Chicago Blackhawks

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The Dust Settles

With Tuesday’s introduction of Marty Turco as the new starting goaltender, The Chicago Blackhawks appear ready to enter the season. Stan Bowman announced that the Blackhawks would make no more moves this offseason, and that he believes the club is good enough to win again this season. After a whirlwind summer, the final picture is starting to become clear, and we can predict, with reasonably accuracy, just what this squad will look like as it bids for a second consecutive Stanley Cup title.

There was much hand-wringing over the summer from Blackhawk fans as Bowman attempted to maneuver himself under the salary cap. Sporting a bevy of young players expecting raises and some grossly overpaid players (due in parts to the RFA paperwork snafu of last offseason, significant bonuses to Kane and Toews that exceeded last year’s bonus cushion, and the giant contracts of Brian Campbell and erstwhile backup goalie Cristobal Huet), it was assumed that some movement would be necessary in order to meet the salary requirements of the upcoming season.

But few could have predicted such a drastic change in the Blackhawk landscape. In all, nine players will receive their Stanley Cup rings by mail, including starting goalie Antti Niemi and fan favorites Adam Burish, Andrew Ladd, and Dustin Byfuglien. A total of 80 of the Hawks’ 271 goals last season have departed via trade or free agency.

And while there are reasons for worry, there should still be some optimism on West Madison this Fall. The Hockey News ranks the Blackhawks at 4th in the Western Conference, and there are still many who believe a title defense isn’t that much of a reach. Let’s take a look at how this year’s roster will likely be composed and examine the strengths and weaknesses, in order of importance.

The Stars
Stan Bowman likes to call this the “core” of the team, but let’s be realistic; these are the guys who fill the seats and make the headlines. Your stars are counted on to produce at a high level with high consistency. The Hawks have nearly $17 million in salary committed to Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews alone this season—roughly 30% of the entire team’s payroll. They will need to justify those numbers and grow their games to elite levels. If their playoff performances are any indication, they should be just fine.

Jonathan Toews – The Conn Smythe winner had a remarkable postseason and was a concussion away from posting a career high in points last year. Look for him to focus on improving his offensive game this season. A point a game or higher is not unreasonable.

Patrick Kane – The most visible Blackhawk loves the spotlight, and all eyes will be on him this year. Much like Sidney Crosby, Kane began shooting more last season, which led to more goals and more space for the gifted winger. He finished 9th in points in the NHL last year with 88. With luck, he could reach 100 this season.

Duncan Keith – Stepped up his offense in a big way en route to his first Norris trophy. Numbers may dip a little this year, but he’s still one of the top defensemen in the world.

Marian Hossa – Numbers dipped a bit in his first season in Chicago, but still a consistent 30-40 goal scorer every year. A full season of Hossa will be a big boost to this team’s scoring, and will make up for some of the losses on offense.

Brent Seabrook – One of the most underrated defenders in the league, the Olympian will stay at home a lot this season. Some might argue that he belongs in the next group, but he’s one of the most consistent defenders in the league and is a large part of Keith’s success.

The Role Players
Every player has a role on a Joel Quenneville team and, while you won’t see these players’ names in lights with much frequency, they’ll put up good performances (or better) that will provide the additional strength that any “team” requires.

Patrick Sharp – As with Seabrook, it could be argued that he belongs in the other group, especially since Bowman calls Sharp a member of the team’s core, but I feel he’s just outside the cusp of that level. A proven clutch player, Sharpy could spring himself up into that group by building on a tremendous (and largely unnoticed) playoff performance where he went 11-11-22 in 22 games. Quenneville has indicated that Sharp will continue to play center this year, presumably anchoring that second line.

Brian Campbell – The much maligned defenseman proved his worth during the Nashville series when his return sparked a dramatic improvement in the style of play. Still overpaid, but much more valuable than most people believe.

Niklas Hjalmarsson – Two years ago I went on record saying that “Hjalmarsson reminds me of Duncan Keith circa 2005.” In 2007, Keith was +30 and selected to the All-Star team. The Hawks are expecting the same kind of production at $3.5 million for the young Swede.

Dave Bolland – His 09-10 season was somewhat of a wash following early season back surgery and a slow recovery, but he returned to form in the playoffs, frustrating three of the league’s top centers in a checking role. Look for him to start producing offensively this year, while still shutting down the other team’s stars.

Marty Turco – The first new addition to make this list (which should give you an idea of how strong this team still is), Turco will provide a boost to the already-strong transition game with his exceptional puckhandling skills. While still good for the occasional soft goal, Turco is consistent between the pipes and will benefit greatly from the reduced number of shots he will face behind a stronger defensive team.

Troy Brouwer – Emerged as a scoring threat last season (albeit with the assistance of Kane and Toews) and is one of the few pieces left on the team with “toughness.” Still has a huge shot and a good nose for the front of the net.

The Fill-Ins
This is the sections most commonly referred to as “depth” players. While not as strong as last year, this group is still solid enough to complement the higher level players.

Jack Skille – Took a pay cut in order to make this season’s roster. Just on the outside of being in the higher group, Skille has all the makings of a top 6 forward, but just hasn’t put it all together yet. Still just 23 years old, look for the blazing fast winger to have a bigger impact in his first full season with the big club. He has high potential, but could find himself on the fourth line, filling former Badger teammate Adam Burish’s role. With good performances, may find himself as high as the second line before the end of the year.

Bryan Bickell – A nice surprise last year, Bickell fit in quite nicely with Kane and Toews during Troy Brouwer’s absence late in the season. Look for him to replace Ben Eager on the fourth line as a skilled bruiser.

Tomas Kopecky – Always a hard worker, still fairly cheap. Seems to elevate his game when playing with his countryman Hossa, but would be better suited as a third or fourth line winger.

Jordan Hendry – Was a consistent, yet unspectacular player last season. Knows the system and doesn’t make a whole lot of money. His presence highlights the lack of defensive depth on the NHL squad, despite a mass of talented prospects in the system.

Jake Dowell – Will most likely center the fourth line. Hard worker, good leader, solid defender, but will provide very little offense.

John Scott – Scott makes this team more for his versatility (can play forward or defense) and his price (half a million per year) than his talent. He’s a big gigantic man, and will drop the gloves whenever necessary, but he doesn’t bring a whole lot to the table otherwise. He’s still new to the league, so it’s possible he could improve, but at 27 years old, it’s unlikely.

The Reclamation Projects
Players once highly thought of find themselves here. These guys are playing for peanuts compared to what they once made, but have the potential to do some good things. Cross your fingers.

Fernando Pisani – Better known for his appearances in the ulcerative colitis commercials than his play on the ice, Pisani is a good defender with production potential equivalent to what John Madden was able to provide last year, but continues to be troubled by injuries and an incurable disease in his colon, so it remains to be seen how effective he can be when he brings his UC to the UC.

Nick Boynton – Once billed by the Bruins as a future star, Boynton has all but fallen off the map after being twice waived by Anaheim last season and appearing sparingly with the Hawks until the Stanley Cup Finals, Boynton stepped up against Philadelphia and earned back a little respect. It remains to be seen if he can be the player he used to be, but the expectations will not be very high for Boynton, whose price (half a million) and role (fifth or sixth defenseman) come with tempered expectations.

The Wild Cards
These players are relative unknowns, but come with high expectations. Where the Hawks ultimately land will be greatly influenced by how well these players replace those who departed.

Kyle Beach – Nearly as big as Byfuglien, Beach is the textbook definition of a power forward, with great toughness and a nice scoring touch. He plays with a severe mean streak, and he’s not afraid to drop the gloves or throw heavy hits. I believe Beach fits best on the top line with Kane and Toews, where Byfuglien terrorized the Canucks and Sharks, but may have to earn his stripes first. There’s never certainty with prospects, but the Hawks are hoping that his 59 goals in 75 games in the WHL last year translate to big things at the NHL level. If they do, expect the Hawks to be much better than anyone predicted.

Viktor Stalberg – A big body with lots of speed, Stalberg is looking to directly replace the man he was traded for, Kris Versteeg. Stalberg scored nine goals in 40 games for the anemic Maple Leafs offense in 2009-2010, just two goals off the pace the thrice as expensive Versteeg produced over 79 for the explosive Hawks. Stalberg possesses just as much speed, and can score just as well, and while not overly physical, can play the body a lot better. He plays a similar style to that of fellow large Swede Johan Franzen. If he’s even half as productive as Franzen, the Hawks will have yet another powerful tool in their arsenal.

As you can see, despite the perception that there were great losses in the offseason, there’s still a lot of strength here. Keep in mind that this may not actually be the final roster, it’s merely a prediction based on money and talent. In my next update, I’ll give you a preview of some of the players in the system that could make an appearance due to injury, or possibly surprise coming out of training camp. Stay tuned.

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