The Chicago Blackhawks are entering a world known by only a few living people affiliated with the organization. Not since the late 1980s have the Hawks had a young, athletic, competitive team that had outsiders talking Stanley Cup.
Now, the pressure’s on the kids to perform.
A team that was less that three years removed from being named the worst professional sports organization sold out every home game, and now has everyone pronouncing names like Huet and Toews correctly. After one of the great organizational turnarounds in the history of professional sports, the Blackhawks enter a season with huge expectations and bigger hopes.
There is plenty of reason to hope in Chicago, though. Last year, the Hawks advanced all the way to the Western Conference Finals with a roster that had less playoff experience as a whole than some of Detroit’s forward lines. In fact, Jonathan Toews, the team’s captain, couldn’t legally consume alcohol until the end of April. The team grossly exceeded even the greatest of expectations.
But, despite all the reasons they couldn’t win a series against a veteran Calgary team, or an experienced and talented Vancouver team with an all-world goalie, the Hawks made it to the conference finals. Losing to Detroit was hard to stomach, but the experience was worth the journey.
Last season, the Hawks finished second in the Central Division behind, of course, Detroit. The Red Wings have maintained a strangle hold on the division for years, and the young Hawks put up a good fight. Throughout an exciting season that included a historic game against Detroit at Wrigley Field, the Hawks were every bit the story of the 2008-09 season.
Now begins the 2009-10 season, and the experience the young Hawks gained in May comes with some new additions.
The biggest addition to the Hawks roster is veteran wing Marian Hossa. The Blackhawks gave Hossa, 30, a huge deal to bring his experience and scoring touch to the already-talented roster they have in place. This addition was a big win for the Hawks, but it became bigger because they took the leading goal scorer away from the Red Wings. Detroit did not add another scorer to replace Hossa.
News broke after the second annual Blackhawks’ fan convention that Hossa would miss the first two months of the season because he needed shoulder surgery, which was an awkward surprise to many Hawks fans. Hossa has played in, and been on the losing end of, the last two Stanley Cup Finals.
By taking Hossa’s production away from Detroit, and adding it to the Hawks roster, Chicago made a strong statement both on and off the ice.
The rough reality behind the addition of Hossa was that Martin Havlat was not retained. A fan favorite in Chicago, the Hawks were not able to come to terms with Havlat before the free agency period began. It became clear, though, after the contract was signed with Hossa that the Hawks intention was to move on.
The irony of Hossa’s shoulder injury is that the Blackhawks made the move from Havlat to Hossa in large part because of Hossa’s relatively clean injury history. Havlat had missed a lot of time over the past few years because of various injuries, and the Blackhawks wanted a consistent presence on the ice moving forward.
Coming with Hossa from Detroit was Tomas Kopecky. Kopecky finished last year second on the Red Wings in hits, and is a strong two-way forward who can also play center. Coach Joel Quenneville has already made public his appreciation for Kopecky’s skill set, and he’ll be an intriguing player to plant among the Hawks lines.
Another addition that came relatively quietly was former New Jersey Devils center John Madden. He, like Kopecky, has a championship ring in his possession. He is another smart, strong two-way center that will likely be used to cover the tails of some of the Blackhawks’ more aggressive defenders like Brian Campbell and Cam Barker.
The experience, and championship pedigree added to the Blackhawks roster position them well to make the first step towards the Cup, dethroning the Red Wings in the Central Division.
Detroit didn’t only lose Kopecky and Hossa. Gone, too, is goalie Ty Conklin, who started more than half of Detroit’s games last year. The defending Western Conference champions also lost Jiri Hudler, who opted to play in Russia this year. The Wings did not make any substantial additions to compensate for these losses, which could make for an interesting season in Michigan.
The Blackhawks will also be moving on in between the pipes this year, as Nikolai Khabibulin left as a free agent. Last year’s surprise star in goal will now, perhaps finally, be replaced by last summer’s expensive addition, Cristobal Huet. Who will back up Huet was in question throughout training camp, but it now appears that Anti Niemi has won that competition, as Corey Crawford cleared waivers on Thursday and will likely be sent to the AHL when the team returns from Helsinki.
But all of the speculation, magazine and video game covers now mean nothing. On October 2, the Blackhawks begin their quest to bring the Stanley Cup to Chicago for the first time in nearly 50 years.