Tuesday, September 20, 2011

How the Chicago Blackhawks spent their summer vacation




It is a new season, a new page about to turn on the books. Perhaps no team has done as much, as smartly and as efficiently, to improve themselves this summer as the Chicago Blackhawks.

As everybody knows, one year ago, heading into the 2010-11 season, the Blackhawks were coming out of what was possibly the best - and worst - summer of the team's history. After winning the Stanley Cup, with the confetti from the victory parade barely swept off the ground, the team had to undergo a brutal makeover which stripped away many of the character/depth players that gave the team the grit and variety that a club must have to make it deep in the playoffs for one reason: to get under the salary cap. Gone were the grinders and the Cup-winning goalie; gone were many fan favorites - after all, most of those players had spent the past few seasons together.

Outsiders can only guess at what went on inside the locker room, but let's face it: if you've ever been through intense layoffs at a job, you know what the air in the room is like after those cuts: the disappointment and unhappiness to lose friends who've been there for years; who've shared in the experiences, from near the bottom of the barrel to the highest heights of joy. Not to mention that those brought in to replace them are people who don't know the in-jokes, the systems; who haven't experienced what you have.

Everybody knew that the Blackhawks were over a barrel last year; it was to no one's surprise that the players that the Hawks filled the holes in the roster with weren't about to set the ice on fire, so to speak. The biggest surprise last year was the signing of John Scott to a two-year contract; the most anticipated was the signing of veteran Marty Turco, who was to fill the shoes of the departed Antti Niemi.

Last year during pre-season, there was still plenty to be positive about. The core was still all there, after all. But while Jake Dowell is a player in the mold of Andrew Ladd, and has all the heart in the world, he doesn't bring the same level of natural talent to the table. Viktor Stalberg wasn't an even trade for Kris Versteeg, at least not in his first year with Chicago. (Time will tell.) Jassen Cullimore and Nick Boynton could hold down the fort on the back side of the blueline, but neither was really a perfect fit for the Chicago system.

There was a lot wrong with the top line players as well. Brian Campbell, Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane all missed extended time in the first half of the season to injury; Dave Bolland and Patrick Sharp lost time in the second half. The team's Norris-winning top D-man looked like a shadow of himself, as Duncan Keith was played into the ground, shouldering a league-leading 26:53 TOI per game. Team captain Jonathan Toews was bringing it full bore every night, but he couldn't single-handedly carry the team through the season. The Blackhawks had come into training camp looking like it had been a short summer - and it had been - and the team had few bright spots in the schedule where it seemed like everything went well.

After a season plagued with inconsistency, injuries, fatigue, and (it has been admitted) shades of disinterest, it's amazing that Chicago still came up with enough points to earn their way into the playoffs - even if they backed in based on the loss of another team in the final game of the season. The Blackhawks team that showed up in the first three games against Vancouver looked like the same mess that had taken the ice during the regular season; the Canucks were skating circles around them.

Then Raffi Torres hit Brent Seabrook in Game 3, and everything changed.

Duncan Keith came out in Game 4 and played like a man possessed. So did the team for that matter; turning the game into a staggering 7-2 romp of a win before the Madhouse faithful at home. Then they went on the road and shut the Canucks out 5-0 on Vancouver ice. Where the Blackhawks had looked like they didn't give a hoot if they were in the first three games, suddenly the Canucks looked like they were just accepting the losses and the inevitability of being knocked out of the playoffs yet again by Chicago.

Game 6 may have been one of the most intense games ever played on Chicago ice. The Canucks woke back up; and Chicago was determined to elimiate them, to overcome the odds of history and return from an 0-3 deficit. They did it, too - with Ben Smith's OT winner 15:30 into the first overtime period. Game 7 in Vancouver was equally intense; and it too went into overtime, but this time, it was the Canucks who would win, and eventually go on to the Stanley Cup Final.

As the players had their summer off, and finally had the time to fully rest and recover, and reflect on the season behind them, the questions remained. What if they'd beat Vancouver in Game 7? Could they have gone as deep? Could they have gotten past the Sharks, now backstopped by the man whose name was etched on the Stanley Cup besides theirs? Could they have beaten Boston?

The Blackhawks began making moves late in the season, sending Jack Skille (along with Hugh Jessiman and David Pacan) to the Florida Panthers in exchange for Michael Frolik and goalie Alexander Salak. Then the first huge splash of 2011 Draft news was the announcement of a trade between the Blackhawks and the Panthers again, this time exchanging Brian Campbell and Rostislav Olesz. That move, combined with the rising salary cap, gave Chicago the financial freedom to plan the rest of their summer signing choices much more carefully.

The team's next move was to trade for the rights to defenseman Steve Montador, who they then signed to a 4-year contract. But the team wasn't done there; when free agency opened on July 1st, the team had a slew of signings to announce - and more trades to be made.

By the time the dust settled after the 2010-11 season, the Blackhawks had traded away or let walk several more players from their 2010 championship roster: in addition to midseason trade Nick Boyton, there was also Troy Brouwer, Jordan Hendry, and Tomas Kopecky. The team also pruned away 1-year contract players and several players who'd spent the year doing the "Rockford shuffle" with Chicago's AHL affiliate. Although midseason acquisition Ryan Johnson had been incredibly reliable on the dot, a penalty killer, and an (inexpensive) asset, he was not re-signed; nor was defenseman Chris Campoli, who'd been acquired in a late-season trade with Ottawa, but who was looking for too much money in arbitration.

Through free agency, the team picked up a variety of proven players - the "grit" and "sandpaper" and "character" players that they'd lost in last summer's salary cap purge. Each of the acquisitions has plenty that they are bringing to the table in terms of skill and how they'll fit into the locker room. Most interesting of these acquisitions is Daniel Carcillo, known for his edgy style of play.

Finally, to wrap up the summer, the team also re-signed two of the top members of their core, Brent Seabrook and Patrick Sharp, to new contracts.

New to team - listed on current roster/team acquired from: Andrew Brunette (MN), Daniel Carcillo (PHL), Ray Emery (potential/ANA), Sami Lepistö (CBJ), Jamal Mayers (SJ), Steve Montador (BUF), Sean O'Donnell (PHL), Rostislav Olesz (FLA), Alexander Salak (FLA), Brandon Segal (DAL)
Players who appeared in games for the team during the 2010-11 season that have been traded or not re-signed/(team now signed with): Nick Boynton, Evan Brophey (COL), Troy Brouwer (WSH), Brian Campbell (FLA), Chris Campoli, Jassen Cullimore (DEL Iserlohn), Jake Dowell (DAL), Jordan Hendry (MN), Ryan Johnson, Tomas Kopecky (FLA), Fernando Pisani, Ryan Potulny (WSH), Jack Skille (FLA), Jeff Taffe (MN), Marty Turco
How times have changed. Five years ago, the team would've struggled to pay enough to any star players to come to Chicago - not that Bill Wirtz was exactly opening the pocketbook for what talents he already had at his disposal. Now, proven players who're looking to have that last winning season or two and a shot at the Stanley Cup are turning down larger offers from other teams in favor of Chicago. More than one player expressed this summer, "I heard Chicago was interested, and that was it for me."

After wallowing through the past decade or so, the Blackhawks have once again turned into a proud franchise, and are poised - and ready - to challenge this year's Stanley Cup champions for the title.

1 comment:

  1. It's been a fun read over the past month. Thanks for providing the 30/30 vision on the upcoming season!

    ReplyDelete

Thanks for your viewpoint!

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