In college basketball-deprived Illinois, with no teams to support in the latest round of busted brackets and Cinderella stories, the talk of the town in Chicago over the weekend wasn't on March Madness.
Instead, it was away from the hard court and onto the ice, with the news that the beloved Blackhawks had finally called up top prospect Teuvo Teravainen.
Teravainen, the Hawks' first-round pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, did not play in either of his new team's weekend games, a 3-2 win over Carolina on Friday and a 2-0 loss against Nashville on Sunday. On Friday he did however participate in the morning skate and became acquainted with the Chicago media.
I don't need to be Superman here. There are so many good players on this team. If I play here I'm just one of those guys.
The problem with that statement is that it simply isn't true. Teravainen, just days after being recalled from Jokerit of the Finnish League, has skated his way into one of the most unique predicaments in the NHL.
A Starved Second City
It goes without saying that the Blackhawks, once an afterthought in a sports-crazed city, have become Chicago's premier team in recent times.
After a miserable stretch for the city from 2000-2009, in which only the White Sox collected a league championship (2005), the Hawks have delivered two titles in the past four years. They've done so with a core group of players still very much intact and ready to make additional, if not annual, runs over the next four. In the modern salary-cap era of the NHL, they are bordering on dynasty status.
The consequence for their success is now, as ever, the overwhelming expectations that inevitably come with it. A quick survey around town reveals that the Blackhawks, for the foreseeable future, remain the brightest light in Chicago.
The Cubs and White Sox are still firmly entrenched in rebuilding. The Bears seemingly cannot get past their neighbors to the north in crunch time.
The Bulls, longtime possessors of the keys to the city in Jordan's day, at least remain playoff-bound year after year. However, without a healthy Derrick Rose they will remain just outside of the "contender" bubble again this spring.
No, it is now left to the hockey franchise, once the fourth and least popular of the major sports, to bring championships back to the shores of Lake Michigan.
The Long Awaited Hangover
The 2012-2013 campaign for the Blackhawks was one for the history books. After a lockout forced a shortened season, they started the 48 game season by refusing to lose in regulation for half of it, rattling off a 21-0-3 mark through 24 games. They finished the regular season at 36-7-5, winning the President's Trophy in the process and securing home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.
The shortened season led to a later-than-usual postseason, and it was not until June 24 that Chicago capped its incredible season with a Stanley Cup victory in six games over the Boston Bruins. The offseason led to the departure of several key role-players from the 2013 squad, much as it did in 2010, after the Blackhawks defeated the Philadelphia Flyers for the franchise's fourth Stanley Cup.
However, the core group of players remained intact, and the 'Hawks wasted no time during the 2013-14 campaign to return to the top of the standings. The club posted a 28-7-7 mark heading into the new year, but the past three months haven't been nearly as kind. In 2014, the Blackhawks are just 13-9-8 through March 24 and have failed to pull over .500 in any month.*
|January||February||Through March 24*|
The fact that 10 Blackhawks were chosen to represent their various countries in the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games did nothing to help Chicago's current situation, with the team struggling to maintain pace with the other top squads around the league.
To exacerbate matters, the team lost Patrick Kane to injury for the rest of the regular season last week in a game against the rival St. Louis Blues. Last night's loss to the Predators, the second straight defeat to Nashville in 10 days, have made the hastening cries for Teravainen to play all the move prevalent. But why?
The Next Great Chicago Blackhawk
Despite the fact that the Blackhawks are currently the NHL's defending champion, and despite that they have won the Stanley Cup twice in four years, there is still much work to be done.
Stan Bowman, Rocky Wirtz, John McDonough and the rest of the Blackhawks' brass have done a great job transforming the franchise from obscurity to a model for the rest of the league. It's been done in a way that largely resembles that of the Detroit Red Wings, winners of the Cup 11 times and, as they'd like to think, very much the big brother in the Detroit-Chicago rivalry.
In large part the turnaround can be attributed to the quality of star players the Blackhawks have employed in the past five years, a few of them homegrown. Fellow first-round picks Kane (first overall, 2007) and Jonathon Toews (third overall, 2006) are the cornerstones and poster boys for the team, while veterans Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook round out the core players.
Winger Brandon Saad (second round, 2011) was a Calder Trophy finalist last year in his first full season with the team.
This season, he has 19 goals and 44 points, skating on a myriad number of line-combinations for Joel Quenneville. The "Big Four" offensively in Sharp, Kane, Toews and Hossa have all scored 25 goals or more this season for a team that still ranks first in goals for at 3.3 a game in the league.
Yet despite the recent successes, the number of bona fide superstars that the Blackhawks employ and the playoff-bound season the team is having, it's not enough.
Teravainen has been heralded by the media, by the fans, by former players and the organization, in its own way, as the next great Chicago Blackhawk. It might not be a title he wants right now, but if the team wants to make another deep postseason run, he's not going to have a choice.
Make or Break Time
The hype surrounding Teravainen, though palpable, is not unmerited. Already this year he captained his Finnish squad to a World Junior Hockey title and led the tournament in scoring. In 49 games with Jokerit during the 2013-14 season he led the team with 44 points, including nine goals.
Perhaps most exciting though for the Blackhawks is Teravainen's potential to finally be the consistent second-line center, a position the Blackhawks have struggled to fill over the past few years, even experimenting with Kane at the dot for a time during the 2012 campaign. But Teravainen's role will be much more than just winning draws, and if the Blackhawks want to make another deep postseason run this year he'll be counted on to consistently register on the score sheet in April, May and June.
As things stand, the Blackhawks remain six points behind St. Louis for first place in the Central Division, and under the new playoff structure would play Colorado, a team they've struggled mightily against (Colorado is 4-0-1 this season against Chicago), in the first round of the postseason if the season ended today.
Teravainen, who is largely expected to make his NHL debut tomorrow night against the Dallas Stars, will be crucial in turning the tide.
The Blackhawks, after a shortened offseason and elongated regular season thanks to the Olympics, are a tired bunch. A long playoff run is optimistic at best this season simply due to the fact that fatigue has finally caught up with them, and the first-round matchup against Colorado, while winnable, would likely be Pyrrhic in nature with St. Louis likely waiting in the wings for the next round.
But therein lies the great mystery, and great expectations, that have arrived from Finland in the form of Teravainen.
Neither the Blues or Avalanche will play against him in person until April, with the latter having to wait until the playoffs. If the Blackhawks latest prized prospect can live up to the hype—and for all accounts, his potential—then Chicago will have a legitimate chance at becoming the first repeat champions since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings.
To ask so much from someone so young when there is already so much talent stacked throughout the team might seem wrong, but it's nothing new for the Blackhawks, who named Toews captain at 20.
Certainly he will need to learn the defensive aspects of his position very quickly, and there is perhaps no better player to learn from than Toews. But while Toews and the rest of the big name players for the Blackhawks will ultimately be held responsible for the team's play over the next few weeks as it prepares its Cup defense, it is Teravainen who will be under the brightest spotlight.
He might think that he doesn't need to be Superman for the Blackhawks to have a legitimate chance to repeat and he might be right. But that sentiment is only because a different superhero comes to mind, with a twist, when one speculates on the case of Teravainen before he takes center stage at the United Center for the first time. He's the hero Chicago needs, but not the one it deserves.
Stats via NHL.com, HockeyDB.com, Blackhawks.NHL.com