By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) The summer gave the Chicago Blackhawks a chance to breathe and take it all in.
Now the chase for Lord Stanley’s Cup begins again for a team that has already cemented its place in Chicago sports history.
In case you hadn’t realized, Chicago does not have an overwhelming history of winning sports championships in the four major sports.
The Chicago Bulls are the lone exception, having won six championships in eight years in the 1990s with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen leading the way. If Jordan hadn’t taken time off to pursue childhood baseball dreams, it very well could have been eight.
The current version of the Chicago Blackhawks is next. They have won two championships in four years and core players like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith are just coming into the prime of their careers. It’s not unreasonable to think that more championships are on the horizon.
Could a third title in five years be on tap? They certainly have a chance. There were no massive changes on the roster, as they were forced to endure after raising the Stanley Cup in 2010.
However, there have been a few key changes and they should not be glossed over.
The most important change is in net. Corey Crawford shared the goaltending duties with Ray Emery last season, and Emery was as big a part of the team’s regular-season success as any individual.
Emery had a 17-1-0 record, a 1.94 goals against average, a .922 save percentage and three shutouts. Those are sensational numbers and Emery is now in Philadelphia where he will attempt to solidify the Flyers’ shaky goaltending situation.
The Blackhawks have turned to Nikolai Khabibulin to back up Crawford, and that’s a curious choice. Khabibulin, 40, played in just 12 games last year for the Edmonton Oilers and he does not project to play more than 22 games this year.
Crawford and Emery had a near-equal regular-season partnership last year and it worked out perfectly. Crawford may have to play 60 games or more this season, and that could be too much to ask.
The Blackhawks also said goodbye to Dave Bolland, Viktor Stalberg, Michael Frolik and Dan Carcillo. Bolland scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal against the Bruins, but he did not always produce at the level Joel Quenneville wanted.
Stalberg had the speed to blow by defenders, but he rarely found the back of the net unless he was playing against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Frolik had a decent run in the playoffs with 10 points in 23 games, but he never reached double-digits in goals in any of his seasons with the Blackhawks.
Outside of those changes, the Blackhawks look like they are capable of making a run at the Stanley Cup once again. Toews is the team’s best player and while he does not score like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin or Steven Stamkos, he may be the NHL’s best all-around player.
Toews took on Boston’s Zdeno Chara in the Stanley Cup Final in midway through the series, and that’s the point that the Blackhawks took charge in the series. Despite the huge size differential, Toews (6-2, 208) attacked Chara (6-9, 260) and won the battle with his skill, quickness and courage.
Kane may be the most skilled player with the puck in the league. Give him the same 18 inches of daylight that Gale Sayers needed in his prime to get through the line of scrimmage with the Bears, and Kane will create a scoring opportunity.
Patrick Sharp is one of the game’s best finishers, while Marian Hossa is a spectacular talent who has the size, strength and skill to carry the team on his back.
Keith ranks with Chara, Nashville’s Shea Weber, Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson and Montreal’s P.K. Subban among the game’s best defensemen. He is supremely tough in the best sense of the word. He will go into the corner, come away with the puck, start the attack and finish it as well.
Then there’s Crawford, who overcame his shaky glove hand and delivered the key saves that gave the Blackhawks the Stanley Cup. When Crawford gave up five goals in Game 4 against the Boston Bruins, he was exposed.
There was no denying that the Bruins were targeting his left hand and it was just a matter of time before he collapsed.
Except he didn’t. He shook off the bad game and the questions that followed. He won that game and the next two. Could any other goalie have pulled off such a remarkable turnaround? It’s quite doubtful.
No team has repeated in the NHL since the Detroit Red Wings won back-to-back titles in 1997 and ’98. The Blackhawks certainly have a solid opportunity to break that trend, but they are going to have to overcome the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks, St. Louis Blues and even the Edmonton Oilers in the Western Conference and whomever survives the rugged Eastern Conference.
The current Blackhawks are already among the best teams Chicago has ever seen. It should only get better from here.
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.