September 07, 2008
NHL previews are often superfluous collections of popular opinions that, in the end, usually have no relation to how life actually works out. Which makes using stereotypical high-school yearbook superlatives and awards the appropriate template for Puck Daddy's 2008-09 NHL season previews, presented throughout September.
Last Semester: Tenth in the Western Conference (40-34-8, 88 points). The abridged version: Bill Wirtz finally died and everything stopped sucking so much and got pretty cool again.
The unabridged (and much more sensitive to the Wirtz family) version: Dollar Bill's passing came at a time when the winds of change (cue Scorpions song) were blowing through the Windy City anyway. Rookies Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews broke through in their first seasons, both earning rookie of the year nominations with Kane as the winner of the Calder Trophy. Forward Patrick Sharp had a revelatory season, playing some of the best two-way hockey in the Central Division this side of Zetterberg. Everywhere you looked, there was positive inspiration in Chicago: From the play of fake-defenseman Dustin Byfuglien to the all-too-brief rallying cry from coach Denis Savard for his players to "Commit to the Indian."
But the tangible difference for the team after Wirtz's death was the change in management, as son Rocky quickly revised some of his dad's counterproductive polices on television blackouts, made amends with stars like Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, announced such consumer-friendly events as a fan convention and hired Chicago Cubs president John McDonough to help usher in a new era of Blackhawks hockey.
Now that's change we can believe in!
Homecoming King (Top Player): Since we're going to speak about Toews in a moment, this is Kane's place to shine. When he was taken first overall, Kane looked more like the kind of kid who should be screaming for Gym Class Heroes at a TRL taping than the points leader for an NHL franchise. But his explosive speed and hockey sense were quickly evident in his rookie season, and his 21 goals and 72 points have elevated the expectations for rookies like Steven Stamkos. With the expected improvement of the Blackhawks' power play this season, expect an even bigger encore. Which, naturally, means Kane can have an even bigger pimp-hand when he's chasing international skirt.
Most Likely To Succeed (Potential Breakout): We've been obsessed with trying to draw comparisons between linemates Kane and Jonathan Toews since they burst onto the scene. Kane as the ladies man, Toews as the mama's boy. Samwise and Frodo seemed to stick. But from a hockey perspective, it's not all that difficult to see them as a Sergei Fedorov and Steve Yzerman of a new generation.
Kane is an offensive dynamo; Toews is a little more stoic, a little more well-rounded player and unquestionably the better leader, as his newly minted captaincy will tell you. Recall that in the 13 years they played together in Detroit, Yzerman led Fedorov in points for six of them. Should these two spend the same stretch of time together in Chicago, we'd expect the same kind of jockeying for the stats page top spot. An injury short-circuited Toews's rookie season; but with 54 points in 64 games, expect him to have a huge numbers year -- if he can stay out of the press box.
Best Expulsion: (Addition by Subtraction): Yanic Perreault was an ancient (37) defensive center that needed to go in order for the youth movement to continue. Fans were rather split on the loss of free agent Jason Williams to the Atlanta Thrashers. On the one hand, he showed some serious offensive spark in his (admittedly contract) season, before an injury gobbled up several weeks. The problem is that Williams got $2.2 million from the Thrashers, and the Blackhawks are in a rather precarious cap position. The other problem is that Williams showed as much defense as a Roller Hockey International game.
Exchange Students (Key New Additions): Here's what we said when rumors swirled about the Blackhawks signing UFA defenseman Brian Campbell:
"Campbell in Chicago is one of those perfect marriages -- puck-moving defenseman with 33 power-play points, coming to a team that was 24th in the NHL with the man advantage -- which naturally means it can't happen. But if it did, the jealously factor surrounding the Chicago Blackhawks would spike to Ryan Reynolds-is-dating-Scarlett-Johansson levels, if it hasn't already with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews."
Perhaps it's been overshadowed by the tomfoolery surrounding Tampa Bay and the Hossa-to-Detroit stunner, but Campbell's eight-year, $56.8 million contract will be remembered as the most significant transaction of Summer 2008 whether it's a success or failure.
On paper, he's rather perfect, salary implications be damned: A puck-moving defenseman for a team that desperately needed one last season, and a veteran blue-liner who can lead a talented group of young defenseman like Brian Seabrook and Duncan Keith. The only danger signs here are if fans and media expect Campbell to play to his salary rather than to his abilities. Otherwise, he's not a shutdown guy but a great hitter with some great offensive upside, and he's a difference maker -- as the San Jose Sharks would tell you after they punched you in the face for mentioning Campbell's name.
If Campbell's signing was an indication that the Blackhawks have arrived, the signing of goalie Cristobal Huet to a four-year, $22.5 million UFA contract feels like overcompensation. Obviously eager to turn the page on Nikolai Khabibulin and content to allow Corey Crawford to hold the clipboard for a while, the Blackhawks inked a goalie that had as much to do as Ovechkin did in leading the Washington Capitals to the postseason. But that was in the second half of his walk year, and Huet has otherwise never established himself an elite goalie. A $5.625 cap hit for someone in a platoon seems a tad excessive.
Class Clowns (Pests and Pugilists): Like any outsider attempting to climb up the caste ladder, the Blackhawks have a collection of pesky players who can piss you off in variety of ways. Sharp's tenacious defense and clutch offense. Campbell's ability to blow up an opponent with a check and then lead an offensive rush. Then there are players like Ben Eager and Adam Burish, who seemingly want to elevate agitation to an art form. Eager takes absolute joy in being one of the league's best pests. Burish led the team with 214 penalty minutes, and lives up to his college mascot with his badgering. He can also drop'em ... and by "'em" we of course mean Eric Nystrom, with one punch:
Teacher of the Year: They've changed the players. They've changed management. They've changed the very course of the franchise in Chicago. The only thing they haven't changed is the coach, which makes this season a critical one for Denis Savard. He's in the final year of his contract; and rather than just commit to the Indian, management committed millions of dollars to putting this team in the postseason. If Chicago doesn't make the cut, Savard is toast. That's the prediction.
But the real teacher of the year is Scotty Bowman, who joined the Blackhawks as an advisor in one of the most stunning moves of the off-season. How much influence will he have on the ice or in the boardroom? No one can say. But the man knows a thing or two about the Detroit Red Wings, which will make those division games a little more competitive this season.
The Custodians (Goalies): Darren Dreger of TSN reported that Nikolai Khabibulin has been vocal about playing 60 games this season. Since the chances for that are about slim and none in Chicago, logic would dictate that The Bulin Wall will be moved to another city; a move that would also help with the Blackhawks' cap concerns.
Huet isn't an elite goaltender. He's a better than average keeper who showed last season that he can be outstanding for stretches. Is he an upgrade from Khabibulin? He's younger, and he's not a player from the Dollar Bill era. But he's also a goalie that's never started more than 39 games in a season.
Assuming Khabibulin is traded, Corey Crawford remains a very important part of this team's success.
The Hall Monitors (Defensemen): Campbell leads a very talented group. Seabrook and Keith are both solid; as Ross McKeon mentioned in his preview, Keith trailed only Florida's Jay Bouwmeester and Calgary's Dion Phaneuf for TOI last season. Brent Sopel adds veteran savvy, Wisniewski brings a physical presence when he's healthy, and players like Jordan Hendry, Cam Barker, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Doug Janik and Matt Walker are right in the mix as well.
The bottom line is that Seabrook/Keith and Campbell/Sopel are a solid foundation to build a young team around.
Coolest Class Trip: The Blackhawks will, of course, face off against the Detroit Red Wings at Wrigley Field on New Year's Day, in a game where scalping one ticket could pay for your entire season's worth of Chicago hockey. One thought: Has anyone reached out to Steve Bartman to drop the ceremonial first puck? Let the healing begin, Chicago!
Most Likely To Earn a Wedgie in the Hallway (Potential Flop): Huet's lack of workhorse experience is a concern, but Crawford could ease that tension. The spotlight's on Campbell, not only because of his contract but because his role is so clearly defined: Post the same kind of offensive numbers he did last season and turn the Chicago power-play into a winner. No one's asking him to turn into Rod Langway on the defensive end ... but he can't be Phil Housley, either.
But let's face it: Martin Havlat might as well change his uniform number to "?". His health, his contract status ... it all hangs around him like a cloud of dust around Pigpen from "Peanuts." Chicago's second line appears to be Byfuglien, an inconsistent Robert Lang and Havlat. That's as much a mystery as the first line is a sure-thing.
AV Club (Media): Ask some Blackhawks fans, and the return of beloved announcer Pat Foley to the team is just as big as signing Brian Campbell. He partners with Eddie Olczyk, whom we hope has insights that are as great as his hair one day.
Toughest Class (Biggest Issue Facing the Team): The Bandwagon. Look, the Blackhawks are the flavor of the month. Some are predicting they'll not only make the playoffs, but win a round in the West. These predictions are made without concern about how Campbell plays under the weight of the contract, how the goaltending situation plays out, and whether or not the top line of Sharp-Toews-Kane can replicate last season, let alone improve upon it. People just like the idea of the best looking uniform in hockey getting back in the win column.
This team has some serious, exciting upside. There's no doubt about that. But it's selling tickets and getting attention based on that potential, and that's always a dangerous thing for a team that's still very green and playing in an astonishingly competitive conference.
Forget the Indian; commit to not buying into your own hype.
2008-09 Preseason Report Card:
Forwards: B- (pending the addition of another left winger)
Special Teams: B
Prom Theme: "Feels Like the First Time" by Foreigner. Not only because the Blackhawks are hoping that their rookies avoid a sophomore slump, but let's face it: We could be seeing the baby-steps of a franchise trying to win its first Stanley Cup since 1961.
Expected Graduation: OK, after all of that: Will the Chicago Blackhawks make the Western Conference playoffs?
Take a look at last season's Western Conference qualifiers. Who's dropping out? Nashville? Colorado? Calgary? Could Minnesota take a huge step back? The fact is that Chicago came within three points of the playoffs last season with a team that was too young and dumb to know they weren't supposed to contend that quickly. So to answer the question: Yes, the Chicago Blackhawks will make the playoffs this season. Which means you should get on the bandwagon now before everyone takes their places.
It's an exciting time for hockey in Chicago. Not only because the team is good, but because you just want to root for these guys, don't you?