United Center Blackhawks
Last season was a frustrating adjustment for the Chicago Blackhawks. Coming off their first Stanley Cup in 49 years, the Hawks were forced through a tumultuous offseason in 2010 to play a year marred by injury and inconsistency. Hockey fans were witness to the difficulty of repeating as champions, seeing some of the reasons why no team has claimed back-to-back Cups since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.
After a first-round playoff loss to the rival Vancouver Canucks, the Blackhawks' offseason got off to an early start, and there was plenty of work to be done. But unlike 2010, the changes to come were more of the positive variety - something welcomed by general manager Stan Bowman, who now had money to spend (not slash) and players to bring in (not ship out).
Hawks fans saw a few more familiar faces leave town, including three more from the Cup-winning team. But the additions outweigh the subtractions, as they will complement a core that is still among the league's most talented.
The quest for Cup begins on opening night with a visit to Dallas in 73 days. Here are five changes that will put the Blackhawks in a position to reclaim Lord Stanley once more...
Chicago will have something in goal this season that they haven't had in a few years: stability...
The Blackhawks have gone through each of the past three seasons with varying levels of uncertainty at the goaltending position. In 2008-2009, it was tag-team duty for Nikolai Khabibulin and Cristobal Huet. The following year, it was Huet's job to lose. So what did he do? He lost it, to breakout Finn Antti Niemi, who carried the Hawks all the way to a Stanley Cup. Financial issues pushed Niemi to San Jose and the Hawks made Huet disappear like Houdini.
Veteran netminder Marty Turco was signed as a free agent to be the starter. And he was just that for 18 of the first 25 games, until the emergence of 26-year-old rookie Corey Crawford. The Montreal native followed the trail blazed by Niemi a year prior and seized the No. 1 role. Crawford started 55 games, going 33-18-6 record with four shutouts. And he had absolutely nothing to do with the Blackhawks' early playoff exit.
The sophomore will be backed up by a rookie in 2011-2012. Alexander Salak, acquired from Florida in the Jack Skille deal, played last year in the Swedish Elite League appearing in 32 games, recording seven shutouts, a 1.97 goals-against average and .926 save percentage. The 24-year-old has just two games of NHL experience, which further solidifies Crawford's position as the starter.
Get used to this tandem folks, it'll be around for the next couple of years...
In the process of shedding salary following the 2009-2010 season, the Blackhawks also lost a great deal of grit and toughness. It was an element that the Blackhawks missed dearly last season - guys willing to throw their body around and pay the price for the team. After Troy Brouwer was dealt to Washington and Tomas Kopecky was sent to Florida, it became an even more pressing need.
Stan Bowman started by trading for solid defenseman Steve Montador and followed up in free agency by signing veterans Andrew Brunette, Jamal Mayers, and Sean O'Donnell.
Then came Daniel Carcillo, a signing that sparked a bit of controversy and confusion amongst Blackhawks fans given his reputation around the league. But the "Car-Bomb" will be a nice line of defense for this team. His penalty minutes have come down in recent years, but so has his playing time. So his ice time in Chicago will depend on his ability to walk the line. Obviously he needs to improve his discipline but his presence alone is something that Hawks didn't have last season.
Bowman has given John Scott some backup in the physicality bureau, and his skill players some help in protection. These won't be the same dainty Hawks of last year. Opponents will learn that early on...
The Blackhawks were the deepest team in the league in 2010. Last year? Not so much. Cup-winners Byfuglien, Ladd, Versteeg, Madden, and Eager were replaced by Jack Skille, Viktor Stalberg, Fernando Pisani, and Jake Dowell. There is a sizable disparity in talent there, eh?
In 2010 Toews, Kane, Sharp, and Hossa - Chicago's top forwards - scored a combined 104 goals, which amounts to about 40% of the team's total of 262. Last year, those same four were relied on too much; their 118 combined goals made up 47% of the team's 252 total tallies.
Last year, guys who are perfect for the third line were forced to the second line (see: Dave Bolland), and fourth liners were seeing the ice like third-liners (see: Stalberg). This put more pressure on the stars. The opposite has to happen this year.
If you can't tell already, I really like Andrew Brunette. Even at the age of 37, Brunette is not only durable, he's productive and familiar with Joel Quenville's system. For those in fantasy football mode, Bruno will be a solid "flex option," for this Blackhawks lineup.
Michael Frolik, playoff breakout star Ben Smith, Marcus Kruger, and (if healthy) Jeremy Morin will also bring more talent to the Hawks bottom two lines and role positions. Also note that the free-agent signings weren't inked to long-term deals, which helps the kids on the cusp in Rockford.
Don't get me wrong, I would love to see another 34-goal season from Patrick Sharp. But he needs to have some help.
Brian Campbell and Chris Campoli won't be back in Chicago next year. They will be relatively missed. Also gone: Nick Boynton (waived in the middle of last season), Jassen Cullimore, and Jordan Hendry. I don't think many tears have been shed there.
In 2011-2012, Quenville's top four will be set with Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson, and Nick Leddy. The development of Leddy made Campbell expendable. The bottom pairs will see significant improvement as Stan Bowman was efficient with the money saved on "Soupy," using it to help bring in Steve Montador, Sean O'Donnell, and Sami Lepisto.
While the team may not be able to replace Campbell's skating or puck-moving skills on offense, the three blueline additions will greatly help out in the Hawks' own end.
Campbell, Campoli, Boynton, Cullimore, and Hendry combined for 259 blocked shots in 198 games last year. Montador, O'Donnell, and Lepisto contributed a total 304 blocks in 224 games. So Hjalmarsson gets some assistance in that department.
The ability of Montador and Lepisto to play significant minutes will be a help to the top pairs, especially Duncan Keith. The 2010 Norris winner has led the NHL in ice time for the past two seasons and has finished outside the top-five in that category just twice in his career.
The newcomers are much more dependable in their own end and will help keep things clear in front of the net. Corey Crawford says "thanks" in advance, fellas.
I suppose it is somewhat natural to spend a little too much time admiring the view once you reach the top. After a short summer in 2010, the Blackhawks had a quick turnaround and played with a target on their back.
Call it what you want - a hangover, a letdown - it was obvious the Blackhawks lacked a consistent mental edge last year. You saw it often in the third period of games, where Chicago had far too many blown leads. There seemed to be an increase in brain-farting and checkout moments.
Several core players - Toews, Keith, Seabrook, Kane, Hossa - have logged a lot of miles over the past couple of years. This summer offered a chance to recover both physically and mentally.
Despite the many ups and downs last year presented, the Blackhawks still found a way to compete at a high level. Think about it, they were a Patrick Sharp put-back and Alex Burrows' knucklepuck away from...who knows.
Stan Bowman has made shrewd, low-risk moves that help the team in both the short and long terms. Unlike 2010, the changes of 2011 have given lift to the fans and a shot in the arm to the locker room.
With new depth and a revived thirst for the Cup, the Blackhawks will be back in October. And once again, they'll be the hunters...
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