You would be hard-pressed to find an organization and a fanbase that has been on more of an emotional rollercoaster over the past couple of years than members and fans of the Chicago Blackhawks.
In the summer of 2010, they experienced the triumph of capturing the club’s first Stanley Cup title in 49 years. That was followed by the infamous “Cup Hangover” of 2010-11, where the Hawks struggled throughout much of the year, needing a loss by the Dallas Stars on the final day of the regular season to get into the playoffs.
For the second straight year, the Blackhawks will begin a season with a roster that looks very different compared to that of the season before. Though they weren’t in the dire financial situation that they were in the previous summer, Stan Bowman made the moves necessary to free up some extra cash to improve the squad overall.
A pair of draft day trades headlined the early offseason, with Bowman sending Troy Brouwer to Washington in exchange for a first round pick, which the Hawks turned into Philip Daneault. The bigger surprise was trading defenseman Brian Campbell to the Florida Panthers in exchange for Rostislav Olesz, who is one of the wild cards of the Hawks’ forward unit heading into the season.
Along with the two bigger names, the team also let go of Tomas Kopecky who was an unrestricted free agent and was unlikely to take less money to play in the bottom six with the Hawks. Also gone are the mix of average to below average types that toiled in the bottom six for the Hawks last year, including guys like Jake Dowell and Fernando Pisani, as well as midseason acquisition Chris Campoli, whose contract demands were too much for the team to handle.
Once free agency hit, the Blackhawks were among the more active teams out there. They added a strong veteran presence to the locker room and some sandpaper to the lineup with the signings, most of them on one-year deals.
The team added aging veterans Andrew Brunette, Jamal Mayers, and Sean O’Donnell to the lineup, while also signing Daniel Carcillo, Sami Lepisto, and Steve Montador, the latter of which was the only player to receive a multi-year deal.
Brunette will likely play inside the top six, adding size and a presence in the crease that the team was hoping Troy Brouwer would provide. Mayers and Carcillo will likely do most of their work in the bottom six, but both add grit and a physical aspect to the lineup. Carcillo’s role as the fourth line pest could do wonders for the team, if he can keep himself under control.
The blue line saw a big change with the acquisition of the three veterans. Montador, Lepisto, and O’Donnell will replace Campbell and Campoli on defense, but how well they are able to pick up the slack from the two remains to be seen.
Of course, the biggest reason the Hawks are expecting big things heading into the new season is because of who is already in their lineup. Though they’ve lost plenty from the team of two years ago, they still boast the league’s best young group of core players.
Jonathan Toews returns as the anchor of the team, centering the top line and manning both the power play and penalty kill units. One of the league’s best two-way forwards, many have pegged Toews as a potential Hart Trophy candidate this season.
Patrick Kane looks to be at full strength after undergoing wrist surgery during the summer and begins the 2011-12 season in a new role. Throughout the preseason we caught a glimpse of Kane centering the second line, which is how he’ll start the new campaign. There’s no doubt that Kane has the offensive chops for the role, but can he pick up the slack on defense?
Also in the top six are the veterans Brunette, Patrick Sharp, and Marian Hossa. None of those five in the top six come as a surprise to many, but there is one player that no one expected to be in the lineup on Opening Night, in Brandon Saad. Saad, a 2011 draft pick of the team, wowed Hawks brass during training camp and preseason to the point where he will be spending at least the first nine games of the season with the team.
The ‘checking’ line for the team looks very similar to the line we saw in the first round of the playoffs against the Canucks. Though he won’t be in the lineup on Friday against Dallas, Dave Bolland will center that unit, in what could finally be that breakout campaign. He will be joined by Bryan Bickell and Michael Frolik on either side of him. Frolik, fresh off of a new three-year contract, is another breakout candidate for the Hawks after a solid series against Vancouver.
At least to start the season, the fourth line figures to be a bit of a crapshoot. Once Carcillo returns from his two-game suspension to start the year, Ben Smith returns from his concussion, and Viktor Stalberg is recovered from a leg injury, the trio will join the mix of Mayers, Olesz, and Brandon Pirri, who could be bouncing between Rockford and Chicago a bit this season.
On the blue line, it’s all about Duncan Keith. After a very disappointing followup to his Norris Trophy campaign, Keith had a summer to rest and recover after a season that saw him play 30 minutes a night on a regular basis. No one needed the rest more than him, and it already looks like it’s having a positive effect on his play.
Brent Seabrook won’t start the season next to Keith, but it’s only a matter of time before the two end up back together. Seabrook had a career year last season and is heading into his first full season of a new five-year contract that he signed last year.
The wild card of the group is Nick Leddy. The 20-year-old defenseman was a standout in training camp last year, and earned his way onto the roster regularly late in the season. He has the skills to be a strong offensive defenseman, but he’s going to be relied upon heavily in just his second year, to replace the production of Brian Campbell.
Though he was a trade candidate, Niklas Hjalmarsson returns for another season with the Hawks and is hoping to improve what was a disappointing 2010-2011 season. Hjammer notched just 10 points on the year and didn’t display any kind of willingness to play the physical game. He’s a fantastic shot blocker, but he’ll need to improve the rest of his game to stick around with the wealth of young defensemen in the organization.
Joining the four will be the new mix of vets: Montador, Lepisto, and O’Donnell. Joel Quenneville figures to play the matchups with the three, but Montador is likely locked in the top five, meaning Lepisto and O’Donnell could split time on the third unit.
In goal, the Blackhawks finally appear to have a solid situation, and is one that shouldn’t see a change midyear for the first time since Cristobal Huet manned the crease. After replacing Marty Turco as the starter, Corey Crawford returns for his sophomore year as the franchise goaltender that Chicago has longed for for years. He will be backed up by Ray Emery, who replaces Truco as the backup after making the team on a training camp tryout.
As is the case with any team, the Blackhawks do enter the season with some questions, most of which should be answered early in the year. Will Patrick Kane succeed at center? Will Brandon Saad last more than nine games, or will he be sent back to juniors? Can Bryan Bickell use his size to his advantage like he did against Vancouver? Can Dave Bolland stay healthy? Can the Hawks replace Campbell’s production in the lineup?
It shouldn’t be too long before we see those questions become answers. Expectations are high for the Blackhawks this season, and a good start is going to be necessary for them to get back to the top of the Western Conference. A positive sign is that they already appear to have the chemistry aspect down, which is already a step forward from last year.
With a quick look at the roster, it’s not difficult to see why so many experts have predicted that the Blackhawks will be in the mix for another Stanley Cup title right up until the end. They have offense that can score on anyone, they boast a pair of the best defensemen in the NHL, they have the depth that they lacked last year, and they have the goaltending necessary that can carry them to the promised land.