For the past few seasons, Chicago Blackhawks fans have had the luxury of watching their team beat up on Central Division foes multiple times per year
But the days of witnessing the ’Hawks blow out the Dallas Stars 8-1 or having Viktor Stalberg put up a hat trick on the Columbus Blue Jackets are in the rear-view mirror. The Blackhawks have been the measuring stick for how many teams around the league are rebuilding their franchises, and some are catching up.
Wednesday night, the ’Hawks opened the season hosting the St. Louis Blues, the same team that knocked them out of the playoffs in a brutal seven-game series last year. Over the offseason, the Blues lost key contributors in former captain David Backes, Troy Brouwer and Steve Ott. There was talk that with the loss of those heavy hitters and the promotion of defenseman Alex Pietrangelo to captain that this Blues team would return with less of a physical presence, but this wasn’t the case.
The Blues outshot the Blackhawks 33-19 and defeated them 5-2 by playing smart, physical hockey. With coach Ken Hitchcock behind the bench for seemingly his last year coaching in the NHL, the Blues exposed the Blackhawks’ thin lineup and capitalized on key penalties early in and midway through the game.
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But the Blues aren’t the only team in the Central that has been designing their team to beat the Blackhawks
The Nashville Predators, for example, have been developing young players the past few years and now may have the experience and talent to skate with the ’Hawks.
Many of us remember Game 5 in the first round of the 2010 playoffs against the Preds. Patrick Kane scored with 13 seconds left, giving Marian Hossa the opportunity to put the game away in overtime. The Preds also gave Chicago a run for its money in the first round of the 2015 playoffs.
If Scott Darling didn’t perform the way he did when Corey Crawford was pulled, they may not have hoisted the Stanley Cup that year. But after a couple successful regular seasons and some playoff heartbreak, the Predators squad should be ready to compete with the Blackhawks in 2017.
In a bold move, GM David Poile clearly saw an opportunity to upgrade his hockey club by bringing in a premier defenseman in Subban.
Some may question the trade, but the shakeup is possibly what the Predators needed. We saw just last year when the San Jose Sharks stripped Joe Thornton of the “C” and made it all the way to the Stanley Cup.
The Los Angeles Kings also demoted their long-time captain Dustin Brown, hoping to create a spark in their team after recent poor performances in the playoffs.
The Predators have made themselves a team to fear with their move for Subban
But Subban brings so much more to the organization than just a shakeup. He is an elite defenseman in a league where there are so few. He is a smooth skating D-man who brings a heavy shot from the point that is just as hard as Weber’s and brings something to the Predators that they haven’t had in the past: swagger.
Maybe Subban can create that spark and bring some confidence to the hockey club, much like how “Showtime” Kane does for Chicago.
Even with the addition of Subban, the Predators already had plenty of elite talent on their roster. Filip Forsberg is coming off a 33-goal season, Roman Josi has established himself as an elite defenseman in the league, and veterans James Neal and Mike Fisher look to lead this team deeper into the playoffs.
Another bold transaction made by Poile was sending top prospect Seth Jones to Columbus in exchange for Ryan Johansen during last season. If the Preds can get Johansen to score 30 goals again, they will definitely be a major threat to the division. Looking to build on last year’s playoff performance, when they eliminated the Ducks and took the Sharks to seven games, this team cannot be overlooked.
So this weekend, when the Blackhawks face the Predators in a home-and-home series, will we see another team that is ready to overtake the ’Hawks, or will coach Joel Quenneville find the right line combinations to prove the Blackhawks are still the team to beat in the Central? Let’s hope the return of Niklas Hjalmarsson helps the ’Hawks put the hammer down on the Preds.