It’s easiest to be confident in a team before the puck ever drops. It’s easiest to throw numbers around and guess into the future in a static environment. It’s easist to make bold predictions based on little more than the past.
But this year, it’s also easy to say that the Chicago Blackhawks have a great chance to bring the Stanley Cup back to Chicago for the second time in three yeas. Here’s why.
Jonathan Toews is a legitimate Hart Trophy candidate. He’s one of the more clutch hockey players on the planet, and has emerged as one of the game’s best leaders as well. After passing 30 goals again last year, he could be ready to take his offensive game to the next level while still performing as well/better than anyone in the game on the defensive end of the ice.
Patrick Kane’s move to center is intriguing, but it works on so many levels. Some question his understanding of the position; he was a center growing up. Some worry about his defensive approach; skating him on a line with responsible wings like Marian Hossa and Andrew Brunette helps allow Kane to freelance. And the fact that very few players have the hands and vision that Kane and Hossa possess, and seeing what they can do while skating together, albeit briefly, in the preseason is enough to think they can be a devastating second line combination.
Patrick Sharp got paid, and is going to be a dad. It appears that coach Joel Quenneville is going to leave him at wing this season, instead moving Kane to center on the second line. If Sharp can stay on the ice for 75 games next to Toews this year, he should clear 30 goals again.
Marian Hossa is healthy and rested. People forget that he played in three consecutive Stanley Cup Finals, and a Winter Olympics, and honestly wasn’t healthy of any of it. To say he needed a long summer is an understatement. If he can skate 75 games next to Kane, this might be a return to the 90-point Hossa from a few years ago.
Duncan Keith may have taken a step back last year, but he is still one of the best defensemen in the game. After seeing what a lack of focus can do to his game last year, Keith has appeared to be skating with an edge to begin this season. He might be in line for Norris consideration again.
Brent Seabrook got paid, but he’s also coming off a fine season. He was one of only two defensemen in the game to record over 200 hits and 150 blocked shots last year. His 48 points were a career high, and his 47 penalty minutes were a career low.
Niklas Hjalmarsson has to start putting points on the board at some point, right?
Michael Frolik has two 20-goal seasons on his resume, and will likely get to play with better talent in Chicago for a full season this year. He looks to be starting the year with Bryan Bickell and (when healthy) Dave Bolland on the Hawks checking line, where his focus will more on the defensive end of the ice but he also won’t be facing opponents’ best defensive players every shift. He could be in line for a breakout season.
Corey Crawford showed in the regular season last year that he can get an underwhelming, injured group of players into the postseason. He showed against Vancouver that he can make huge saves at key parts of the game. And his numbers last year stack up with the best in the game. On a team that’s hungry for another deep run, it’s doubtful that he’ll be allowed to think about his new paycheck for very long and slump this season.
The team’s depth is much improved. Indeed, considering the organization’s depth in Rockford and the veterans that were brought in this summer, there might be more cause for hope in the 2011-12 Blackhawks and the future of the franchise than there has been in decades. This team has championship experience in it’s core and added ideal role player son short-term deals to complete the roster.
Jamal Mayers will have Hawks fans falling in love with him by Halloween. He’s smart, skates his butt off, and knows his role.
Andrew Brunette is desperate for a ring, and has the ability to skate on any of the Hawks four lines. He’s got great, soft hands and is physical on the ice.
Sean O’Donnell has been the Finals, and wants some jewelry. The fans that appreciated what Brent Sopel brought to the team two years ago will love O’Donnell’s approach and contributions.
Steve Montador and Sami Lepisto are solid veterans that provide depth on the blue line that the Hawks didn’t have last year. Both of them are an upgrade from Jordan Hendry, Nick Boynton or Jassen Cullimore.
Oh, have I mentioned that GM Stan Bowman has almost $4M in cap space to play with if he needs to upgrade/improve a spot on the roster at some point this year?
Looking around the Western Conference, the Blackhawks were one of maybe two teams that made the biggest improvements on paper this summer (the other being the LA Kings).
The Vancouver Canucks aren’t better than last year, and they barely beat the Hawks. The Sharks are a trendy pick in the conference, but they’re in the same division as the Kings and have yet to answer for the offensive production lost when swapping Heatley and Setoguchi for Havlat.
The Red Wings are another year older, and will see if Ian White can replace Brian Rafalski on their blue line. Their biggest issues this year will be health from their superstars and consistent play from Jimmy Howard.
On paper, the Blackhawks are as good as any team in the Western Conference, and have shown over the last couple years that their top-end talent is as good/better than any team in the game. Expecting to win the Cup might be a bit aggressive, but not being shocked when another parade is scheduled would be appropriate.