By Chris Emma—
CHICAGO (CBS) – More than two years removed from hoisting the Stanley Cup with some Blackhawks teammates who have become like brothers, veteran forward Patrick Sharp now looks around the dressing room to a cast of kids.
During training camp at Notre Dame, he approached 21-year-old center Nick Schmaltz looking to make a connection and asked who his favorite player was growing up. It was Patrick Kane.
Sharp, who turns 36 in December, had his eyes go wide.
“I think of Kaner as a baby,” Sharp said Wednesday at the United Center. “Now we’re playing with guys that grew up watching Kaner play. So it’s an interesting dynamic. But we’re building something here.”
The Blackhawks are in a unique place from when Sharp was traded to Dallas in July 2015 weeks after winning the Stanley Cup. For the first time since their championship core came together, they were thoroughly embarrassed on the ice this past April. As the top seed in the Western Conference, the Blackhawks were swept away by the upstart Predators and left as a humbled organization.
After a terrific regular season, the Blackhawks were exposed. So they spent the offseason making major changes. The first was forced, with veteran winger Marian Hossa stepping away from hockey due to a skin condition that brought extreme side effects from its required medication. Two days later, forward Artemi Panarin was traded to Columbus in a move that returned Brandon Saad, a needed two-way forward to help fill the void left by Hossa.
Not even an hour later on June 23, the Blackhawks moved defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, an underrated piece to their core, to the Coyotes for defenseman Connor Murphy and forward Laurent Dauphin. Sharp was later signed, bringing a familiar face in who has the trust of coach Joel Quenneville.
General manager Stan Bowman loaded up with complementary forwards and restocked the blue line with younger defensemen. The Blackhawks will of course rely upon that core, but they need the young players to rise up.
As Quenneville was quick to explain, the Blackhawks need to be hungry.
“It’s a fresh challenge, a brand new team,” Quenneville said. “We got to move ahead. Fresh beginning here, fresh objective. Basically, we got to prove everything we have to prove going forward. We can’t look in the rearview mirror on what we’ve accomplished in the past.”
The Blackhawks know well what they’re striving to accomplish. Their mantra of One Goal is plastered high atop the dressing room. This team is expected to win the Stanley Cup. Coming up a few bounces short is understandable, but getting out-classed in the first round is unacceptable.
The entire organization was examined in the aftermath of the Predators’ sweep. The roster got a facelift and management forced changes to the coaching staff, which left Quenneville unhappy. The Blackhawks believe they’re stronger than before.
For all the new pieces, the standard remains the same. Blackhawks newcomer and Evanston native Tommy Wingels realized it right away.
“It’s an experienced group that’s hungry to win again and expects to win,” Wingels said. “This group understands how difficult it is. It’s been two disappointing years in a row here. This is a group that wants to win and expects to win – from management to ownership to the players to the fans.”
The elder statesman of the team, Sharp remembers being a young player with the Flyers and having accomplished veterans like Jeremy Roenick, Mark Recchi and Keith Primeau as leaders. Now, he’s that player for a young teammate like Alex DeBrincat, the 19-year-old rookie he will likely play alongside.
In DeBrincat, the Blackhawks hope to have their next young star. He dominated the junior level, scoring 65 goals and tallying 62 assists in 63 games with the Erie Otters in the Ontario Hockey League last season. After proving his place in the preseason, DeBrincat arrived with the Blackhawks ahead of schedule.
The Blackhawks want DeBrincat to bring kind of game missing for them the last few years.
“He’s playing like he’s still in juniors — hanging onto the puck, making plays, scoring,” Sharp said. “That’s exactly what we want out of him. There’s no backing down, no deferring to veteran players. That’s’ the wrong way to play. We want him to step right in, be himself, be Alex, score goals, make plays and (we) make him feel comfortable out there.”
Added Quenneville: “He makes things happen. It seems like every time he touches the puck, good things can happen.”
Perhaps the greatest difference for the Blackhawks in the 2017-’18 season can be from their captain, Jonathan Toews, whose 58 points in each of the last two seasons represented a drop in his usual production. Toews has endured scoring droughts and individual frustrations amid his team’s quest to be great.
The NHL Network recently ranked players at each position and had Toews as the 12th-best center in the game. That caught the attention of many Blackhawks, including Toews himself.
“There’s certainly not a lack of respect to his game from the players around the league,” Wingels said of Toews. “I know stuff’s been written. I know media polls out there, they’ve put him in a certain spot. But Jonathan Toews is certainly looked at as a top-five centerman in this league. I guarantee you every player would say that.
“Does it put an extra chip on his shoulder? I absolutely think it does. But he’s a guy who’s going to put his work in every day to be the best player he can, regardless of what people say about him.”
The Blackhawks are eager to take home ice against the defending champion Penguins on Thursday night in their season opener. It marks the beginning for a team that Quenneville describes as new and the reach for the bar set at the highest level.
There are champions like Toews, Kane and Sharp joining newcomers like Murphy, Wingels and DeBrincat working together with the Stanley Cup standard in mind.
“That’s the goal,” Sharp said. “That’s what we play for. That’s what the expectation is here in Chicago.”