Last season was a surreal dream for the fans of the Chicago Blackhawks, who waited over 49 years for their team to bring the Stanley Cup back to Chicago. Yes, it all seems like a dream that has now turned into a freakish nightmare.
There has been so much suspense and uncertainty this season you could turn it into a thriller and call it: "The 2010-11 Season of the Chicago Blackhawks."
The Blackhawks have not come even close to living up to the expectations fans had for this season. As defending champions, the Blackhawks had a target on their backs and everyone knew it. But I think everyone expected the 'Hawks to put up more of a fight.
But I'm tired of talking about last season and this season. I want to talk about the future of the Chicago Blackhawks.
I offer some optimism for Blackhawks fans: This team may be down in the standings this season, but that won't continue for long. The Blackhawks are one of the most fortunate teams in the league. They are in a great position to have long-term success.
Allow me to explain.
The Blackhawks are still a reasonably young team with a lot of room for growth. Their window to win another Stanley Cup is significantly larger than some other dominant opponents.
Some of the stronger teams like Detroit, Vancouver, San Jose, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, will face a combination of problems over the next few seasons such as aging rosters, lack of prospects or salary cap constraints that will prevent the re-signing of key players.
The Blackhawks may have some cap issues, but other than that their roster is young and they have no shortage of prospects, so they can afford to be a bit more patient about returning to the Stanley Cup finals.
Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are young players who have yet to hit their primes and are already recording astonishing numbers. As they age and become more experienced, their numbers will steadily increase. They exhibit excellent chemistry and an innate understanding of the game. These two easily have potential to become two of the league's top players and scorers.
Toews and Kane alone almost automatically make the Blackhawks a team that will be successful in the future. I can see them both developing into 100-plus-point players.
Another indicator of future success is the surprisingly incredible Corey Crawford, who has shocked Blackhawks fans with his remarkable poise and confidence during a season that has been plagued by inconsistency and doubt. He has demonstrated his ability to be one of the best and most reliable goalies in the league.
Crawford is only 26, a puppy in goalie years, giving him plenty of room for more development. He will help bring some much needed stability in net for years to come. There is no doubt in my mind that Stan Bowman is crafting a long-term plan that has Crawford in the No. 1 goalie spot on the depth chart.
Alexander Salak, acquired from the Florida Panthers, is a very good goaltending prospect and could be Bowman's long-term answer for the backup position in a couple of years.
Troy Brouwer and Brian Bickell have been other successful products manufactured in the Blackhawks system. They have developed into two of the Blackhawks most physical forwards and are both on pace for career years in goals.
With Brouwer only being 25 and Bickell only 24, the Blackhawks have two more players who have yet to reach their primes, who can play a very physical game and can be very good scoring threats from the second or third line.
One delightful highlight of this season has been the play of 19-year-old defenseman Nick Leddy, who has show his potential to become a top four defenseman for the Blackhawks.
Leddy has been praised for his mobility, poise and patience with the puck, as well as his creative play in both the offensive and defensive zones. Sound familiar? If all goes well Bowman could have another Duncan Keith on his roster.
Now I'm not suggesting Leddy is a future Norris Trophy winner, but he has shown that he is fully capable of competing at the NHL level and his play has been exemplary for a rookie. With Leddy on the roster, the Blackhawks have someone who will easily develop into an elite defenseman, much like Keith did.
Newcomer Michael Frolik is having some trouble adjusting to his new team, which may be hurting his ability to produce. But that doesn't mean he's a dead horse. Frolik is only 22 and has already had two 20-plus goal seasons.
Frolik is much too young to accurately tell how good he will be, but he has shown glimpses throughout his career that he can be an elite forward and will contribute to the Blackhawk's future success.
Two other forwards that should be expected to be permanent members of the Blackhawks next season are Jeremy Morin and Kyle Beach. Both are very skilled forwards who can play a physical game.
Morin got a good taste of the NHL this season, playing nine games with the 'Hawks and earned himself a place on Team USA at the World Juniors. He has proven that he can play in the NHL and be a competitive player in the bottom six. Meanwhile, Beach is having a reasonably successful year on a struggling Rockford team.
The Blackhawks still have a fairly young defensive group. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook have many years of competitive hockey left in them and Niklas Hjalmarsson should mature into his contract. He has been arguably the Blackhawks best shutdown defenseman this season and his play will only improve with experience.
Add very talented defensive prospects like Brian Connelly and Dylan Olsen, the Blackhawks should have a very solid blueline for several years.
Considering how young the current roster is and how many promising prospects are in the system, it's hard to imagine that the Blackhawks will not be serious contenders long into the future. The Blackhawks have more than enough skill to compensate for when players like Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Brian Campbell, approach retirement.
The league is rapidly changing. We will see the emergence of young teams like Tampa Bay, Los Angeles, Nashville, Colorado, Edmonton and yes, even Toronto, prevail as the new major contenders.
The youth and talent the Blackhawks have on their team and in their system is a huge asset and will help ensure that they have a firm spot as a future contender.
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