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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Chicago Blackhawks Preview

The Blackhawks restored the grandeur of an Original Six franchise to Chicago by winning a franchise-record 52 games, taking a Central Division title, and to cap it off, won their first Stanley Cup in 49 years by dispatching the Philadelphia Flyers in a six-game triumph.

That was then. This is now.

The ticker tape had barely been cleared from the clustered streets within the Loop before salary cap issues forced the gutting of roughly one-third of that winning roster. Gone was three-time champion John Madden as a free agent, along with forward Kris Versteeg who was dealt to the Maple Leafs. Both goaltenders were given their walking papers -- former number one Cristobal Huet was left to wither behind rookie sensation Antti Niemi -- until the 'Hawks played hardball with the young Finn and let him go in free agency to San Jose. Huet, meanwhile, was loaned to a Swiss club, so the Blackhawks will have to pay his hefty salary this year, but it won't count against the cap.

Perhaps the biggest blow to the guts of the team was the massive salary-dump deal with Atlanta that saw playoff hero Dustin Byfuglien and defenseman Brent Sopel along with Ben Eager and Akim Aliu head south for two draft picks, three prospects and Marty Reasoner, who was immediately recycled to Florida.

No club since the 1987-88 Edmonton Oilers has won the Stanley Cup one season, then returned the following year with a roster so affected with key personnel changes. It will be a challenge taken on by head coach Joel Quenneville, team captain and reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jonathan Toews and high-scoring Patrick Kane, all of whom experienced their first Cup run in positions of authority and leadership.

Success this coming spring depends on how they apply the lessons learned in winning to days which may not be so promising.
It's hard to argue with the numbers Messrs. Toews (25 goals, 68 points/seven goals, 29 points) and Kane (30 goals, 88 points/10 goals, 28 points) produced a year ago, and even harder to imagine similar stats won't be forthcoming this season.

The job will be made tougher on the Terror Twins now that Byfuglien's bulky presence and scoring (34 pts.) won't be there, along with Versteeg (44 pts.) Andrew Ladd (separate deal with Atlanta; 38 pts.), Madden (10 goals, 23 points) and Colin Fraser (free agent to Edmonton) have left. Still, Patrick Sharp (25 goals, 66 points), Marian Hossa (24 goals, 51 points) and Troy Brouwer (22 goals, 40 points) remain as a strong supporting cast.

More will be expected of Dave Bolland (16 points in 39 games) and Tomas Kopecky (21 points in 74 games), who showed flashes of grit and scoring touch as the year wore on. Madden's departure was mitigated somewhat by the signing of defensive forward Fernando Pisani, but his best year came in 2006 and his effectiveness may be blunted by years in the Oilers system.

One benefit of salary-cap moves en masse is the influx of younger talent that gets a chance to crack the roster. Wisconsin product Jack Skille and new acquisition Victor Stalberg, along with Jeff Taffe (from Florida for Reasoner) and Jeremy Morin (from Atlanta) have a legitimate shot to earn a spot with the big club. Russian import Igor Makarov and AHL journeymen Hugh Jessiman and Ryan Potulny are also in the mix. Ben Smith, fresh from a national title at Boston College, also gets his chance to prove himself with a two-year deal.
Chicago enjoyed one of the most physically-punishing, yet mobile and puck savvy defensive corps in the NHL a season ago. Luckily, only Sopel and Cam Barker (Minnesota) have departed from this deadly bunch.

Leading the smooth edge of the backline, Duncan Keith earned a Gold medal in the Vancouver Games and won the Norris Trophy as the league's top defenseman with 69 points and a plus-21 in 82 contests. Niklas Hjalmarsson developed into a secondary quarterback on the power play (17 points in 77 games), but it'll be up to Jordan Hendry, Jonathan Carlsson or whoever else Quenneville grooms to pick up some offensive slack.

In the rough-edge department, Brent Seabrook (30 points, 208 hits) and Brian Campbell (38 points, 79 blocked shots) put up roadblocks all over the ice while Sopel (50 hits, 120 blocks) provided steadying guidance. Jassen Cullimore, at age 37, gets the nod to take his place after a year in the minors, while Nick Boynton should also have an entire season to get back on his feet after years of wandering between jobs.

Chicago's up-tempo game-plan did cause trouble with the defense at times last season as did speed from opposition forwards (Nashville and Philadelphia in particular), so it's unclear whether this subtle new batch of blueliners will aid or hinder efforts to close any gaps.
No title-winning club in recent memory, through either trades or salary-cap issues, has gotten rid of both their netminders before the start of the following season.

Chicago will be hard-pressed to justify parting ways with the combined efforts of Huet (26-14-4, 4 SO, 2.50 GAA) and Niemi (26-7-4, 7 SO, 2.25), especially after Niemi's playoff run (16-6, 2 SO, 2.63), but free-agent veteran Marty Turco will be given the opportunity to redeem himself.

The 35-year-old, who spurned Cup finalist Philadelphia in favor of a spot with the defending champs, comes from the Dallas Stars with a reputation of solid but unspectacular play. He was 22-20-11 with a 2.72 GAA and four shutouts for a moribund Stars club last year, and though he's shown flashes of brilliance in the past, he?s never demonstrated the ability to be a difference-maker.

Obviously, the Blackhawks saw something in his 262 career wins and 40 shutouts, but his 21-26 playoff record is suspiciously subpar for someone who's coming into a winning environment.

Former second-round pick Corey Crawford, sparsely used in recent years, now gets his chance to show what he can do at the NHL level. He's spent five seasons in the AHL with Norfolk and Rockford honing his skills, and this year it's time to deliver. If he doesn't come on strong enough from camp, competition exists in the form of Hannu Toivonen -- last seen with the Blues (6-10-0, 3.44 GAA) in 2007-08.
The Blackhawks may be the epitome of the one-shot deal, a shocking example of the vagaries of the salary-cap era and a lesson to other top-tier clubs that going for it all only pays off if you win, but the chances are better that you will win if you're able to make the leap once.

The guts of the club may have been ripped out due to trades and free agency, but the heart (Kane) and soul (Toews) still remain along with a solid defensive foundation. The Central Division has officially passed out of the hands of the Red Wings, who appear to be on the downside of the rivalry, but given the roster upheaval, a chance at the top seed in the Western Conference will most likely be out of reach.

Still, those are good problems to have coming off a championship season. Now if the United Center could find another song in the entire canon of Western pop music that isn't nearly as grating as "Chelsea Dagger," they'll be in better shape.


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