In what many called a rebuilding year for these Chicago Blackhawks, the ‘Hawks on the ice silenced the critics, and in doing so have played one of the best seasons in the history of the franchise. What does it mean, and how did they do it?
If you asked just about any NBA fan who knew nothing about the NHL, and told them the Chicago Blackhawks were having a historically great season with 50 wins (and counting) with only a handful left to play, they would laugh in your face. Every season, especially recently, the best teams in the NBA pile up wins into the 60s, and as we saw last year the 70s for the Golden State Warriors.
The Warriors this year sit at 62 with more to play, which is the same number of wins the 1995-96 Red Wings had in their record-setting season for wins. Now, obviously the sports are vastly different and that statistic alone is enough to show that the parity in the NHL far surpasses the parity in the lopsided NBA, but it also shows how hard it is to accomplish as a hockey team.
The Blackhawks have been around since 1926, nearing 100 years of hockey in Chicago. While the season wasn’t always as long as it is now, being able to hit the 50-win mark is incredibly difficult, as this Original Six franchise has only accomplished it twice. What’s even more incredible is that both those seasons came in the past decade.
These are the halcyon days of the Chicago Blackhawks, a level of dominance we may never see again from this franchise. That notion is proven by the fact that before the Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews core era, 50 wins was never attained by any of the great ‘Hawks teams of years past.
How it happened
I would be willing to bet I wasn’t the only one getting frustrated with the Blackhawks’ play in the early half of the season.
The common refrain of the Blackhawks being a rebuilding franchise from outside media was starting to creep into my mind after I fought so hard to keep it out. I kept telling myself the ‘Hawks were going to be OK, but at times their play just wasn’t OK.
I wasn’t alone when I wondered if it ever would get back to the dominance I became so accustomed to. But then it did.
Looking in the rearview mirror, the team’s early-season struggles and my feelings towards them were the feelings of a fan made spoiled by great hockey for a decade. The Blackhawks were still winning games, but certainly not at the rate or level that they are now. The idea of a 50-win season was not even in the minds of most people watching with the ‘Hawks.
The point where the season changed from an average season you should expect from a “rebuilding team” to a dominating season came in February, and then into March when the ‘Hawks played a run of games that I think may have been the best regular-season hockey I have ever seen them play. What caused such a major turnaround in play?
The resurgence of the captain
It was no secret that the beginning of this season had a lot of people wondering whether Jonathan Toews was beginning to slow down. Which would’ve been both scary and sad, as Toews has been the lifeblood of the ‘Hawks since he debuted with the team, and he is only 28 years old.
Regardless Toews only had 28 points in the 42 games leading up to the All-Star break. Those numbers were well below his normal production and not deserving of the All-Star berth he received.
But then when February came around we began to see vintage Captain Serious again, as he ran rampant through the NHL and earned the first star of the month honor for February. It’s no secret that Toews’ newfound strong play was a big reason why the ‘Hawks have been able to make the season-changing run that they have.
Da Windy City
While his numbers have dipped from the insane rate that they were at in February, Toews has still been more like his old self than anything else. He is much more noticeable on the ice and seems to have his game back in his command again.
All positive signs that he still has plenty left in the tank and is ready to make another long playoff run this spring and summer.
Rookies coming into their own
The past few seasons, it wasn’t uncommon to see young players frequenting the buses between Chicago and Rockford, as coach Joel Quenneville had no patience for poor or ineffective play.
Q was often criticized for not giving young guys enough of a chance. The difference is in the past few years the ‘Hawks had the depth for him to be as picky as he was. This season, however, Quenneville didn’t have much of a choice as the depth chart was very thin coming in.
The Blackhawks started the season with an irregular number of rookies, and while there have certainly been growing pains, and the occasional send down and call up, the rookies have been the story of the season. Many of them have carved themselves a nice niche in the lineup.
Nobody could’ve predicted that Ryan Hartman would come in and score at least 18 goals this season, and fill the hole left by fan favorite Andrew Shaw as well as he has, if not better than Shaw, by playing a gritty game without taking unnecessary penalties.
Tanner Kero, who recently was rewarded with a two-year contract extension, has played great defensive hockey as well as potting six goals. That is more than was expected for a fourth-line checker. Without his quick adjustment when he was called up, who knows how well the team’s defense holds up.
Nick Schmaltz may be one of the most exciting players to watch with the puck on his stick on this team, aside from Kane or Marian Hossa. His start was a little rockier and he was sent down for some seasoning. Since he was called back, however, he has been a different player who has been effective pretty much anywhere he has been placed on the top two lines.
He could stand to shoot a little more, but these are all parts of his development and it’s exciting to have a young player like him with so much skill show some strong promise.
There are other rookies like Vinnie Hinostroza, Tyler Motte and newcomer John Hayden who have all made some impact on this team, and will likely get more of a shot in the coming years, but this year has been the year of the rookies, and that bodes well for not only this upcoming postseason, but also a future.
More from Editorials
- Blackhawks: List Of Things To Be Thankful For This Thanksgiving
- Blackhawks: Changes to the coaching staff are a step in the right direction
- Chicago Blackhawks: Reasons for optimism and cause for concern
- Blackhawks: Kick off four game road trip against Kraken
- Recapping the Jeremy Colliton era with the Chicago Blackhawks
You could make the argument that this season was the best season behind the bench for Coach Q. His ability to get so many rookies of different levels of skill and different types of games ready and competent for the NHL is worth noting. He won’t win the Jack Adams, as that is typically reserved for teams with new, exciting young cores, but he was definitely one of the best coaches this year.
The Blackhawks have six different players with 20 or more goals, and potentially seven if Hartman can find a way to net two more in the final games of the season. Last year, the Blackhawks were incredibly top-heavy, as all their scoring came from the Kane line, and it led to sloppy play all season and an early playoff exit.
This year, Kane has played his usual incredible offensive hockey, but he hasn’t been expected to carry the team like he was last year. While this has reduced his scoring output this year, it hasn’t been by much, and the team is likely better for it.
The emergence of the rookies has been great as already mentioned, but perhaps the biggest breakout performance this season has come from Richard Panik. Panik, a player who couldn’t break Toronto’s pitiful roster last year and was trade for Coach Qs doghouse regular Jeremy Morin, has been a revelation for the ‘Hawks this season and an absolute steal.
He has been able to put pucks in the net in any which way, whether it’s redirecting pucks in front of the net, ripping them past goalies, or putting on the moves like his goal of the year candidate against the Penguins, Panik has made his presence felt, and it couldn’t have happened to a better guy.
All these extra scorers make it incredibly difficult for opposing teams to defend. The ‘Hawks can roll out four lines, all of which are a threat to score. When a team can do that, it’s not only hard to play against, but also incredibly fun to watch.
This one’s a bit bittersweet as Scott Darling’s outstanding goaltending will likely see him leaving the Blackhawks in the summer. But from one Lemont native to another, I couldn’t be happier for him. Working at his Stanley Cup day was the coolest sporting experience of my life, and I hope to get one more chance at that this summer.
Regardless, his play paired with the play of elite goalie Corey Crawford has been the best one-two goalie punch in the league. Both have valuable playoff experience, and you’d be hard pressed to find another team with two more proven netminders than the Blackhawks. Without both of their strong play, there is no guarantee that they get over their sloppy start to the season.
Of course, we can never forget the contributions from Eric Semborski when Crawford went down with an emergency appendectomy, and one hopes that Jeff Glass will finally get a shot with someone somewhere.
Room for improvement
While this season has been a great roller coaster ride of a campaign, and the team can be happy with what it has achieved, there is still certainly room for improvement and little for satisfaction. What made the months of February and March so great was absolute dominance of puck possession. The team was dominating zone entries, the shot clock and pretty much any other indicator of possession, and the Blackhawks were dominating games to prove it.
The ‘Hawks are still winning games lately, but a lot of them have been come-from-behind efforts with poor possession, good puck luck and good goaltending. If they want to make a deep run in this year’s playoff, they have to turn that around. They have before, and there’s no reason to believe they can’t this year.
Secondly, the special teams this year have been average at best. The penalty kill recovered from a historically abysmal start to be competent, but still not as good as you’d like. You can survive in the playoffs with a bad powerplay, but it’s nearly impossible to win it all if your penalty kill isn’t up to snuff.
I truly believe this season could end in another championship, as getting out of the West should theoretically be easier than it has been in years past, and I expect the Eastern Conference powerhouses to beat each other up come playoff time. But there is no room for complacency if the ‘Hawks want another silver summer. I suspect they do.