Yes, indeed, despite the promise of impending labor Armageddon and a prolonged work-stoppage, your friends at Puck Daddy are previewing the 2012-13 NHL season (whenever the heck it starts). Why? Because this is the most important election in the history of all-time ever, and you need to know the candidates — like the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Blackhawks had average-at-best goaltending, terrible special teams (26th on the power play, 27th on the kill), saw Patrick Kane score more at the Univ. of Wisconsin than on the ice and suffered through an injury-plagued year from Jonathan Toews. Heck, even Coach Joel Quenneville's future was being debated.
Yet they still finished sixth in the Western Conference with 101 points in a very competitive division, before bowing out to Mike Smith and the Phoenix Coyotes in the opening round.
Are the Blackhawks back in championship form, or will their lineup holes cause they to sink again in the postseason?
"Patrick Sharp. Ladies …"
Not many. The Blackhawks attempted to address their blueline problems by signing the hulking Sheldon Brookbank away from the Ducks for 2 years and $5 million. Then they snagged Michal Rozsival from the Coyotes on Sept. 11, which should make for some interesting reminiscing about last postseason during camp.
As of now, players like Brendan Morrison, Andrew Brunette, Sean O'Donnell and Sami Lepisto remained unsigned.
At forward … Despite being limited to 59 games, Toews posted the best points-per-game average of his career at 0.97. He remains one of the NHL's most complete players, effective leaders and the heartbeat of this team.
Kane, his former linemate, was used as a center by Quenneville with frequency in 2011-12, partially because he has the skills set to excel there but also out of offensive necessity. After two years as a point-per-game player, his production dropped to 0.80 PPG — coinciding with a bunch of trade talk, including a swap for Buffalo's Ryan Miller. Meanwhile, in fashion news, he's the only NHL player to score a goal while wearing a Superman cape and wear a likeness of himself on a T-shirt during a drunken weekend in Madison.
Patrick Sharp didn't have the adversity of his fellow stars at forward; he simply posted an impressive 33 goals and 36 assists while finishing at a plus-28. Marian Hossa led the Blackhawks with 77 points before getting Raffi'd in the playoffs. He's expected to be ready for the start of the season.
Dave Bolland can't be counted on for consistent offense, but that's besides the point: He's one of the NHL's best shutdown centers at 26 years old.
Viktor Stalberg's 22 goals last season, and strong postseason play, could be harbingers of bigger things to come. The Hawks will look for contributions from Bryan Bickell, Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger up front, with truculent Jamal Mayers and Daniel Carcillo in the mix down the lineup. What Michael Frolik gives you is anyone's guess.
On defense … Duncan Keith was not in Norris form, and didn't earn that 11-year contract extension, either. Which is to say that he was better than a vast majority of NHL defensemen with 40 points and a plus-15, but not up to the lofty standards he had established. Then there was that moronic elbow on Daniel Sedin …
Brent Seabrook was the better defenseman last season, and one of the Blackhawks' most consistent players — even as his points dropped from a career-best 48 in 2010-11.
Johnny Oduya acquired from the Winnipeg Jets and then re-signed, gave the Blackhawks an element of puck-moving speed from the blue line they lacked since Brian Campbell shipped down to reunite with Dale Tallon. He has his lapses, though; can the Blackhawks squeeze 20 points from him?
Speaking of puck-movers: It may eventually be Nick Leddy that becomes the poor man's Campbell, as the 21-year-old defenseman played through some rough patches to show solid potential.
With Brookbank and Rozsival joining the group, the conventional wisdom is that Niklas Hjalmarsson could be shipped out. He's 25, makes a lot of coin and simply isn't going to provide the offense or physicality that one expects.
In goal … Corey Crawford gets about as much respect as a Bears quarterback, which is to say that he's embraced when the team does well and called out as the primary ill when it struggles. His numbers weren't strong last season, and the Coyotes victimized him for soft OT game winners in the first round. Can he rebound, or do the Blackhawks finally have to flip some of their roster players for an elite netminder?
Ray Emery is back as the No. 2.
"The Blackhawks Song" … an ode to the casual fan the just discovered the Hawks recently. OK, a few years ago. Byfuglien name check!
Quenneville is one of the best coaches in the NHL. He's also not responsible for having the spine of their championship roster ripped out and never suitably replaced. But that hasn't kept him off the hot seat. The old "fire the assistants first" routine is playing out in Chicago.
GM Stan Bowman kept the heart of his team together with some big money long-term deals, but he's kept to rebuild the depth on this team to a championship level. If the Blackhawks are an average team in the Central, what will he do to shake them up?
We'll go with Patrick Kane, if only because the Hawks are much more dangerous with (a) an effective Patrick Kane and (b) a strong second line and (c) a strong second-line center.
Andrew Shaw might have already broken out with his sparkplug 23 points in 37 games last season. But the path is there for him to become Brad Marchand West with his aggressive play and surprising offense. Let's hope getting jobbed by the NHL in the playoffs for that Mike Smith dive makes him edgier.
Corey Crawford, if only because his play is going to dictate the dictate the direction Bowman takes this team.
[Concerned female narrator]
"Hockey fans are some of our world's most precious commodities. They need to be fed, nurtured, cared after. The greatest gift you can give a hockey fan? The gift of melodrama."
"Yet the Chicago Blackhawks refuse to trade for Roberto Luongo, despite having goaltending that's slightly better than saturated tissue paper. Won't someone think of the fans? Or the psychological experiment that would be Roberto Luongo hearing 'Chelsea Dagger' as a form of positive reinforcement?"
"Paid for by Friends of Cory Schneider."
What are the Predators without Ryan Suter? What are the Red Wings without Nicklas Lidstrom? Can the St. Louis Blues repeat their incredible performance under Ken Hitchcock?
We ask these questions as a lead in to the Blackhawks' chances, which will be greatly affected by how their division stacks up. This is a playoff team, no doubt; but the seeding and their chances for a Cup will be determined by the rest of the division and by how aggressively Bowman decides to address problems at center and between the pipes.