Blackhawks Season Preview
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By Connor McKnight
The cuts have been made, the roster has been set and the Blackhawks are ready to go. After an offseason full of celebration and separation, Stan Bowman and Joel Quenneville have decided on the team they think will give them the best chance at defending Lord Stanley’s Cup.
So before the season starts let’s not waste any time breaking down how the Hawks got to where they are now and what to expect going forward.
While the Hawks certainly lost firepower up front in Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg and Andrew Ladd there’s no lack of goal scoring from the forwards they retained. Patrick Kane scored a career-high 88 points in 2009-2010—and is looking to tally 100 or more this year. Kane is on the verge of becoming an elite, top five-type player in the league and the team clearly felt comfortable giving up what they did knowing Kane could pick up the slack.
Marian Hossa will play a full season with the Hawks after missing 25 games last year rehabbing a shoulder injury. While Hossa says he was perfectly healthy to finish last season, he looks stronger than ever on the puck in the past two weeks. Hossa has 40-goal potential and can dominate the ice whenever he’s on it.
Jonathan Toews is likely coming off one of the greatest seasons a player could have. The hardware alone proves it: Gold Medal, Conn Smythe, Stanley Cup. Doesn’t get better. Toews is the captain of this team in each and every way. Joel Quenneville preaches consistency and predictability to his players and no one does it better than Toews.
The 2010-2011 roster consists of five players who have never skated a regular season hockey game while wearing the Blackhawks’ sweater and five more who will be getting regular playing time for the first time in their career. Two of the brand new players are Fernando Pisani and Viktor Stalberg who both had to fight off the strong play of Jeremy Morin—the Hawks hottest prospect.
While Morin was sent down to Rockford October 4th, he made quite the impression on the Hawks coaching staff and players. Morin showed both the speed and playmaking ability to merit time in the Hawks top two lines in the preseason but in the end, the Hawks decided to go with more experience. Throughout camp, Quenneville had always tempered his praise of Morin with the idea that, because he was only 19, the Hawks would do what was best for the development of the player—not necessarily the best thing for the immediate future of the team. Still, don’t be surprised to see Morin get some playing time at the United Center this year.
In the latest preseason skates, Pisani has been skating on the second line with Patrick Sharp and Kane. It’s an interesting move by Quenneville as Pisani doesn’t have the same top speed as his line-mates, but does posses better than average hands to finish on plays. Plus, while Kane has a tendency to hang at the blue line looking for breaks, Pisani is a responsible defender who will allow Kane to cheat out and look for breakaways.
Speaking of speed, Viktor Stalberg has some to spare. Stalberg spent last season with a somewhat confused and underachieving Toronto club. He’s got all the combine skills—so to speak—but needs to show them in game situations. Stalberg’s training camp started slow and he was on the bubble as Morin skated into the spotlight. He’s been put on Dave Bolland’s line, along with Troy Brouwer, and should provide some explosiveness to the checking line.
Tomas Kopecky – Jonathan Toews – Marian Hossa
It’s the same top line Quenneville put on the ice to finish the Stanley Cup Finals last season. While lines will change, much will be expected out of these three to start the year. Tomas Kopecky has superior hands in front of the net and his game came to life after the Olympic break last year. Kopecky could be key in filling the void left by Byfuglien.
Fernando Pisani – Patrick Sharp – Patrick Kane
The transformation seems complete for Sharp. He’s a center now. Sharp certainly has playmaking ability of his own but also has no problem going to the net and finishing dirty goals. There should be plenty of pucks headed toward the net with Kane on the line, so expect Pisani and Sharp to have their share of chances off rebounds.
Viktor Stalberg – Dave Bolland – Troy Brouwer
John Madden gave the Hawks a reliable presence on the penalty kill and as a third line center was given the mission of shutting down top dogs like Joe Thornton, Name-A-Sedin and Jarome Iginla last year. Dave Bolland has proven to Joel Quenneville that he can not only shut down on defense but more than handle his own on offense. Bolland is nifty on the breakaway and quarterbacks well from behind the net in 5-on-5. Troy Brouwer showed a superior shot at times last year and as a sniper can stretch the defense and make space for Stalberg crashing to the net.
Bryan Bickell – Jake Dowell – Jack Skille
One of the more interesting lines this year could be the fourth. It’s not often you see first round talent sitting on the fourth line but that’s what the Hawks have in Jack Skille. Skille had been blocked by talent and a crippling cap number the past few seasons otherwise, by Stan Bowman’s estimation, he’d have been on the team. Skille will also play with a chip on his shoulder knowing he’s on a one-year deal to showcase his skill. Jake Dowell has been a very responsible center in the AHL the past few seasons and has been adept in the face off circle in the preseason. Bickell seems the an apt replacement for Ben Eager. He’s a huge power forward who showed Quenneville enough skill to warrant playing time in the first and second round of the playoffs last season.
Maybe the biggest changes you’ll see are in the defensive pairings Joel Quenneville rolls out to start the year. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook will see 20-plus minutes on the ice every night—that’s certain. Niklas Hjalmarsson will see a bump in ice time both on the penalty kill and even power play while Brian Campbell rehabs a sprained MCL that will keep him out for the first month of the season. Hjalmarsson was retained over the offseason despite receiving a large offer sheet from San Jose. Essentially the Hawks had to choose between Hjalmarsson and Antti Niemi—so it’s easy to see how highly the team values this young D-man. While he might not find the back of the net that often, he’s a steady, mistake-free defenceman with a high ceiling.
Campbell’s loss is a big one. He’s likely the best skater the Hawks have on defense and his ability to move the puck and spark the attack into the zone is noticeable. While he does turn the puck over in frustrating spots, the Hawks will need him back sooner rather than later.
Filling in for Campbell will be 19-year old Nick Leddy. Leddy has opened eyes during training camp and may have made the roster without help from Campbell’s injury. Leddy doesn’t seem fazed by the bright lights and big bodies so far and has superior talent from which he can learn the position.
Three players will likely hold the fifth and sixth spots–one of which will be John Scott. At 6’8’’ Scott may turn out to be the “tough guy” most fans thought the Hawks were missing in their run to the Cup. Quenneville has told Scott that he’d like to see the rest of his game develop—not just his left cross. Scott is the definition of “stay-at-home” defenceman.
Duncan Keith – Brent Seabrook
Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook make up the top defensive pairing on the Blackhawks and, most say, the best defensive pairing in the league. If Stan Bowman has his way, it will stay like that for quite some time. Seabrook’s contract expires at the end of the season and Bowman has mentioned a few times that he’d like to lock the defenceman into a deal—perhaps during the season like he did with Kane, Keith and Toews last year. Oh, right… on the ice. They’re really, really good. There.
Niklas Hjalmarsson – Nick Leddy
This could be an interesting pairing to watch. While Leddy has played well to date, the first week or so could come as a shock to him. Fortunately, Hjalmarsson is easy to play with and has proven able to adapt his play to his partner. Quenneville won’t ask these two to step up into the play that often but either could surprise with some firepower.
John Scott – Nick Boynton
Nick Boynton must serve a one-game suspension so Jordan Hendry will get the start in the Hawks’ first game against the Avalanche. Boynton was scratched for most of the playoffs—until the final two games against the Flyers when he was called into service and preformed very well. While Boynton isn’t a necessarily a liability but the combinations of Hendry, Scott and Boynton seem to leave something to be desired. Brent Sopel played his role exceedingly well last season and Coach Q will need one of these three to play above their level for a stretch.
It’s the most important position on the ice and it’s a category all it’s own. Marty Turco enters town on a one-year deal after a solid career in Dallas that didn’t end exactly how he’d have liked. In the past two seasons in Dallas Turco posted a 2.76 goals against with a .905 saver percentage—easily the two-year span of his career. At 35 Turco’s hardly old by goalie standards but has played a significant amount. Never a strong training camp guy, and he’d tell you that himself, Turco has looked fine between the pipes this preseason. He’ll have the added benefit of a great defensive core in front of him this year—something he definitely didn’t have in Dallas.
Make no mistake; the Hawks are depending on Turco. Should he fail, the backup plan gets shaky. Corey Crawford has been “the next big goalie” for Chicago for a number of years, but hasn’t seen any serious NHL ice-time until this season. Crawford can look wide-eyed at times in net and needs to get used to seeing the speed and power behind NHL shots.
While the team has question marks, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say they’re positioned well to compete in the West again this year. Not many writers have picked them to repeat as Champions—no one has since the Red Wings in 97-99—but they’re definitely a team that can make noise in the playoffs.