Saturday marks the two-year anniversary of the Blackhawks bringing the Stanley Cup back to Chicago for the first time in 49 years.
Patrick Kane’s ‘no-one-saw-it goal’ in Game 6 in Philadelphia followed by his length-of-the-ice skate into the arms of his bewildered goaltender, Antti Niemi, will be remembered well past Saturday.
What looked like the start of something special – “dynasty” might be too strong a word -- from one of the youngest teams in the league quickly has fizzled into something all too familiar in sports. The Hawks are on their way to proving the notion that staying on top can be more difficult than getting there. But that should not be the case for elite organizations.
Once you unlock the formula as a young team and gain the needed experience, the words “perennial contender” should be affixed next to your team’s logo. Based on a lot of what’s transpired over the past two years, including a pair of first-round playoff exits, the Hawks are hardly an annual juggernaut.
Gone is that Cup-winning goaltender while the emerging star who scored that historic goal is in quasi-hiding. A year ago this week, Kane talked openly of his memories of scoring that tally. Requests to talk to him about it a year later again, along with other pertinent issues regarding the Hawks’ star, were turned down.
This is what has Hawks’ fans staring at the ceiling at night: Just eight players remain -- and now one coach -- from the championship team. And the architect of it all (Dale Tallon) is up for general manager of the year for another organization. Furthermore, there was obvious dissension between the Hawks’ front office and coaching staff this past season. The result was the firing of the one remaining assistant coach from the Cup team, Mike Haviland. But he was the only fall guy for an underachieving season.
Two years removed from winning the Stanley Cup, are the Hawks closer to being the Chicago Bears of the mid-1980s or the Detroit Red Wings of this hockey era? Between the two choices it would be tough to pick the latter over the former. The Bears won the Super Bowl in 1986 and were primed to win at least one more. But regular-season success led to postseason failure and an erosion of what made them great. Sound familiar? Soon enough, the regular-season successes dwindled, and the Bears became just another team in the league. The window for a great hockey team should be longer than that of a great football team, but right now the Hawks could go either way. As of this moment there is nothing very special about this team other than a couple of individuals.
If defense wins championships, as we all know it does, look no further than what has happened in that department for the Blackhawks -- no matter where the blame lies.
The Hawks just completed a season in which they did not shut out an opponent for the first time in more than 20 years. They had 13 shutouts the year they won the Cup. In 88 games played this past season, the Hawks gave up one goal just 17 times. In 2009-2010 the Hawks gave up one goal or less 28 times, and that includes games in which the second goal given up was scored via shootout. Where has the defense gone?
And where have the special teams gone? Special players show their talents on special teams more than anywhere else, and the Hawks were an embarrassment on both the power play and the penalty kill this past season. It exposed their lack of work ethic and, frankly, their lack of desire.
Those special-teams struggles are the ingredient that hasn’t been addressed enough when discussing the Hawks’ disappointing season. Yes, Joel Quenneville had a bad year. And yes, Stan Bowman hasn’t replenished since the salary-cap purge of 2010, but none of that takes away from the complacency the players have shown since winning the Cup. This isn’t to say they don’t think they’re trying hard, but that doesn’t mean they are. Pull out a tape of the run to the Cup in 2010 or just watch this year’s playoffs, and even in their own postseason, the Hawks didn’t know how to really turn it on to win even one round. Veteran winger Andrew Brunette said as much in a press conference after the season concluded.
“I thought our best two games were our last two games,” Brunnette said. “It’s unfortunate it took us that long to get the wake-up call but that’s playoff hockey.”
In those press conferences after the Hawks’ first-round exit, player after player spoke of a lack of net presence as a major culprit for the Hawks’ power-play struggles. That’s an easy out. Did a lack of net presence prevent Kane from making the right decisions with the puck on the power play? Or did it get Duncan Keith’s shot blocked? Did it prevent them from entering the offensive zone properly or retrieving the puck on a dump-and-chase? There were too many ‘we have to be better’ quotes coming from the locker room and not enough ‘I have to be better’ ones.
CEO John McDonough has to be wondering if he’s the parent who rewarded his children for good behavior -- in the wake of the Cup -- and then the kids immediately stopped behaving. Hawks’ players are treated as well as any in the league. They are taken care of and marketed and not subjected to too much media scrutiny -- save for some of Kane’s off-the-ice issues -- but they haven’t completely returned the favor. And this is all said without addressing an awful penalty-killing unit, which is defined almost entirely by heart and desire -- not by the pretty shorthanded goals they occasionally score.
In two short years, the championship aura of the Hawks has disappeared. Make no mistake, the recent salary-cap problems are near the top of the list of problems that started the Hawks down this road. But that’s no excuse, that’s just another negative on their ledger. Tallon takes the brunt of the blame for those problems, but his assistant general manager is still with the team as are all his old bosses. Weren't there some checks and balances in place when signing players? He doesn’t own the team or even keep the books. Part of that job falls to the assistant general manager -- and others. At the very least, the Hawks’ top execs are to blame for letting it happen under their noses even if they weren’t doing anything more than signing checks.
There was a time not long ago at which the thought of any Jonathan Toews-led team going down quietly would be absurd. And, to be fair, the Hawks have had their moments. They almost pulled off a dramatic comeback in the postseason against Vancouver in 2011, and five games of their six-game series loss to Phoenix went to overtime. But almost any good team that loses can point to near misses. Great teams don’t rely on overtime or winning four in a row to advance in the postseason. The Hawks need to find that mojo. And now the entire 2010-2011 season, once chalked up as an outlier due to the fatigue of winning the cup the year before, can be looked upon in an even more negative light. It was the start of a two-year period of complacency, which at least might be coming to an end -- if Quenneville backs up his tough talk since this past season ended.
Two years can seem like yesterday, but in this case it feels more like a decade. How we feel on the three-year anniversary of this Chicago milestone remains to be seen.
One thing’s for certain: The next change within the organization -- if needed -- will be a big one. The assistant coaches are gone as are all the ancillary or role players. If things don’t go well, star players, execs and the team’s head coach could be heading elsewhere.