Things couldn't have gone much better for the Chicago Blackhawks in 2013. They came away with at least a point in their first 24 contests—an NHL record—and ran away with the Presidents' Trophy by the halfway mark of the truncated year.
Chicago won the usually-tough Central Division by 17 points, the Western Conference by 11 and would go into the playoffs as one of the more heavily favored teams.
There they managed to defeat the Detroit Red Wings one last time despite falling behind 3-1 in the series and would eventually go on to win the Stanley Cup.
Along the way, Patrick Kane showed maturity as a player, Corey Crawford developed into a top-notch goaltender and Jonathan Toews won his first Selke Trophy as the best defensive-forward in the NHL.
What's left to do for the 'Hawks to do in 2013-14 except try to do it all over again?
All stats appear courtesy of Hockeydb.com.
The end of the 2011-12 season seemed to be a turning point for Patrick Kane. His point total had slipped for the second straight season, posting a career-low 66 points in 82 games. Sixty-six points is nothing to be ashamed of in the NHL, but for a player of Kane's caliber, much more was expected.
He seemed primed for the big time after an 88-point 2009-10 that accumulated with Chicago winning the Stanley Cup, but a myriad of embarrassing Deadspin-worthy off-ice distractions started to pile up and clearly distracted the budding All-Star.
We saw a new Kane in 2013.
He came to the ice with a focus like we've never witnessed from him, and the results were staggering. Kane finishing fifth overall in league scoring—only five points behind Martin St. Louis for tops in the NHL—and cemented his reputation as one of the most dangerous forwards outside of Steven Stamkos and Alex Ovechkin.
In 2013-14, Kane could push his way into that small group of elite forwards. 2013 would have been his highest point total yet (projecting close to 100 points across an 82-game season) and another mature year from Kane could see him break the century-mark for the first time.
That would put him into the Art Ross race, and with the way things have been going in Chicago lately, would anyone be surprised to see him take home the hardware?
Usually Stanley Cup winners have all summer to sit around and think about how hard it was to win the trophy. They have to deal with the fatigue of playing an extra quarter of a season across six or seven weeks, and they have to try and come up with the fortitude necessary to want to do it all over again.
The members of the Blackhawks haven't had the chance to rest on their heels at all. 2013 was a sprint instead of a marathon, and Chicago came out on the other side as winners, but they'll have had little time to fully soak it all in.
The lockout's effects are still being felt because it pushed the season back—and thus the playoffs back— further than they would have been during a normal season. Each member of the team had their day with the Cup, a week or two to relax with the family, and then it was right back to the grind.
For an aging squad, that compression could have spelled disaster. Not for this young and hungry Chicago team though.
They don't have time to contemplate the bull's-eyes on their backs and surely they don't have time to contemplate the implications of a new division. All they've had time to do is concentrate on the task at hand, which is winning another Stanley Cup.
That's not a bad thing for this franchise moving forward as it tries to push into true dynasty territory.
The Chicago Blackhawks don't have any major glaring holes in their lineup, save for one: The No. 2 center spot that was vacated when Dave Bolland was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs at the draft.
There seemed to be plenty possible solutions heading into the preseason, but Brandon Pirri was the one answer that made the most sense. He has three AHL seasons and an AHL scoring-title under his belt, and at 22 years old, he is just coming into his own as a man and as a player.
Pirri just skated in his first preseason game on Sept. 23, as he's been battling a lower-body injury throughout training camp. The belief now is that Michal Handzus will center the second line, pushing Pirri into a bottom-six role, or worse, all the way back down to the minors.
Chalk it up to Joel Quenneville trying to motivate the youngster to get his legs going sooner rather than later, because it would make little sense to bury Pirri—a defensively responsible pivot that is capable of hanging with the likes of Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp in the offensive zone—while giving the nod to Handzus.
Chalk it up to possession numbers as well: Only two other Chicago players maintained negative on-ice corsi ratings during the 2013 playoffs. That means that Handzus saw more shots than he managed to produce, or help produce.
Pirri, on the other hand, has honed his two-way game in the AHL for three seasons now and would fit in perfectly alongside a puck hound like Hossa.
While it isn't a bold prediction for a Calder candidate to score 20 goals in an 82-game season (Nail Yakupov scored 17 in 48 games and still didn't win the trophy), it is bold to predict that a youngster will vie for the award because of his two-way play.
Detractors of the NHL's new realignment bemoan the loss of one of the top Original Six rivalries in all of hockey. The Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks will no longer be in the same conference, let alone the same division, and will only see each other in the playoffs if it's in the Stanley Cup Final.
It won't take long for those detractors to fall in love with a new rivalry though. A rivalry with the St. Louis Blues.
The team has the makeup of the perfect villain for the 'Hawks. Unlike Detroit, who—aside from Justin Abdelkader—tried to out-finesse Chicago at every turn, the Blues are an in-your-face, gritty team that wins games through steady defense and hard hitting.
It'll take just one open ice collision between David Backes and Jonathen Toews and it'll be on like Donkey Kong.
Take into consideration that the Blues' front office has more or less blacked out Blackhawk fans, preventing them from attending games in St. Louis, and there's already some intrigue. The road to the Central Division banner likely leads right through one of these two cities, emboldening the possible rivalry even more.
Give it six months. A year and one playoff series, tops, and this will be one of the fiercest rivalries in the league.
When you win the Stanley Cup, everyone wants your players. When you help revive an idling franchise, fanbase and city and win two of them in four seasons, then you're going to be a pretty hot commodity. Chicago found that out the hard way after winning the trophy back in 2009, and were forced to jettison pieces it likely would have preferred to keep.
While losing a guy like Dustin Byfuglien stinks, even considering the possibility of losing players like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews is heart-numbing for Blackhawk fans.
The summer of 2015 seems like a longtime from now. Unless you're Chicago general manager Stan Bowman, who will have to figure out how to retain both Toews and Kane prior to them becoming free agents.
While there's zero chance the pair up and leave one of the best franchises in sports—Bowman has even said as much—that doesn't mean sports journalists aren't going to grind this one into the ground over the next year.
The duo can't be extended until next summer, meaning that every Canadian city they go to during the 2013-14 season will bombard them with meddling and obnoxious questions.
"Could you ever see yourself in a Maple Leaf sweater?"
"Would joining the young core in Edmonton interest you at all? How could it not?"
And, most importantly, "Can you speak French? At all?"
The answers in order: No. No. And No (at least we don't think Kane and Toews can speak French.)
It'll be a tired storyline by November, but get used to it despite the obvious and clear answer. That Kane and Toews aren't going anywhere.