Friday, September 3, 2010

Know Thy Enemy - Chicago Blackhawks

I think we're all aware of the issues the Blackhawks have faced this summer. We've all laughed at their misfortunes as they stripped away half of the roster that won the Cup in June. Let's take a look at what we can expect from the Hawks this season.

Chicago Blackhawks

Marty Turco; Jeremy Morin; Jeff Taffe; Viktor Stalberg; Phillipe Paradis; Christopher DiDomenico
Departures: Have you got a while? Dustin Byfuglien; Ben Eager; Brent Sopel; Akim Aliu; Andrew Ladd; Kris Versteeg; Colin Fraser; John Madden; Adam Burish; Antti Niemi; Nick Boynton; Kim Johnsson

The Chicago Blackhawks. Little Brother. To the horror of Red Wing fans and decent people everywhere, Patrick Kane's ugly goal in OT in Game 6 gave the Hawks their first Stanley Cup championship in 49 years. The Hawks had been a team on the rise the last few years, and they really went for broke last year. It paid off with the ultimate prize, but they were forced to get rid of over half of the roster that was responsible for their win, including their starting goalie, a strong presence in Byfuglien, and 2/3 of their checking line (one of the best third lines in the NHL last year) in Ladd and Madden. Heading into this year, the Hawks are going to have to deal with not only a completely overhauled roster but also the dreaded "Stanley Cup hangover". Let's break them down.

Offense: Yes, the Hawks lost a lot of forwards. But if you check out their roster, there's still quite a bit of talent there. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will once again lead the offensive output from the Hawks, but they are also counting on Marian Hossa being healthy for the entire season and really contributing some goals this year. They will also be counting on Dave Bolland being healthy for the entire season, as he is slated to take the #2 center spot. Patrick Sharp is one of the more underrated players in the league (except by the ladies, who seem to think he is some sort of good-looking guy), and he was one of the players I was hoping the Hawks would lose. Where the Hawks are going to be in trouble this year is in their depth scoring. Of the players they lost, only Versteeg had over 40 points last year. However, depth scoring is what gets a team through the playoffs; witness Byfuglien's unbelieveable run last year in the playoffs. Ben Eager and Tomas Kopecky both contributed key goals in the Finals last year, and if a team wants to go far in the post-season, they are going to need key contributions from unlikely sources. The Hawks are counting on some of their prospects to step in and make at least a decent impact, including Jack Skille, Kyle Beach and Jake Dowell. If any of those guys can come in and put up 30-40 points, the Hawks will be pretty happy. One area where the Hawks excel is getting offense from the blueline. Duncan Keith, Brian Campbell and Brent Seabrook accounted for 3 of the top 11 scorers on the Hawks last season, and Keith finished second on the team with 69 points. They have to be accounted for when game-planning, especially Campbell who is very adept at joining the rush, and Keith who seems to be everywhere. The Hawks finished third overall in team offense last year with 262 goals, but I fully expect that number to come down since they have lost a lot of their scorers from their third line. One area where the Hawks can improve is on the power play, which had a success rate of under 18% for the season, hard to believe when they have 2 of the better PP quarterbacks in Keith and Campbell, and good talent up front with Kane, Toews and Sharp. Look for the Hawks to take a step backwards on offense this season.

Defense: For all of the people the Hawks lost on offense, their defense remained relatively unscathed for the most part. They have one of the best 1-2 combinations in Keith and Brent Seabrook. Keith is coming off a season where he won the Norris Trophy (deservedly so, in my opinion), and I expect him to be a perennial finalist. He does everything and can play in any situation, and once Lidstrom does decide to retire, he will have a legitimate shot at the title of "Best Defenseman in the NHL". Like Ryan Suter in Nashville, Seabrook is content to play Robin to Keith's Batman. On almost any other team in the NHL, Seabrook would be a bonafide #1 defenseman, but he works with Keith so well that he has found his home. The Hawks also have a very good second pair with the highest-paid #3 defenseman in the NHL in Brian Campbell and $4M-a-year-man Niklas Hjalmarsson. I know that Hawks fans are pretty pissed at Doug Wilson for signing Hjalmarsson to the offer sheet, but he's an important piece of the Hawks' defense that they just had to lock up. Hjalmarsson is still young and prone to some mental mistakes, but he's got good vision and can handle the puck well. The Hawks will be going with a young duo for their third pairing, having lost Brent Sopel in the trade to Atlanta. Still, their top-4 can match up with anyone in the NHL. One area where the Hawks might have issues is up front. They lost Ladd and Madden, 2 of the key players on their checking line. Madden in particular was a very good faceoff man and has been one of the best defensive forwards in the NHL for a long time. He will really be missed by the team. Toews is responsible in his own zone, but Kane needs a map to find his own blue line. It will be interesting to see how that affects their penalty killing, which ranked fourth in the NHL at over 85%. The Hawks also gave up the least amount of shots in the NHL last year, taking a page from the Red Wings' book on how to defend. Like the Wings, the Hawks play a strong puck possession game, and that will not change going forward, making them a difficult team to score against once again this year.

Goaltending: Antti Niemi was the hero of the playoffs for the Hawks, especially in the Conference Finals where he really stood on his head against the Sharks. However, the cap monster reared his ugly head once again, and with the Hawks already on the hook for Cristobal Huet's contract, they could not afford Niemi's $2.75M award from the arbitrator, allowing him to walk away. In his place, they signed Marty Turco. Now, we Red Wing fans all smiled and high-fived each other when we heard the news, and from a matchup perspective, I still like the signing; however, Turco is still a good goalie, and his issues against the Wings notwithstanding, he was a good signing. He had a down year last year in Dallas, but that was behind a depleted team. Expect him to bounce back in a big way as he will be playing behind a very good defense that will protect him, and he will also be looking to prove that he is still one of the better goalies in the NHL. Sure the Wings are going to beat him 5 times this year (write that down - 5 times), but against the rest of the league, he is going to help the Hawks win a lot of games and rack up points. Huet is very likely to be shipped to Europe, so he's gone, and Corey Crawford will be called up from Rockford to assume the backup position. Ultimately, Crawford is the Hawks' goalie of the future, and he might as well start his learning process now when he's cheap.

Joel Quenneville has always been known as a good coach, even if he can't beat the Red Wings in a seven-game playoff series. All of his teams have been competitive, and depending on the talent level, mediocre to good. Last year he made all the right moves to get his team a championship, including rolling the dice with a rookie goalie in the playoffs, a bold move under any circumstances. Like Mike Babcock, he has never met a line combination that he couldn't tinker with, but he knows who his horses are and will ride them for maximum impact. His style is predicated on puck possession and smart decisions. His teams are not that big, but emphasize skill over brawn. This year will be interesting to see what he can do with a team that has reached the top of the mountain, as he's going to have to keep them motivated throughout the year. I think he's been around long enough to know what he's going to have to do to keep the Hawks contending and sharp throughout the season.

Player to Watch: Jonathan Toews is poised to have a very big breakout year this year. Last year was amazing for him: he was one point away from his career high despite playing in 6 less games; he cracked the 20-goal mark for the third straight year; he was named the Top Forward at the Olympics while winning gold for Canada; he won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the playoffs; and he captained the Stanley Cup champion. That's a lot for a kid that is only 22 years old. This year, look for him to build on that, as he will be expected to take an even bigger role in the team's offense while playing solid two-way play. I think this could be the year that he cracks the 80 point mark, and if his defensive work keeps up, he could be nominated for a Selke as well. He's just as vanilla as Crosby, but there's something about Toews that I like; I won't make the Yzerman comparison just yet, but I will admit there are similarities there, not only in style of play but also in personality, that are hard to ignore. I could see Toews being a lot like Sakic was for me; hate the team, but respect the player.

Player With Something to Prove: I went a little outside the box on this one. I'm going to say that it's Jack Skille. He was drafted 7th overall in 2005, but has yet to have made the team on a regular basis. He was very highly touted coming off his NCAA career, but while guys like Toews and Kane have stepped in to the lineup right away and made an impact, Skille has been toiling in the minors, unable to crack the team. I've been told by Hawks fans that this was a salary thing, but why not bring Skille up (at a decent price) instead of signing Kopecky? This year is his make-or-break year. He's going to have a real shot at not only making the team but playing on the third line. He's also going to be expected to contribute at the NHL level, something that he has not shown he can do in his limited action. If this were the Red Wings, I would say that the Hawks had been waiting for Skille's development to be more complete, but when the Hawks drafted him, they were awful and going with a youth movement. Like Mattias Ritola in Detroit, Skille's time is now, and it's up to him to show that he belongs at this level.

Why They Can Win the Division: Regardless of the people they have lost, the talent is still there for the Hawks to be very good in the regular season. The guys that they lost were not key contributors during the regular season, with only Kris Versteeg cracking the 40 point mark last year of the guys who left. Their top-6 forwards are still intact, and their defense is just about as good as anyone in the NHL. They added a good (if not great) goalie, and given that Niemi was a rookie last year, this could be seen as an upgrade in net. This team can not be overlooked, and if they stay healthy, they will contend for the division crown this year. They will also be looking to prove that last year was no fluke.

Why They Won't Win the Division: Their losses combined with the Red Wings upgrades puts them back in familiar territory: second-fiddle to Detroit. The loss of depth scoring is going to hurt them, because the grind of the regular season will get to their top players. If the Hawks sustain any injuries to a key contributor (Hossa missed half the season last year, and Toews got nicked up at one point), they could be in serious trouble. Turco is going to have to prove that last year's poor play was an aberration, and that he can bounce back and give them solid goaltending. The defense is also going to have to be very good once again.

My Prediction: The Hawks are going to learn what it's like to be the hunted rather than the hunter. I don't believe in the "Stanley Cup hangover", but I really question whether the entire team (Kane, I'm looking in your direction) can maintain the focus necessary to defend their title. The losses on offense are going to show during the regular season, and the top players are going to be relied on much more than they were last year. The team figures to be more top-heavy this year, and this will result in a tired team by the time the playoffs roll around. Ultimately, the lack of depth will be their downfall, and the Hawks will fail to make it back to the Stanley Cup Finals. There's a reason that it's been over 10 years since an NHL team went back-to-back, and I fully expect this trend to continue this year. However, do not underestimate the Hawks: they are still a very good team, and if the Wings don't show any improvement over last year, they could easily find themselves looking up at the Hawks in the division for the second year in a row. I expect the Central to be a two-horse race this year between the Hawks and Wings, but ultimately the Wings will prevail in mid-March when the Hawks run out of gas. I also predict that the first time I hear "Chelsea Dagger", I am going to stab myself in the ear.

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