With less than a month before the start of hockey’s regular season, the Guardian Liberty Voice will be taking an in-depth look at the 30 organizations, one for each day. Today, 30 in 30 will look at the Chicago Blackhawks. Chicago has been one of the best and most dynamic teams in the league in recent years, and there is little indication that will change this upcoming season. The Blackhawks should breeze through the regular season with no trouble at all, but it is going to take some improvement in their postseason play if the team wants to return to the Stanley Cup Final.
Last Season – The Chicago Blackhawks finished last year with over 100 points, but at a surprising third in a very difficult Central division. The team had a record consisting of 15 losses in overtime or the shootout, tied for second highest in the league. Given the coin-flip nature of the extra period and the shootout, the Blackhawks could have finished with much more points or much less, depending on puck luck in those games.
Regardless, the organization made the playoffs with ease, and they did what they have always seemed to have done of late. They won. It was not an easy road for the Chicago Blackhawks, as they faced off against a strong St. Louis Blues team in quarterfinals, and they had a surprisingly difficult time against the Minnesota Wild in the semifinals. Chicago was eliminated from playoff contention in the Western Conference Finals by the eventual Stanley Cup champions, the Los Angeles Kings, thanks in large part to some shaky goaltending by Corey Crawford. When a goaltender is putting up a .878 save percentage in a series, it will be difficult for any team to win, especially when facing another Western Conference powerhouse like the Kings.
The Offseason – When a team has as young and as talented of a core as the Chicago Blackhawks, there are not many moves that can improve the team, and even less are absolute necessities. However, the second line center position was one of weakness for the Blackhawks. The drop in talent level from Jonathan Toews to Andrew Shaw was just too big to ignore for long, so general manager Stan Bowman filled the gap by signing veteran Brad Richards to a sweetheart deal. Richards should fill the second line role admirably, as Toews should handle the toughest assignments for the team.
The biggest news of the offseason was the dual contract extensions for the face of the Blackhawks, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. They entered the offseason with only one year remaining on their respective deals, but on July 9, both players signed eight-year contract extensions that would pay them each an average of $10.5 million a year. The price may be high at the moment, but as the cap rises, those deals should become closer and closer to the league average of what star players will be demanding in the future. Chicago fans need not worry, as almost any amount could be worth what those two players bring to the ice, especially when the playoffs come around.
What to Watch for Next Season – The Blackhawks will have some decisions to make before the season starts, and that may affect the performance of other players worth watching. At the moment, Chicago is over the salary cap by just over $2 million, so unless the organization wants to face penalties from the NHL, they will need to shed some salary before the season begins. It should be relatively easy to fit under the cap this year by maneuvering players between the NHL and AHL, but the Chicago Blackhawks will be in cap trouble for the foreseeable future unless a major move is made. Both Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp have been appearing in trade rumors all summer, but if Chicago wants to remain a Cup contender, they will need all the depth they can get.
Brad Richards’ performance in a Chicago uniform will also be interesting to track. His performance for the New York Rangers was nothing to write home about, especially in the playoffs. The Rangers signed him to a nine-year deal in 2011, but bought out his contract with six years remaining. The first day of free agency, he signed a one-year, $2 million “Prove yourself” deal with Chicago, and that is exactly what he has to do. Facing weaker assignments should allow Richards to focus on improving his game without worrying about carrying the team, as he was expected to do in New York. If he does not work out, it is no great loss for Chicago, but it simply means that next offseason will see them hunting for a second-line center once again.
Bryan Bickell has shown flashes of brilliance in the past, especially in the playoffs when the chips are down, but his performance in the regular season has been inconsistent at best. He has all the tools needed to become a dangerous powerforward, but the appearance of those tools are sporadic. Coach Joe Quenneville benched Bickell in January, stating “he needs to be physically involved in his game, more direct in his play and stronger on the puck.” This upcoming season will determine whether Bickell has taken that to heart, and whether he can earn his $4 million salary.
There is no question that Chicago can, and likely will, make the playoffs. Very few teams can claim to be on their level, and even less can claim to be better than the Blackhawks. However, after a disappointing playoff exit last year, the Chicago Blackhawks look to address their weakness and return to the Stanley Cup Final to become the modern-day dynasty that eluded them last year.
Join the Guardian Liberty Voice tomorrow, where 30 in 30 will take a look at the up-and-coming Colorado Avalanche. Also check out yesterday’s team, the Carolina Hurricanes.
Commentary by Jonathan Gardner