By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) There has been no housecleaning this time around.
The last time the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010, the team that took the ice the following October had very little resemblance to the team that celebrated and whooped it up after defeating the Philadelphia Flyers.
While there have been some changes, fans will have no difficulties recognizing the Blackhawks this time around. Dave Bolland scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal against the Boston Bruins, yet he was traded to Toronto days after that triumphant moment.
Goalie Ray Emery, one of the primary architects of the record 24-game streak without a regulation loss at the start of the season, will be wearing a Flyers uniform and should have an excellent chance to win that team’s No. 1 goaltender position.
Michael Frolik and Viktor Stalberg are also gone, while Nikolai Khabibulin is back for a second tour of duty to back up Corey Crawford.
When it comes to talent, the Blackhawks don’t have to take a backseat to anyone. They were the best team in the league last year and they have a solid opportunity to prove it again this year as well.
The core of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Crawford gives them a chance to win nearly every night.
But there’s no way it will be easy, even if they look at the NHL’s new divisional setup and don’t see their long-time Original Six rivals, the Detroit Red Wings, in the Central Division.
The Red Wings, sick and tired of playing games that started at 10:30 or 11 p.m. (Eastern Time) when they went on their frequent West Coast trips, are now in the Eastern Conference. Instead of seeing the Blackhawks six times or more per year, the Red Wings will get together with their old rivals twice a year.
They couldn’t be happier. Instead of building on their traditional rivalry with Chicago, Detroit will resume hostilities with Original Six peers Boston, Montreal, Toronto, and to some extent, the New York Rangers.
But the loss of the Red Wings does not mean the Blackhawks will have an easy run back to the Stanley Cup Final. Despite their loaded roster, three teams have a chance to stand in Chicago’s way.
The St. Louis Blues, the Los Angeles Kings and the suddenly stable Phoenix Coyotes have the personnel and coaching to push the Blackhawks hard and possibly steal a series from them. They are the Western Conference teams that the Blackhawks will have to worry about the most.
The Blues have enjoyed two solid seasons in a row, but they have won just one playoff series in the two years. The Blues are a hard-edged team built on goaltending and defense, and they have the physical game to give the Blackhawks trouble.
Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak give the Blues as good a goaltending duo as can be found in the league.
David Backes, T.J. Oshie and Chris Stewart bring the body every time they take the ice. Since the Blues dominate most opponents from a physical perspective, they brought in finesse-oriented Derek Roy to give them a bit more offensive thrust.
Roy has a slew of moves, passes the puck well and a sharp shot. He is not a physical player, but he has the tough guys around him who will allow him to play his game.
The Blues and star defenseman Alex Pietrangelo are at loggerheads over a contract issue, but even if it gets ugly, he’ll be back by mid-October. This team should be able to push the Blackhawks hard.
The Los Angeles Kings started slowly last year but got their act together by midseason and defeated St. Louis and San Jose in the playoffs.
They pushed the Blackhawks in the Conference Final, but when Jonathan Quick looked mortal in the series, the Blackhawks were able to take advantage.
The sting of losing will motivate the former champions and they will not go away this year. When you can put Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter and perhaps the league’s best defense crew together, you have a chance to beat anyone.
Head coach Darryl Sutter may bring all the excitement of stale shredded wheat to the equation, he gets the most out of his players. Sutter’s personality may rub some the wrong way, but he knows how to call out players any time he sees less than a stellar effort.
Early in the summer, it looked like the Coyotes would be leaving Phoenix (make that Glendale, Az.) and heading for Seattle or Quebec City. But after years of languishing without a leader, they were rescued by George Gosbee and his ownership group called IceArizona.
The Coyotes have a lot of work to do to become a successful business, but they have the players to make a serious run. Start off with Mike Smith in goal and a very successful defense led by Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Keith Yandle and Zbynek Michalek. That gives the Coyotes an excellent core.
They added creative – although sometimes selfish – Mike Ribeiro in the offseason, and he should make the Coyotes far more dangerous on the offensive end. Shane Doan and Radim Vrbata can also put the puck in the top corner
Any team that looks past the Coyotes will be making a mistake.
While other teams could emerge and holdovers like San Jose and Vancouver could still be dangerous, the Blues, Kings and Coyotes are likely to provide the Blackhawks with their stiffest challenges in the West this season.
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.