(Ed. Note: It’s an Olympic year in the NHL. So, naturally, we decided to use the trappings of the Winter Games to preview all 30 teams for the 2013-14 NHL season. Who takes the gold? Who falls on their triple-axel? Read on and find out!)
So things worked out OK for the Chicago Blackhawks last season, what with winning their second Stanley Cup in four seasons and all ...
Those 17 seconds in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Boston Bruins will go down as one of the most stunning sequences in NHL history. The Bruins looked destined to push the series to a Game 7. Instead, the Blackhawks received goals from Bryan Bickell and Dave Bolland (the Cup-winner) to capture the Chalice.
Patrick Kane won the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP. Corey Crawford managed to accomplish what few thought he could, backstopping the Blackhawks on his own and turning that effort into a long-term contract, rather than getting Niemi’d.
Of course, half the fun is getting there. Chicago set a new NHL record for most consecutive games earning at least a point to start a season with 24, and had the second-longest streak in NHL history for consecutive games earning at least a point with 30, five away from the Flyers’ all-time record of 35. (Although the NHL only considered the single-season streak.)
In the playoffs, they bested the Minnesota Wild in five games before an epic seven-game battle with the Detroit Red Wings in their Western Conference farewell. Chicago eliminated the defending Cup champion Kings in the conference finals, before facing Boston.
Can the Blackhawks repeat the feat?
Yeah, about those 17 seconds.
The biggest departure from the Blackhawks is center Dave Bolland, a veteran member of both Cup teams and tormentor of Sedins. The Hawks needed cap space and dealt him to the Toronto Maple Leafs at the NHL Draft for three draft picks. They also sent forward Michael Frolik to the Winnipeg Jets for two picks.
Also gone from the Blackhawks is Ray Emery, who takes his obscene 17-1-0 record last season back to the Philadelphia Flyers on a 1-year deal. Rusty Olesz was given a buyout and ended up with the Devils. Viktor Stalberg and Dan Carcillo weren’t re-signed, and Steve Montador was given a buyout as well.
The most significant addition to the team was goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, back for another stint at a surprising $2 million for one year. Theo Peckham, also from Edmonton, signed for one year as did Mike Kostka from the Leafs.
Forward: It was a revelatory year for Patrick Kane, who showed a new-found maturity and a renewed offensive spark in posting the best offensive numbers of his career (on average). His Conn Smythe win was the result of a hat trick to eliminate the Kings and four points in consecutive wins over the Bruins in Games 4 and 5.
Jonathan Toews was … well, Jonathan Toews. He was a point-per-game player in the regular season before morphing into a shutdown defensive player in the postseason. Maybe he was little too defensive, given that he didn’t score a goal until Game 5 vs. Detroit and then didn’t score another one until Game 4 vs. Boston. But Toews was at his best when it counted most, with five points in the last three games of the Final.
Bryan Bickell earned a blockbuster contract extension by entering Beast Mode in the postseason, scoring nine goals and eight assists in 23 games.
Marian Hossa (31 points) had a strong regular season but was frustrated in the playoffs, while Patrick Sharp (20 points) struggled through injuries. Picking up the slack: Rookie Brandon Saad, who had 27 points in the regular season and was a Calder finalist.
Andrew Shaw bled in Game 6 and contributed good offense in his tough minutes. Michal Handzus had a surprising 11 points in the playoffs, giving Chicago strong second-line center minutes. Marcus Kruger played a key defensive role all season. Brandon Bollig brought the truculence.
Expect Chicago to have some fresh faces in the lineup this season, with Brandon Pirri potentially earning top-six minutes as well as Jimmy Hayes, Drew LeBlanc, Ben Smith and Jeremy Morin pushing for spots.
Defense: The top four can stack up with anyone in the NHL. Duncan Keith’s 27 points in the regular season put him fourth overall on the team. Brent Seabrook continues to be a dependable defender and a team leader – please recall his lighting a fire under Toews in the playoffs. Johnny Oduya’s slick skating makes him an asset, even if his point totals don’t always reflect it. Niklas Hjalmarsson had a standout year, and was the Blackhawks’ best defenseman in the postseason.
Michal Rozsival returns with a new contract. So does Nick Leddy, trying to shake a disappointing postseason from his memory. Sheldon Brookbank and Peckham provide depth.
Goalies: Whether or not you believe Corey Crawford is a $6-million-a-year goalie is immaterial, because he is one. Of course, now he’ll have the weight of that contract and those expectations on his shoulders, along with the pressure of trying to make an Olympic roster in the first three months of the season. But he showed us a lot in 2013 … including that he’s weak to the glove side, as we all recall. Khabibulin, meanwhile, must be salivating at the prospect of getting those Emery numbers.
Joel Quenneville was rewarded with a contact extension this summer, completing his journey from the Stanley Cup to the hot seat back to the Stanley Cup. He brings a confidence to the Blackhawks’ bench and has the trust of the players, even when he juggles line like a circus clown juggles bowling pins.
GM Stan Bowman isn’t exactly the frugal sort, but he has managed to keep this team together as the cap plummeted. His work rebuilding the ranks of grunts for Chicago can’t be ignored in their Cup victory.
Is there anything more stirring than a symphony? Is there anything more invigorating that a symphony playing “Chelsea Dagger?” We think not.
Toews and Kane. The Blackhawks’ dynamic duo have earned two Cups before their 26th birthdays, which is pretty good in this day and age. With Chicago management talking about making them Blackhawks 4 Life, how many more can they add?
Coach Q. He would have been hired in 17 seconds by another team if the Blackhawks had cut him loose. Instead, he orchestrated both the streak and the Cup victory with the power of his fabulous mustache.
The Defense. It’s a six-deep group, with a fantastic top four. Sure, you can quibble with some things – Keith playing over the edge, Seabrook’s inconsistency, Oduya’s lack of points and Hjalmarsson’s heinous abuse of our spellcheck – but it’s arguable the best in the West.
Second Line Center. The Hawks won despite the lack of a solid No. 2 pivot behind Toews, and don’t appear to have one heading into this season. Could Pirri be the answer?
First in the Central Division, contending for another Stanley Cup. The Hawks have the potential to go back-to-back, but that’s asking a lot from a team that played deep into June and has its share of Olympians. If they’re not worn down, the Blackhawks could emerge from a Western Conference that now has 100 percent less Detroit in it.