It's tough to conceive of ways that the 2013-14 NHL season could go better for the Chicago Blackhawks than 2012-13. They took at least one point in their first 26 games last season, won the Central Division, were the best team in the Western Conference and will soon be hanging a Presidents' Trophy banner from the rafters of the United Center.
Of course, all of those accomplishments would have meant nothing had Chicago not won the Stanley Cup. That's exactly what they somehow managed to do, stealing a victory away from the Boston Bruins in an epic Game 6 comeback.
Is it possible for the 'Hawks to at least mirror the success they had last season? Can a team possibly dominate the NHL for two consecutive seasons in the salary-cap crunched NHL?
Nikolai Khabibulin was brought in to replace Ray Emery, who pursued the chance to be a starting goaltender with the Philadelphia Flyers after going 17-1 for Chicago during the regular season in 2012-13.
We'd honestly be surprised if the 40-year-old backstop saw more than 20 games of action for the 'Hawks this year, but he's a known commodity and provides a decent safety net should Corey Crawford go off the rails for a game or two.
Aside from the quiet pickup of depth defenseman Theo Peckham in mid-July, the 'Hawks really didn't make a lot of additions to the lineup over the summer. Their focus was on keeping members of the Stanley Cup champion, and all the important pieces were retained.
Folks that have been fans of the Blackhawks since the last time they won the Cup can tell newcomers all about how difficult offseasons after championships can be. The player turnover that Chicago saw this summer was nothing compared to what happened in 2010.
Will they miss the penalty-killing goods of Michael Frolik? Sure, but he didn't come to Chicago as an outstanding player on the PK, but he left as one. It's coachable. Teachable. They'll make another Frolik.
Viktor Stalberg received a pretty massive payday from the Nashville Predators to take his Stanley Cup ring to Music City. He's another very replaceable part of Chicago's machinery. Ditto for Dave Bolland, who was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs at the draft. The team received quite a solid return for the No. 2ish center, though.
Emery was really the only player that couldn't be replaced internally, and Khabibulin should be able to make up the difference.
Projected Forward Lines
|Bryan Bickell||Jonathan Toews||Patrick Kane|
|Patrick Sharp||Michal Handzus||Marian Hossa|
|Brandon Saad||Andrew Shaw||Ben Smith|
|Brandon Bollig||Marcus Kruger||Jimmy Hayes|
The Blackhawks are a remarkably deep team considering the lack of top-end draft picks over the last few seasons. Scouting and management has done an outstanding job of drafting solid players anyway, and roster mainstays like Saad prove that you can find good fits after the first round.
None of these lines should come as a surprise except for one element: Handzus centering the second unit. Chicago decided to demote Brandon Pirri to start the season, but don't be surprised to see him receive a call-up by the end of October should an injury strike down any center currently in the lineup.
|Projected Defense Pairings
|Duncan Keith||Brent Seabrook|
|Niklas Hjarmalsson||Johnny Oduya|
|Nick Leddy||Michal Rozsival/Sheldon Brookbank|
The Blackhawks managed to retain all seven defensemen that they carried en route to the Stanley Cup. That's an impressive and rather miraculous accomplishment. Rozsival was re-signed over the summer, preventing anyone from bolting.
You know exactly what you're going to get from this group. Steady defenders that are all capable of moving the puck up ice effectively. Except for Brookbank. Poor guy.
Arguably the biggest move for Chicago during the offseason was re-upping Corey Crawford. The 'Hawks dolled out a six-year extension to the Cup-winning goaltender, making him the man between the pipes through the 2019-20 season.
Crawford strikes us as the second coming of Chris Osgood in that he'll receive few kudos in hockey circles for his play. Yet the man wins his most important games and is always there to make the big stops when they are needed.
Giving him a break every now and again will be longtime NHL veteran Nikolai Khabibulin, who returns for his second stint in Chicago.
We thought for sure the reigning AHL scoring champion had a roster spot locked up in the NHL this season. The Blackhawks proved us wrong when they demoted Pirri as part of their final roster cuts, but we have a feeling that he will be back sooner rather than later.
No disrespect to Michal Handzus (who is as steady and professional as players come), but he's just not going to be able to keep up with Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa through an 82-game season. He looked fine during a surprising playoff run, but as we've seen over and over in years gone by, a good playoffs does not equal a good season the year after.
Handzus was re-signed to be a depth player for Chicago down the stretch. While Pirri gets his legs going in the AHL in October, Handzus will suffice. By the end of the first month, though, we bet that Pirri will be back and centering Hossa and Sharp.
Then the Blackhawks will have one of the most formidable top-six groups in the NHL. Until then, Handzus is a bit of a downgrade.
The trendy line has been "Pirri will be this season's Brandon Saad." That isn't quite accurate, though. Pirri could make an even bigger impact than Saad did as a rookie.
Pirri has grown a lot with the Rockford IceHogs over the last three seasons. The knock on him has always been his defensive game, but he's improved steadily in that department. He's very coachable and has picked up on the finer points of the game over time.
The culmination of his efforts was a 75-point season in 2012-13. He managed that in 76 games, and while good years in the AHL don't guarantee success at the NHL level either, bringing up a youngster like Pirri will prove too tempting for Chicago this season.
Don't be surprised to see him skate in 60 games for the 'Hawks in 2013-14.
Chicago already lived out its best-case scenario last season.
If the 'Hawks can do everything in 2013-14 the way they did last year, it'll just be the carbon copy of what boiled down to a perfect campaign. Chicago will need to adjust to a few new opponents due to realignment, but the Central isn't stronger than it was a year ago.
While winning the division would be a plus, and another Presidents' Trophy certainly isn't out of the question, the absolute best-case scenario for this team would be a repeat.
When you're the defending champions, there's only way direction to go, and that's down. You can stay static. You can stay on top, but you can't go any higher. Any movement means that there was regression.
That's a lot of pressure, and that's why repeating is so, so difficult.
The scenarios that could spell disaster for Chicago are numerous, but that's the case for every team in the NHL. Would it be awful if Corey Crawford missed all but 20 games of the season due to injury? Sure.
Could Jonathan Toews suddenly forget how to play hockey and see his worst season yet? Possibly, but all those impossible-to-predict ringers aside, the worst-case scenario for this team would be complacency. They just won the Cup a few months ago and have barely had time to contemplate the accomplishment.
Now they're back out on the ice, gearing up to do it all again. It'd be easy for a few players to take a few nights off. That kind of attitude is contagious, and while we don't expect it out of this highly competitive and well-coached group, it's the worst thing that could happen over the course of a season.
The Blackhawks have just as good a chance to repeat as any team in recent memory. We aren't willing to predict another Cup banner before even a single game is played, but there's no doubt that the road to the Stanley Cup Final will at least lead through Chicago.
Things look different in the Central, but this team is still very capable of winning the division. They will be pushed by the St. Louis Blues, to be sure, but we don't see the Colorado Avalanche or Winnipeg Jets dethroning the 'Hawks in 2013-14.
To answer the question that was posed in the opening slide, yes, it's possible for Chicago to have another perfect season, but it isn't likely. There will be some bumps along the way, but at the very least, these 'Hawks should make it to the Western Conference Final.