It’s the dog days of summer, and the one thing Blackhawks and Bears fans have in common, other than hailing from the fine city of Chicago, is counting down the days till the kickoff of the regular seasons at the United Center and Soldier Field.
In the spirit of this solidarity, I sat down with Staff Writer Mike Curcio (MC) of Blackhawk Up’s sister FanSided site Bear Googles On for a Q & A session on all things Blackhawks and Bears:
MC: For starters, I want a bold, out-on-a-limb statement about the Chicago Blackhawks 2014-2015 season.
TL: I think in the 2014-2015 season we’ll see the Blackhawks’ defense go through some overhauling. For now, the Hawks have more or less solved the second line center problem that’s plagued them forever by signing Brad Richards and parting ways with Michal Handzus. Currently the Hawks are over the salary cap and the smart bet is the defensive ranks will feel the squeeze. The fact that Johnny Oduya, Michal Rosival, and Sheldon Brookbank all still have questions marks over their names is a strong indication that change is coming. Another interesting twist is that much touted Rockford IceHogs defensemen Klas Dahlbeck and Adam Clendening have very good chances of finally cracking the Hawks’ roster this year. Furthermore the Hawks also recently signed young veteran defensemen David Rundblad and Kyle Cumiskey, so who knows what role they could end up playing. Regardless the Hawks can’t have a 14th-ranked defense again and expect to win another Stanley Cup. This upcoming season we’ll see a slightly different defensive squad than we have in the past two years skating for the Hawks.
TL: The obvious answer is Brandon Saad. However that’s what a lot people are expecting, so I’d rather talk about a player that’s going to ink up the stat sheet next season that doesn’t have that expectation. That being said I think Ben Smith is primed to have a great season. I think he’s a player who’s currently under utilized that’s ready to step into a more prominent role. He’s got tremendous grit and can keep offensive drives rolling. He may not score the fifth highest amount of goals on the Blackhawks, but he’s definitely going to have more points than he did last season. He had tremendous success on the fourth line last year, and that was while skating with the likes of Brandon Bollig. Think what he can do when paired with an even more talented Blackhawks forwards.
MC: What newcomer will have the biggest impact next season?
TL: Jeremy Morin, hands down.
MC: Not Brad Richards?
TL: Well, Richards is certainly an upgrade from Handzus, but he’s entering the twilight of his career, whereas Jeremy Morin is just starting his, and Morin plays with amazing gusto. He’s been gunning to make the Blackhawks roster for several years now, and many Hawks fans were amazed he didn’t last year. This season, the gig still isn’t his for the taking, but he’s closer than he’s ever been with the departure of Brandon Bollig, and he knows it. The intensity Morin brings to the ice is unrivaled, and he made a huge impact with Bryan Bickell and Peter Regin last year at the end of the season, which helped the Hawks head into the playoffs strong. Morin strikes me as a Ben Smith-Andrew Shaw hybrid type forward who’s not afraid to use his body and is always driving towards the net. That being said Morin could easily thrive on the third or fourth line this season, where a multi-faceted player is needed considering how the Hawks struggled to roll all four lines at the end of the last year.
MC: Who is the biggest threat to the Hawks going to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2015?
TL: That’s tough to say, because the Western Conference in the NHL is an arms race. Many teams are viable contenders for the Stanley Cup in the Western Conference and many have made significant moves this past year and offseason to improve their chances of winning the Cup. However, I still think it’s the Los Angeles Kings because the Kings are very similar to the Hawks on paper, most importantly in aspect that both teams are built for the playoffs and can win with their backs against the wall. I can see the Hawks and Kings easily entering a similar dynamic the Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche had in the mid to late 1990’s: two powerhouse teams going back and forth in Stanley Cup wins and becoming bitter rivals along the way.
MC: Final question. Where do the Blackhawks finish in the 2014-2015 season?
TL: You’d hope the Blackhawks realize this is probably their last season to take a run at the Stanley Cup with the current roster, because after next season there’s a very good chance they’ll have to shed some big names to stay under the cap and have to undergo a bit of a retooling phase. However, this is still more or less the same team that won the Cup in 2013, and I like the improvements they’ve made recently. I think the Blackhawks will go as far as their defense allows them, because even though their offense is very potent, leads are worthless if they can’t defend them. As I said earlier, I think the Hawks’ defense is primed for an upgrade. I see the Hawks back in the Western Conference Finals at the very least; you can’t have their type of scoring ability and not make a deep playoff run. The question for the Blackhawks this season is while their offense will win games, will their defense win championships.
TL: As you know I like to focus on team dynamics. With the departure of Brian Urlacher, who do you see stepping into a leadership role for the Chicago Bear’s defense?
MC: Right now, even though they’re at the end of their career, you have two of the best defensive players to ever put on a Bears uniform in Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman. Both of them are impact players that other players will listen to and emulate. Last year I do not feel that the lack of success had to do with player leadership on defense. It was more coaching, lack of depth and injuries, in my opinion. Defensive Coordinator Mel Tucker has surrounded himself with a better coaching staff this year with the addition of Paul Pasqualoni, Reggie Herring and Chris Harris. However, there are respected leaders on this defense like Briggs, Tillman, DJ Williams, Jared Allen and Tim Jennings. There will not be any leadership issues that should be affected by Urlacher’s departure. It’s time to move on.
TL: Generic question maybe, but how do you think the Bears did in the draft?
MC: I gave them a B- right away. First off, it is almost impossible to grade a draft this quickly. However, it’s fun so lets do it. I’ve never been an advocate of drafting a punter and no, Ray Guy should not be in the hall of fame. I heard from a lot of people that the Bears “covered their needs.” I take that with a grain of salt – just because they have more bodies at a needed position, doesn’t necessarily mean that they covered their needs. However, the Bears got deeper on the defensive side of the ball. Their 4th round safety selection, Brock Vereen, is maybe their best value pick and will probably be your starting safety by the start of the regular season. First round pick, Kyle Fuller, along with Vereen give the Bears flexibility in the defensive backfield as both players have experience at a few different positions. The rotation at DT got a bump and now they don’t have to worry so much about the health of Stephen Paea. They have capable replacements in line with Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton. On the flipside, there does not appear to be a major impact, pro-bowl type player in this bunch. Emery may have not gotten his first 4-5 choices at DT and may have settled with Ferguson to fill a gaping void. The 2 biggest areas of need coming into the draft were Safety and DT. The Bears added depth to these groups, but did they add quality starters? Only time will tell. Until then, In Emery We Trust.
TL: Former Bears Coach Lovie Smith once said the Chicago Bears have always been about two things: a running back and a middle linebacker. Given the improvements in the Bears’ passing game, do you see them moving away from the strong defense/running game approach?
MC: I think that offensively, they are pretty balanced as evidence of last year. They passed a little bit more last year but were still effective running the ball – averaging 114 yards/game. Even though the defense is improved, it is not a defense that appears that you can rely on winning games for you. In short, the Bears will not be as dependent on running the ball and their defense because they have guys that can spread the field. This is a different team with different strengths than years past, so that’s ok if they’re not your father’s Chicago Bears. This game is evolving and teams must evolve with it. However you score points or prevent points from being scored is fine, as long as it produces victories.
TL: Which offensive and defensive players are going to have breakout seasons this year?
MC: Offensively, I think WR Marquess Wilson has a break out year with 45+ receptions, improving on his 2 from last year. With Earl Bennett gone, he is going to get the opportunity in the slot and he’s got the skills to execute.
Defensively, I think rookie Safety, Brock Vereen, wins the starting Free Safety job and has an impact year. I will also go out on a limb and say that Vereen leads the Bears in interceptions this year. Many scouts have said that he has the ability to read routes well and is a very intelligent safety that always seems to be in the right spot. That skill set should produce some much needed turnovers. If he can work on his tackling, he will have a good career.
TL: What’s your bold prediction for the Bears this season?
MC: Even though this kills me to say, I have to predict with my head and not my heart. I think the Bears get swept by the Packers but are still able to finish 12-4 and take the division.
Be sure to check out Blackhawk Up and Bear Googles On for all things Blackhawks and Bears.
LET’S GO HAWKS!