CHICAGO -- Are the Chicago Blackhawks getting better simply because the rest of their division is getting worse?
Even with the announcement that the Nashville Predators have matched the offer sheet for captain Shea Weber, the Central Division has seen an exodus of star players. Rick Nash was traded from Columbus to the New York Rangers on Monday, placing the Blue Jackets in yet another rebuilding phase. The Hawks went 6-0 against Columbus last season with Nash. Somewhere, notorious Jackets’ killer Viktor Stalberg is licking his chops.
The Nash deal and Weber decision come on the heels of the Predators’ other great D-man, Ryan Suter, bolting for Minnesota, which came on the heels of the great Niklas Lidstrom retiring from the Detroit Red Wings. Talk about a division losing star power. But not one of those names played for the Hawks (or St. Louis Blues). So what does it all mean?
It means the obvious: the Hawks got better by doing nothing. At least within the division. Nashville was in trouble the moment Suter decided to leave, although it wouldn’t be smart to underestimate what Barry Trotz can do with lesser talent. The Weber saga just adds to their issues, but at least he’s locked up. It probably doesn’t give Nashville a ton of flexibility moving forward but losing two of the top defensemen in the league would have set them back years. As is, they need to replace Suter and so the Predators take a step back.
Other than Columbus, the Red Wings could be the team in the division facing the most problems. Lidstrom held that locker room together. As is, they were a first-round flameout. Detroit could really take a precipitous dive without their consummate captain. After all, Pavel Datsyuk can only play a third of the time and they have some aging players. Make no mistake, the Wings are on the verge of falling from the elite -- their late-season slide could foreshadow what’s to come.
That leaves the Blues and Hawks. There is no reason to believe these two teams won’t be fighting it out at the top of the division. Actually, Corey Crawford could be a reason or maybe poor special teams play. But you can have faith in at least the latter, they usually turn around after a bad year, and with Joel Quenneville’s emphasis on the power play and penalty kill, no stone will go unturned. As for Crawford, that’s one you simply have to cross your fingers and hope the sophomore slump was just that.
With all that star power leaving the division the Hawks actually look a little more solid as a team that had very little turnover. They went for the home run signings in Suter, Zach Parise and Martin Brodeur but unlike, say, if Minnesota didn’t get them, the Hawks don’t have a bad team without them. The only question is if they have enough to go far in the postseason.
The division may have gotten worse but the Western Conference didn’t necessarily. The Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings reside in the West, as do the ever dangerous Vancouver Canucks and the pesky Phoenix Coyotes. The Hawks should do fine within the division if they play to their potential but that’s about the only guarantee that can be made about 2012-13.