’Donnell should provide much needed grit. Rookie center Marcus Kruger who was brought over from Sweden during the final weeks of 2011 should make the team, as may grinder Ben Smith who was called up from Rockford at the same time last year. Whether Kruger will be given a shot at 2nd line center is yet to be known, but the Blackhawks can fall back on the services of Patrick Sharp who has often filled that role during his previous 6 years in Chicago.
Chicago will look for a bounce back to previous norms from 2010 Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith. The Hawks defense is deeper than it has been at any time in the previous decade and that should provide some relief for the league’s TOI leader. Brent Seabrook, always solid in a shutdown role, proved why he is also among the league’s top two-way defensemen with 48 points in 2011.
With an elite and rested core, offensive firepower, a tougher defense that promises to still be among the league’s best in transition, and better overall depth, the Blackhawks should be favored to win the Central Division and be among the league’s top regular season teams. 110 points is well within reach, but this team wasn’t built primarily to complete for the regular season crown. The 2012 Blackhawks are a team that is retooled to handle the physical game that was often lacking last year and that is needed to go deep into the playoffs. How far they actually go is the million dollar question, but heading into the season their chances are as good as any – and better than most.