After last offseason’s fire sale, not hearing players leave town every other day must have been a relief to ‘Hawks fans. But, after making the playoffs in the final days of the regular season and then being ousted by rival Vancouver, it was obvious Chicago needed to retool.
Everyone knew getting under the salary cap would be difficult, but the mass exodus that ensued proved to be crippling. Defensive forwards Ben Eager and Andrew Ladd were traded to Atlanta, as were defenseman Brent Sopel and the versatile Dustin Byfuglien. To make matters worse, Chicago was unable to agree to terms with Cup-winning goaltender Antti Niemi.
The effects of those losses were felt immediately. The club went 7-8 to start the season and almost became the ninth team to miss the playoffs after winning the Cup the previous year.
Losing Eager, Ladd, Sopel and Byfuglien translated to the ‘Hawks giving up 14 more goals and scoring 10 fewer than the previous season. It may not look like much on paper, but being in a division with Detroit and Nashville, it can be the difference between winning the division and just barely making the playoffs.
Knowing changes needed to come, GM Stan Bowman moved quickly to acquire players who could help return this team to the Finals.
They started off by re-signing goaltender Corey Crawford, who outplayed veteran Marty Turco. From there, moves began to slowly trickle in. Out are stalwarts Brian Campbell and Troy Brouwer, as well as Chris Campoli and Tomas Kopecky. Coming in are defensemen Steve Montador, Sean O’Donnell and Sami Lepisto. Filling out the forward ranks are tough guys Jamal Mayers and Dan Carcillo, as well as veteran power forward Andrew Brunette.
Where will the Blackhawks finish in the Central Division?
The loss of Campbell will certainly lighten Chicago’s salary cap ($7 million a season), but they’re going to feel the void left behind on the power play. If the ‘Hawks are to make the playoffs, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook need to take a better hold of quarterbacking the power-play units.
With the additions Mayers, Carcillo and Brunette, it seems as though Chicago is going back to what made them a pain to play against: toughness. The focus has obviously shifted from trying to out-finesse the opposition to pounding on them, then letting Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa clean up the mess. If they hope to dethrone Detroit this year, that is the way to do it.
Perhaps their most savvy move over the summer was to sign goalie Ray Emery to a tryout contract. Unsure of what exactly to expect from young Crawford, the ‘Hawks brass took note of what Emery was able to do in Anaheim. The low-risk, high-reward possibility of the tryout contract allows Chicago to see what Emery has left without being on the hook for the season if he doesn’t work out.
The core of Kane, Toews, Hossa and Keith need to step up if the ‘Hawks hope to be a threat in the playoffs again. They are certainly a tougher team than last year, but not nearly as talented as the team that won the Cup in 2010.