By Steve Silverman
(CBS) — No NHL team has repeated as Stanley Cup Champion since the Detroit Red Wings won back-to-back championships in 1997 and ’98.
That means it’s going to be difficult for the Chicago Blackhawks to match that feat mainly because so many teams have tried and failed in the intervening 15 years.
However, the Blackhawks will have a better opportunity to win two Stanley Cups in a row than any team since those Wings, and they have the NHL to thank for it.
Life should get a lot easier for the Blackhawks this year as the NHL has realigned to appease the Red Wings, who were tired of playing a Western Conference schedule that included a substantial amount of late-night, West Coast games that played havoc with the Wings’ TV audience.
Detroit had been campaigning for years to switch to the Eastern Conference, and owner Mike Ilitch finally got his wish when the league moved the Wings and the Columbus Blue Jackets to the Eastern Conference and sent the Winnipeg Jets to the Western Conference.
Not only does losing the Red Wings make life easier for the Blackhawks, so does the NHL’s realignment and the NHL’s new playoff format.
The NHL’s realignment means there will be 16 teams in the Eastern Conference and 14 in the West. Despite this incongruity, each conference will send eight teams to the playoffs.
Even in Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Rosenbloom’s math-challenged world, it’s obvious that your chances are better when 8-of-14 get in than it is when 8-of-16 get in.
The Blackhawks will be playing in the unglamorous Central Division. Aside from the defending champions, there are no marquee teams in this unit. The St. Louis Blues and the Minnesota Wild have a chance to be competitive and the Blues could push the Blackhawks for a good portion of the season, but they don’t have the firepower that the Blackhawks bring to the ice on an every-night basis.
The rest of the teams in the Central Division all have issues. The Colorado Avalanche have some young offensive talent but they struggle defensively. The Dallas Stars are in the complete makeover mode and would need an exceptional season just to make the playoffs. The Nashville Predators are tough and nasty, but they lack offensive skill while the Jets will be playing their first season in their new conference. They are young and talented – Evander Kane is explosive and their best player – but they are inconsistent.
In the new playoff format, the top three teams in each division – regardless of their record – will make the playoffs. The other two spots will go to the two wild-card teams in each conference that have the best records of the teams that did not make the top three in each division.
It’s conceivable that five teams from a division could make the playoffs while only three in the other make it.
With the Red Wings and improving Blue Jackets moving East, the balance of power appears to have gone to the other conference.
The Central Division should be a cakewalk. The Pacific Division has one weak team in the Calgary Flames, but the rest are all on the nasty side, particularly the Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks and the Vancouver Canucks.
Even though it’s a month before the start of training camp, the Blackhawks can already start printing playoff tickets.
They are in and will almost certainly win their division.
A repeat Stanley Cup performance will be difficult, but the Blackhawks have the best chance of any team in the last 15 years.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.