There’s something about the Chicago Blackhawks being Stanley Cup Champions that rubs some people the wrong way. As the Hawks enter the 2010-11 season, the chatter about how many roster players and how much depth are gone fuels off-season discussions. But chatter doesn’t matter. What matters is how this team deals with higher expectations and greater challenges.
Stan Bowman actually started re-tooling the Hawks the minute Dale Tallon left the GM chair. We know this, because interviews with Bowman as far back as a year ago indicated that changes were going to be made, and even which changes were going to be made.
The decision to phase out Cristobal Huet in favor of Antti Niemi was just part of the budget cutting that would take place. Any player whose salary was deemed to be out of line with their contribution was the subject of trade talk: Cam Barker, Dustin Byfuglien and Kris Versteeg were those most mentioned in the rumor mills. Patrick Sharp, Brian Campbell and even Marian Hossa were cited by so-called experts in the mainstream media and the blogosphere as candidates to be moved in order to alleviate the so-called ‘Hawks Cap Crisis’.
The reality of the cap-ceiling NHL, however, is that every team that wants a legitimate shot at winning a Stanley Cup has to spend so close to the cap that they inevitably generate a ‘cap crisis’. And as Stan Bowman pointed out, when players play for winning teams, they almost inevitably want more money, and often price themselves beyond a team’s budget. The simplicity and clarity of this observation still eludes some commentators and partisans.
In Bowman’s case, he inherited a payroll inflated by Dale Tallon’s fiscal freedom. The message sent to the players, if one believes Patrick Kane’s 2009 preseason statement, “I guess it is Cup or bust for us this year” was that no one on the roster, save the core players, had long term job security.
Happily for Rockwell ‘Rocky’ Wirtz, the boys delivered the pizza last spring, and both his grandfather and his father are now suitably honored. It isn’t easy being the scion of a family that has owned an Original Six Franchise since the 1950s. The Chicago Blackhawks, for those who care to know, boast the longest continuous family ownership of any NHL team. Legacies do still mean something.
Okay, so what about this year?
No NHL team has won back-to-back Stanley Cups since the well-heeled Red Wings and their sky’s the limit band of mercenaries pulled off the feat under William ‘Scotty’ Bowman back in 1997 and 1998. With the business of hockey today being all about number-crunching, that decade is calcified in the Paleolithic Era. That does not, presumably, stop a man as obsessed with winning as Scotty Bowman from thinking about how he can pull it off as a member of the Blackhawk tribe. After all, he is one of the few executives in NHL history who has.
History, and his place in it being, logically, a motivating force, one can expect that Bowman father and son had more than a few chats about how they might accomplish this.
The NHL season is a marathon followed by a series of cage fights against equally desperate opponents. So, not only is it Last Man Standing, it’s Armageddon Meets Thunderdome meets the Thrilla In Manila, it’s the toughest trophy to win in all of professional sports, with the exception of being a chariot driver or gladiator at the Roman Colosseum, and who remembers all the way back then?
As Hawk head coach Joel Quenneville has said in a recent interview in The Chicago Daily Herald, “the objective is to win the Division.” Sound thinking, after all, as the only guarantee of a playoff spot is a division title.
So when all is said and done, how do the Blackhawks this year stack up against their Division rivals?
The preseason tells us very little. Teams are icing squads that rarely resemble a regular season roster, as they want to get through the exhibition games with as few injuries as possible, while auditioning the prospects. Goaltenders are rotated in and out of games, sometimes in and out of periods. New faces, nervousness, unfamiliarity with systems, and in some cases, long layoffs especially for those coming from non-playoff squads, may be factors.
But breaking down the talent according to the depth chart and conservative evaluation, here’s a snapshot of the Hawks, Wings, Preds, Blues and Jackets, from where they finished last year to what they might do this year.
Columbus: a cash-strapped organization, some are beginning to wonder if the Blue Jackets aren’t a candidate for relocation. Scott Howson and Scott Arniel will do their best to put a brave face on the situation, but Howson didn’t make any significant off-season moves. A very difficult team to evaluate going forward, they do not appear to have made any improvements.
St. Louis: another team reported to be facing severe budget constraints. Letting the very dependable Chris Mason leave and taking on Jaroslav Halak, whose career record isn’t visibly better, looks like window dressing. Davis Payne did not do anything to demonstrate he has the tools to be a top-drawer NHL coach last season. One wonders if keeping him, while excellent bench bosses like Ken Hitchcock and Bob Hartley are out there, isn’t a money decision.
Nashville: again, a team hampered by its ability to spend. David Poile and Barry Trotz keep finding ways to get this team to the playoffs, but they don’t get beyond Round One because they don’t have the money to attract the talent that would take them further. Losing Dan Hamhuis and Dan Ellis won’t make them a better team in 2010-11.
Detroit: Red Wings fans found out last year what happens when the roster ages and injuries start to tear big pieces off a team’s hopes. This year, Mike Modano joins the Geritol Gang. Jimmy Howard had a great season, but if he falters, who’s the reliable backup? Jiri Hudler returns from Russia, which should be good for another 20 goals. But Jonathan Ericsson’s aura as the heir to Lidstrom has apparently vanished, Nik Kronwall has knee problems, and the ‘new Wings’, i.e. Abdelkader, Helm and Filppula, have to produce more than they have, if Detroit wants to aspire to its own myth. The Red Wings play tough, and smart, and they can be expected to challenge for the Division crown.
Chicago: For all the moaning and groaning about Versteeg, Byfuglien, Eager, Burish, Madden, and Sopel being gone, those with short memories might remember these were the very players whose inconsistencies were the subject of complaint. Everyone misses Andrew Ladd. No one misses Cristobal Huet.
The departure of Antti Niemi is not unprecedented (Mike Vernon and Nik Khabibulin being two other Cup-winning tenders who did not return to their Cup teams), though the circumstances of his departure may be. Again, Niemi had his share of bashers.
That said, is Marty Turco still a dependable Number One goaltender? If he isn’t, Quenneville will probably do what he did last year, which is to rotate his netminders; and Corey Crawford could be this year’s Jimmy Howard. The hard-working Jake Dowell, Bryan Bickell and Jack Skille have paid their AHL dues and get their best shot at becoming NHLers. Viktor Stalberg gets a chance to show what he can do with his size and skill.
Two very talented 19-year olds are already creating hopes in the Hawkey world. Forward Jeremy Morin wears Jeremy Roenick’s old number; Morin has the goods, the gumption and desire to make fans forget about JR and cheer for JM. D-man Nick Leddy steps into the injured Brian Campbell’s skates as Campbell recovers from a knee sprain, and so far, appears to be acquitting himself well. Leddy has something that can’t be taught: poise. How he holds up to prime time pressure will be seen.
To reiterate what has been said previously and elsewhere, the core of the Champions is still there, and one year better for it. The Blackhawks’ Top 6 forwards (along with the Top 4 on defense) are, as a group, among the best, if not the best, in the league.
So, when Patrick Sharp says he feels the Hawks’ chances are as good as anyone’s, there’s little reason to doubt him.
Predictions, as the great Toe Blake once said, are for gypsies. So no predictions here. But the Chicago Blackhawks enter the 2010-11 season being who they are, and, per all indications, ready to be who they are: the Defending Stanley Cup Champions. Leaner, certainly. Meaner, maybe. Definitely, not to be underestimated.
About the Author: David Morris' hockey writing has been featured at KuklasKorner.com and Chicago Sports Then & Now. He is also the North American correspondent for leading Swiss hockey site, Planete Hockey.