NHL Preview: Chicago Blackhawks

The Blackhawks have returned all the important pieces and are poised to be the first repeat champs in 16 years 

Floating on the high of a Stanley Cup victory, the Chicago Blackhawks were hauled back down to Earth in the summer of 2010 by the weight of salary-cap reality. So they began to shed players, important cogs in their championship machine. And as Antti Niemi, Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Brian Campbell and Kris Versteeg left town, so did any reasonable hope of a repeat.

A mere three summers later, Chicago’s downtown was choked with fans celebrating another Cup. The joy, however, was tinged with the fear the club might suffocate under the restriction of the new CBA’s shrinking salary ceiling. Could the team that won the 2013 Presidents’ Trophy—as well as that other prize—essentially leading the 48-game NHL sprint wire-to-wire, return for $64.3 million or less?

The answer is, pretty much, yeah.

Sure, a few role players are gone, but the core—and what a core, all two-time champs—remains firmly intact and in its prime as Vince Vaughn’s favourite team attempts to become the first back-to-back champ since the Red Wings of 1997 and ’98.

Let’s start with the captain: Eliminate everyone named Sidney Crosby, and wouldn’t you want to build your team around Jonathan Toews? Only 25 years old, he’s going into his sixth season wearing the “C” for the Blackhawks. A brilliant faceoff man (he wins 60 percent) and one of the game’s best two-way players, Toews is coming off his first Selke Trophy. Then there’s Patrick Kane, who won the Conn Smythe and tied Toews (along with Carolina’s Jiri Tlusty) for fifth in goals last season, with 23. The duo log big minutes and stay clear of the penalty box. Add Marian Hossa, breakout brick-house Bryan Bickell, the ultra-consistent Patrick Sharp and Calder nominee Brandon Saad, and there’s no reason to think the Blackhawks’ league-best five-on-five scoring rate of plus-1.52 will dip much. Credit GM Stan Bowman and coach Joel Quenneville for quietly keeping these guys happy and flourishing. Amidst criticism of Kane’s party-happy ways, Bowman stood by a player many thought would be shopped last summer. And when it looked like Bickell was headed to free agency in July, Bowman rapidly juggled his plans so as to
re-sign him.

Top D-men Duncan Keith, 30, and Brent Seabrook, 28, continue to clock heavy minutes and play smart hockey; they were a combined plus-28 last year. Niklas Hjalmarsson is coming off his best season, showing enough to earn a five-year extension. Nick Leddy and Johnny Oduya provide great depth on a blueline that allowed the fewest goals per game (2.02) and will once again have few equals.

It’s difficult to overstate the value of a team trusting its goaltender, and the Blackhawks, who awarded Corey Crawford with their WWF-style title belt (the players’ version of the Conn Smythe), have faith in the Montreal native. While skeptics point out that backup Ray Emery (now with the Flyers) did rip off 17 wins, Crawford, 28, played out of his mind: 16-7-2, 1.84 GAA, .932. And he’s sticking around. Whereas in 2010, Chicago lost its marquee netminder in Niemi, Crawford recently signed a six-year, $36-million contract extension.

Other losses this time round are similarly less painful than those of 2010. Michael Frolik was shipped off to the Jets, Viktor Stalberg is now with the Predators and backup Ray Emery will wrestle Steve Mason for the starting job in Philadelphia. Most important, Dave Bolland, now a Maple Leaf, leaves a hole at second-line centre, the one spot Chicago truly needs to fill. Though Bolland was a team-worst minus-7, he matched up against the opponents’ best centre every night and killed penalties with passion. He also scored the Cup-winning goal. He’ll be missed.

But the bottom half of the lineup will keep this year’s Hawks from doing what they did the last time they were reigning champs—squeak into the playoffs and get bounced in the first round. There’s pivot Brandon Pirri, 22, who captured the AHL scoring crown with Rockford and has played just two games at the NHL level. Now is his time. Andrew Shaw’s pesky play is well-suited to third-line status, and 13-year vet Michal Handzus is a hard worker who chips in more points than you’d expect from a player with his skills. Replacing Emery at backup is 40-year-old free-agent pickup—and former Hawk—Nikolai Khabibulin, who will be all the support Crawford needs. And the pipeline is promising too. Teuvo Teravainen, a 19-year-old prospect, was nabbed from the Finnish League, as was goaltender Antti Raanta, 24, destined to fill the backup role in net after Khabibulin retires.

Though we’re not buying the Cup hangover theory, Chicago did have the briefest off-season conceivable, with the lockout pushing the final to the brink of July and the new season starting early due to the Olympic break. Plus, the club could send as many as 11 players to Sochi in February. And there are aspects of their game they can improve on, too: They’ll need to fix a surprisingly dismal power play that ranked just 19th in the NHL (16.7%).

With league parity and the punishment of an 82-gamer, nothing is guaranteed, but finding clouds in Chicago’s forecast is tough. It would be foolish to believe this year’s Hawks will roll as smoothly through the regular season—expect mini-slumps, line-juggling and a few more pucks to beat Crawford’s high-glove—but it would be equally silly to confuse this 2014 club for the defending champs of 2011. All key contracts are secure, confidence is soaring, camaraderie may be unmatched, and their talons are poised to clutch another trophy.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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