Chicago Blackhawks: Primed to repeat
With two Stanley Cup championships in four years, the Chicago Blackhawks are flirting with terms like "dynasty." But history tells us that the ultimate feat, repeating as a Cup champion, remains very much a long shot. Not since 1997-98, when Detroit went 2-for-2 in Cup wins, has a team been able to repeat. Still, there is much to like about this Blackhawks team's chances of cashing in again next June, starting with a core of skilled veterans still in their prime, including captain Jonathan Toews, playoff MVP Patrick Kane, underappreciated forward Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and defensive anchors Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Unlike the offseason that followed their 2010 Stanley Cup win, when GM Stan Bowman was forced to offload key pieces for salary-cap reasons, this offseason has seen more tinkering than downsizing for the Blackhawks. All this means is they increased their belief that they have the goods to once again be a factor in a Western Conference that has been depleted by two teams, thanks to realignment. The team certainly won't be afraid to discuss the idea of a repeat and the challenges going back-to-back represents, Sharp recently told ESPN.com.
"It's definitely on the radar and something that we'll talk about," he said.
Although the core returns to the Madhouse on Madison, it doesn't mean there won't be a few wrinkles to the 2013-14 Hawks' lineup. Dave Bolland, who notched the Stanley Cup winner in the waning moments of Game 6 in Boston, ended up coming home to Toronto, although injuries and the evolution of other players had changed his role in Chicago in the past couple of seasons. Viktor Stalberg, in and out of the Chicago lineup in the playoffs, is now in Nashville, and Michael Frolik, who was a big part of the Blackhawks' penalty-killing group, went to Winnipeg. The departures allowed Bowman to ink playoff stud Bryan Bickell to a four-year deal worth $16 million and to lock down netminder Corey Crawford to a six-year contract extension totaling $36 million that will kick in a year from now. Crawford will be backed up by former Blackhawk Nikolai Khabibulin because Ray Emery returned to Philadelphia as a free agent. The changes will also allow Bowman and head coach Joel Quenneville to open up spots to younger players such as big Jimmy Hayes, Ben Smith and Jeremy Morin to challenge incumbents Andrew Shaw, Marcus Kruger and Brandon Bollig for time on the third and fourth lines. Brandon Pirri and Drew LeBlanc are on the edge of the discussion, too.
"If I had my way, I'd never go in the free-agent market again," said GM Stan Bowman, the recipient of a new contract extension in the offseason.
Where do you start with the best team in the NHL? The Blackhawks led the league in both goals scored per game and goals allowed. Pretty good combination, no? They were third on the penalty kill. Kane took a significant step forward in the evolution of his game, becoming not just a dangerous playmaker but also a goal scorer as he finished fifth in points and tied for fifth with Toews in goals with 23. Crawford erased any doubts about his mental toughness last season, becoming an elite netminder, one who is in the mix to be named to the Canadian Olympic team. The blue line is deep and talented, with Johnny Oduya evolving as an important top-four piece to the Hawks' Stanley Cup puzzle. The Blackhawks' top six defensemen are all returning.
"The defense makes everything go," Bowman said.
A handful of interesting young pieces are in the mix too, including Brandon Saad, who was a finalist for rookie of the year. He will get a shot at moving to center this season, while Shaw was a fixture in the Blackhawks' lineup in the postseason, scoring a key goal in triple overtime in Game 1 of the finals. Banging on the door defensively are Dylan Olsen and skilled Adam Clendening.
"I think Adam's going to be a star," Bowman said. "The good news is we don't need to rush him."
Behind the bench, Quenneville probably doesn't get enough credit for his work in guiding the Blackhawks to twin Cup wins, but he's rock solid. Bowman believes the mix of young players who will be hungry for their own Stanley Cup experience with the core now understand the demands of winning a championship.
When you're talking about the Stanley Cup champs, this will sound more like nitpicking than anything else, but we must admit we were surprised at the repatriation of Khabibulin to back up Crawford. At 40, his durability is an issue and so is his ability to produce wins at this stage of his career. Wouldn't be a surprise if Finnish free-agent acquisition Antti Raanta gets a look this season. Bickell will have to prove that his playoff performance -- his nine goals were second-most in the playoffs, and he had 17 points -- was not a one-off. With a short offseason following the compressed 2013 season, Bowman said the team will be focused on getting out of the gate quickly as it did a year ago when it set a record with 24 straight games with at least a point.
"We're certainly concerned about our start and not falling behind," Bowman said.
The other worrying thing for the Blackhawks has to be the potential for as many as 11 members of their team to be playing in the Olympics in Sochi, Russia. It didn't hurt Seabrook, Keith or Toews when they won gold with Canada in Vancouver in 2010 a few months before hoisting the Stanley Cup, but you cannot discount the potential for Olympic fatigue, especially when you consider the level of participation that could happen.
The Blackhawks will miss their longtime division foes, the Detroit Red Wings, who moved to the Eastern Conference, but the move also means one less elite team with whom to battle for a playoff berth or seeding or along the road to the Stanley Cup finals. When you're as stacked as the Blackhawks, it doesn't matter who lines up where, you can expect them to be at or near the top of any division.
Burnside: Even factoring in some sort of Stanley Cup hangover part deux, we still like the Blackhawks to hold off St. Louis for the top spot in the Central Division.
Custance: First in the Central Division.
LeBrun: Second in the Central Division.
Melrose: First in the Central Division.
Strang: First in the Central Division.
2013-14 Season Preview
Coach: Joel Quenneville
Experience: Entering 17th NHL season
Stanley Cup titles: 2
Who's On The Move
The offseason signings/acquisitions and departures for the Blackhawks:
• June 30: Re-signed LW Bryan Bickell.
• July 3: Re-signed D Nick Leddy.
• July 5: Re-signed C Michal Handzus and D Michal Rozsival.
• July 5: Signed G Nikolai Khabibulin.
• July 12: Re-signed C Marcus Kruger.
• July 19: Signed D Theo Peckham and D Michael Kostka.
• July 24: Signed LW Brad Winchester.
• Sept. 2: Re-signed G Corey Crawford.
• Sept. 4: Re-signed D Niklas Hjalmarsson.
• C Dave Bolland (traded to Toronto)
• RW Michael Frolik (traded to Winnipeg)
• LW Daniel Carcillo (traded to Los Angeles)
• LW Rostislav Olesz (unrestricted free agent, signed by New Jersey)
• RW Viktor Stalberg (unrestricted free agent, signed by Nashville)
• G Carter Hutton (unrestricted free agent, signed by Nashville)
• RW Jamal Mayers (unrestricted free agent)
• D Steve Montador (unrestricted free agent)
One of the league's premier jack-of-all-trades defensemen, Keith satisfies all of ESPN's standard categories with aplomb. A few more shots and power-play points would be nice, and the 30-year-old isn't playing nearly half a regulation game like before (which is probably a good thing altogether), but he remains one of the most well-rounded assets. Just be wary of a potentially sluggish start to 2013-14. Keith was slow out of the gates the season following his first Stanley Cup win (2010).