NHL season previews often sell you an impressive bill of goods before you realize, at the end of the season, you're holding an empty box. Which makes using advertisements and infomercials the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2009-10 NHL Season Previews, presented each day throughout September.
Last Season's Ad Copy: Fourth in the Western Conference and second in the Central Division 46-24-12, 104 points). At the start of last season, the Chicago Blackhawks were accused of believing their own hype; arriving in limos and walking the red carpet at their home opener despite not having made the postseason since 2002.
Those critics had a laugh when Joel Quenneville replaced Denis Savard four games into the season; Coach Q had the last laugh, going 45-22-11 and leading the Hawks over the Calgary Flames (4-2) and the Vancouver Canucks (4-2) in the conference playoffs before getting humbled in the conference final by the Detroit Red Wings, 4-1. (The same Wings that showed us earlier in the season that even if the game is played in January, Wrigley Field can still be a shrine to crushing failure in Chicago sports.)
The Hawks were powered by a career year from winger Martin Havlat(notes) (77 points), season-salvaging play from Nikolai Khabibulin(notes) in goal (2.33 GAA, .919 save percentage in 42 games) and the continued maturation of the team's star-studded young core.
After that unexpected rise to prominence, the Blackhawks had two paths from which to choose in the offseason: Preserve the roster, even if in the short term, for a run at the Cup this season; or make some aggressive alternations/additions to the roster to, in theory, increase the team's chances for a Cup.
They chose "aggressive." In the eyes of many, they chose "way too aggressive." It's been a tumultuous summer for the Hawks, from firings to hirings to Patrick Kane(notes) being involved in the most embarrassing celebrity interaction with a taxi since that Jimmy Fallon movie.
Yes despite the bad karma, the squandering of fan goodwill and the potentially disastrous personnel decisions of the last three months ... can the 2009-10 Chicago Blackhawks still end up being your Stanley Cup champions?
Latest Gadgets (Offseason Additions): Lost amid the shock, awe and NHL investigation of Marian Hossa's(notes) 12-year contract with the Blackhawks is the fact that, when healthy, he's one of the best players in hockey.
He tallied 40 goals and 77 points with the Red Wings last season, averaging 2.75 points per 60 minutes. Hossa's an elite sniper that will improve Chicago's power play and scoring depth. And while his selection of the Blackhawks probably means they won't win the Cup for the next decade, there's still a slim chance this move puts Chicago over the top.
Two depth moves should make an impact, too. Former Wing Tomas Kopecky(notes), the scrappy Czech whose offensive numbers are improving; and former New Jersey Devils shutdown center John Madden(notes), a rink rat who fits perfectly in the mold of other gritty Hawks down the lineup.
To The Recycle Bin (Offseason Subtractions): Remember that chat we had at the start of this preview about choosing one path or another?
The Blackhawks could have passed on Hossa, re-signed Havlat and Khabibulin short-term, and made a run with the group they had last season. Instead, Khabibulin signed with the Edmonton Oilers, Havlat left for the Minnesota Wild, and the Blackhawks received a heaping serving of regret that would put a Chicago-style pizza to shame.
Havlat's departure was famously bitter, with the former winger blasting Hawks management on Twitter and TSN following the Hossa deal and the removal of Dale Tallon as general manager. His message to disillusioned Hawks fans: "If you care about the direction of the team, do something about it."
Checking center Samuel Pahlsson(notes) left for the Columbus Blue Jackets. One departure worth remembering: Defenseman Matt Walker(notes) to the Tampa Bay Lightning. He was a valuable grunt for this team last season when he wasn't grossing out the ladies.
The Pitchman (Top Offensive Player): While this very well could be Hossa by season's end, the focus here is on Samwise and Frodo.
Patrick Kane saw his points slip by two and his goals increase by five from his rookie of the year campaign. He overcame a January swoon (three points) to finish well and post 14 points in 16 playoff games. He's unpredictable, explosive and dangerous ... and not just when he doesn't receive exact change (yuk yuk).
Jonathan Toews(notes) scored 34 goals in 82 games last season, and had a higher points per 60 minutes average (2.40) than Kane (1.90). If you're one of those who believe Toews is the next Steve Yzerman, he's starting to provide amply evidence for that argument: Scoring goals and making others, like rookie standout Kris Versteeg(notes) (22 goals, 51 points), into better players.
If you had to pick one, it'd probably be Toews for his consistency. But it's a close debate.
From Puck Buddy Trevor E.
Introducing ... (Potential Breakout Player): The breakout started last season for center David Bolland with 19 goals and 47 points, and should continue this year. He's not going to appear in the headlines all too often; heck, many fans outside of Chicago probably just know him as the guy who was overpaid (5 years, $3.375 million per season) in one of Dale Tallon's final deals. But he's a versatile player with great defensive instincts; and best of all, he isn't going anywhere this season with that contract.
Operators Are Standing By (The Defensemen): Whatever the goaltending gives Chicago this season (more on that in a moment), the Hawks know they'll have the rock-solid defense of Duncan Keith(notes) (25:34 TOI) and Brent Seabrook(notes) (23:19 TOI) to rely on at even strength and shorthanded. One of the best duos in hockey, without a second thought.
Brian Campbell's(notes) defensive deficiencies were widely ridiculed last season, which obscured the fact that he was exactly what the Hawks wanted him to be: a puck-moving defenseman and a boost to the power play (20 assists).
Cam Barker(notes), who could be Campbell's partner this season again, led the Hawks defensemen in power-play points (29) during a breakout season. Niklas Hjalmarsson(notes), Aaron Johnson(notes), the ageless Brent Sopel(notes) and Jordan Hendry(notes) are all in the mix for the other spots. Watch out for Shawn Lalonde(notes) in camp, as he tries to make his case for staying out of the OHL this season.
The Spokesmodel (The Goalies): The Blackhawks made their choice, and it's Cristobal Huet(notes). His numbers were respectable last season (20-15-4, 2.53 GAA, .909 save percentage), but he lost the starting job to Khabibulin for most of the postseason. Huet's stellar effort in Game 5 against the Wings (44 saves) showed some promise, however.
Bottom line is that the Hawks are going with a keeper who started over 40 games for the
first second time last season, and behind him are unproven commodities in Corey Crawford(notes) and Antti Niemi(notes). They could have signed 10 Hossas (including Marcel!) and it'll still be Huet that makes or breaks the season.
The Inventor (The Coach): Quenneville's was a heck of a story last season, going from a DUI citation in September to his third NHL head-coaching gig in October. Quenneville righted the ship for the Blackhawks, juggling the goalies and managing the personnel deftly during the regular season. He continued to coach well in the postseason ... until his unraveling in the Red Wings series, symbolized by an embarrassing rant about a phantom roughing call that he deemed "the worst call in the history of sports."
When he's in control, he's a steadying presence for a young team who knows when the clamp down defensively when necessary. One hopes he learned a few lessons along with the Hawks during the conference finals.
2009-10 Preseason Report Card:
Special Teams: B (The power play needs to be better than 19.3 percent; Madden helps the kill.)
Management: Inc. (It's
John McDonough's Scotty Bowman's Stan Bowman's show now.)
"A Blackhawks off season re-loading for a Cup run involved firing their GM for a mistake his successor ultimately made, essentially trading one game-changing winger with a bum shoulder for another and returning with a $5.6M back up goalie and no reasonable challengers behind him. But Chicago is confident because the Red Wings took some hits and quite frankly; it's invigorating to be excited about hockey in Chi-town again. In the end, if Huet plays like a $5.6M goalie and stays healthy, the Hawks will win the Central. If not, 95 points and winning games 7-5 each night will be a tough task."
"The scariest things for Hawks fans this season is that there are so few, on-ice questions to be answered. After our flaming overturned short-bus of an offseason are over, eyes will naturally turn to between the pipes and wonder if Huet can handle it, or are we going to become the Flyers West? Well, Huet's regular season numbers were almost the same as Khabibulin's, and Nikolai Harvey-Bird-Man was stunningly mediocre for most of the playoffs, so the skates to fill are not canyon-like. Other than that, the questions are pretty minor, such as will we get enough scoring from our third line when Hossa's healthy, can our PK improve enough? But mostly, Hawks fans will have the best team we've seen here in decades, and are they ready to make the leap, and that's by far the scariest question."
Al Cimaglia (formerly of ESPN Chicago) says ...
"The Blackhawks are a year older and a year wiser which should lead to being better, but the road to the Stanley Cup is usually a bumpy one. If they hit April healthy an even longer long playoff run could become a reality."
"Even with Hossa injured, Havlat Gone 'Wild' and Huet being counted on to be No. 1, the Blackhawks still have enough talent to be the top team in the West and erase the fans' pessimism after an eventful off-season. With Kane leading the jail break toward the net, the offensive fire power balanced with Keith and Seabrook anchoring a strong defense make for an exciting 2009-10 season in Chicago."
Don Draper Says ...
"We take for granted, the things we need the most. Food, electricity, goaltending, a third defensive pairing. But sometimes life is more than its essentials. You ask yourselves every day what your team needs in order to succeed. The answer is so basic, you feel like you already know it, you just haven't thought of it lately. The answer, gentlemen, is Versteeg."
Results May Vary (Biggest Issues Facing the Team): The goaltending numbers between Huet and Khabibulin are similar, but the fact remains that Huet couldn't earn the starting job last season and hasn't been a workhorse starter for an entire season. How long will Marian Hossa need to rehab from shoulder surgery, where does he fit when he returns and what does his return mean for the team's salary cap situation heading into next summer's Keith/Kane/Toews free-agency headache? Does last season's bridesmaid journey in the playoffs portend the team taking the next step this season, or will it regress?
Warranty Expires (Prediction): Let's get it this out of the way -- the Blackhawks are a team that makes you want to find reasons why they won't win the Stanley Cup this season, because they're that good in theory.
They're loaded at forward, from the established stars to the burgeoning stars (Dustin Byfuglien(notes), Patrick Sharp(notes)) to the grunts like Adam Burish(notes) to the kids like Kyle Beach(notes) and Akim Aliu(notes). Even if the team needs to make some tough salary decisions this season, it could survive the blow with that depth.
The concerns about Huet are valid, and your feelings on him will no doubt determine your feelings on Chicago's fortunes. If nothing else, this is a highly-seeded playoff team. But if things break the right way, it could be much more than that ... assuming everyone plays to their potential, management doesn't make any more sweeping changes and Patrick Kane hires a driver.