State of the Franchise: Chicago Blackhawks
March 2, 2011 Leave a comment
The defending Stanley Cup Champions are in a precarious situation that is only familiar to the Florida Marlins of Major League Baseball, minus the complete fire-sale.
The way the Blackhawks were structured last year, they would not be able to keep their roster intact due to salary cap restrictions. This led to the Blackhawks firing then-general manager Dale Tallon mid-season, even though the team was leading the NHL in points at the time. While the team was able to capture the Cup at the end of the year, the organization had to undertaken examining their roster closely and determining which players made the most sense to send on their way out of town to make the cap figures work.
As a result, the likes of center John Madden, winger Kris Versteeg, defenseman Dustin Byfuglien and goalie Antii Niemi were all released or traded to various teams. However, the team was able to hold onto their young franchise players in winger Patrick Kane, defenseman Duncan Kieth, and team captain Jonathan Toews. Along with the veteran presence of winger Marian Hossa and center Patrick Sharp, the Blackhawks believed they had kept enough pieces to remain competitive in a tightly-packed Western Conference.
The biggest hole the Blackhawks had to fill heading into this season was the goalie situation. The team was forced to move Niemi, who was outstanding in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the team, to the San Jose Sharks because of salary restrictions. As a result, the team brought in veteran goalie Marty Turco to serve as their number-one net minder. The team also promoted 26-year old goalie Corey Crawford from their AHL affiliate to serve as the team’s back-up in a money-saving move.
Early on, Turco struggled, and many analysts believed that in order for the Blackhawks to reach the playoffs to defend their cup, they would have to find a way to import a better goalie to stabilize their defense. The team then inserted Crawford into the starting line-up to try and shake up the team’s play, and the move paid immediate dividends.
Crawford has now started 38 games between the pipes, recording a win-loss tally of 23-12-3, has held opponents to 2.13 goals a game, while stopping 92.3% of the shots taken on him and has recorded three shutouts. In Lehman’s terms, the Blackhawks have solved their goaltending problems internally.
The team’s next biggest problem this year has been a large number of injuries that have hit the team at seemingly the worst times. The most recent of which is defenseman Jordan Hendry, who tore his ACL and is likely lost for the season. The Blackhawks countered that injury with the acquisition of defenseman Chris Campoli at the trade deadline from Ottawa that competently shores up the team’s depth at the blue line positions.
The Blackhawks still have the offense that led them to the Stanley Cup last year, ranking fourth in the NHL in goals-per-game (3.1) and are first on the power play (24.7%). The team is led in points by their captain Jonathan Toews with 61 (23 goals, 38 assists). However, 23 of those points for Toews have come in the team’s last 14 games, a remarkable pace. Patrick Sharp leads the team with his 33 goals, Patrick Kane continues to score at will, adding 54 points of his own. Not to mention, veteran defenseman Brian Campbell leading the team with a plus/minus rating of +23 (Toews is second on the team with +20).
Right now, the Blackhawks sit directly in the middle of a mosh-pit of teams looking to clinch playoff spots in the West. Their 74 points have them with the Dallas Stars (sixth) and the Los Angeles Kings (eighth). The Nashville Predators sit one point out in ninth, while the Minnesota Wild are two points out in tenth. But, the fourth and fifth spots in the West are equally attainable, with the Calgary Flames sitting fifth, one point ahead of Chicago, and the Phoenix Coyotes one clear of the Flames.
While it will be a dogfight to the end for the Blackhawks, the team is hot at just the right time to get back into the playoffs. They have the pieces not only to contend this year, but for the long-term thanks to the contracts Keith, Kane, Hossa, Toews and Brent Seabrook currently play under.
Nobody would be terribly surprised if the Blackhawks were able to defend their title this year. But, it won’t be easy getting to that point in a crowded Western Conference.