Blackhawks report card, part 1: contracted players for 2011-12
The Chicago Blackhawks might have gotten into the playoffs on the grace of another team's loss, despite finishing the season with 97 points, but they finished out the season on their own terms. They went out fighting like the defending champions they were, and nearly pulled out a historical upset after coming back from an 0-3 deficit.
They didn't, of course - in what was a pair of instant-classic games, the Blackhawks and the Canucks battled it out in epic games 6 and 7. Rookie goalie Corey Crawford showed off the form that showed just how badly he was overlooked for the Calder Trophy nomination this year. Crawford even out-played his counterpart on the other end of the ice, Roberto Luongo, as the Canucks' defense tightly protected their goalie; for although Luongo walked away with the better save percentage, Crawford saw more shots and better-quality shots than Vancouver allowed.
The Blackhawks went out bloodied, but unbowed. After an erratic season where most people thought they'd be lucky just to make the playoffs, they showed that the team still has the skill and the chemistry to get the job done.
After the locker cleanout day, both the known and unknown injury reports began to fully take shape: Bryan Bickell had surgery after game 5 for severed wrist tendons, an injury sustained early in the first round. Dave Bolland was freshly back from post-concussion. Patrick Sharp apparently came back early from his late-season knee injury. Chris Campoli underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus (knee cartilege) immediately after the season was over. Jordan Henry was already out for torn ACL. Brent Seabrook had a concussion and missed two games during the playoffs. Tomas Kopecky was out after game 1 with "an upper body injury". A Sweden newspaper revealed that Viktor Stalberg wasn't going to be playing at Worlds because he was still battling a "throat infection". Eight players with known injuries or illnesses affected the roster in the playoffs; but hockey players are known for their fortitude and for playing their way through injuries. Who else wasn't 100%? The roster was plagued by injuries from the pre-season onwards; it affected their entire season.
Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman was quoted as being very optimistic about next season, and stated in depature-day interviews: "The summer is much different. Fortunately we're not in the crunch that we were in a year ago. We still have decisions to make. There's going to be some changes. You're not going to bring the same group back. We need to bring a few new faces in. Some players will move along and some young players will come up."
So, how did the players perform, and who stays and who goes for Chicago this summer?
In part one of the Blackhawks report card, let's look at those players who are the "core" players and those players who are still under contract through the end of the 2011-2012 season.
First, let's look at who's considered "core" for Chicago, and what the Blackhawks have going forward: those players already tied up in contracts through the 2011-12 year or beyond. To see any of these players moved would be a surprise, but as was stated earlier in the season, nothing is impossible if the trade offer were right.
Jonathan Toews, center & team captain: Toews is a Selke finalist for the 2010-11 season, putting together a 76-point/+25 season. He was recognized as one of Chicago's biggest offensive threats in the playoffs, and while he only produced 4 points in the first round of the playoffs, he and Ryan Kesler basically neutralized one another in the CHI-VAN series. He is the face of the franchise and will continue to mature and improve for years to come. It is likely he missed out on a Hart nomination mainly due to the team's overall performance; otherwise, he was a major reason throughout the season for the team's success. There probably isn't another team in the league that wouldn't covet him, but expect him to be a force in Chicago for many years to come.
Patrick Kane, right wing: Any rumors about Patrick Kane getting traded are ridiculous. Despite missing nine games, and admitting he might have come back from an injury early, Kane still had a 73 point/+7 season (that's a point a game, since he played 73 games), and hit 300 NHL points this year - one of the youngest players in the NHL to have reached that milestone. You don't trade away point-a-game players. Kane might have partied it up last summer, but some of the post-Cup-winning experiences he had also seem to have given him new perspective to him as a person. He acknowledged that his season wasn't what he expected of himself. Expect Kane to come back with a new focus in the fall, and for him to elevate his regular-season play. If he comes back healthy and in shape, there is no reason for Kane to aim for anything less than a 90-point season next year.
Marian Hossa, right wing - Hossa shot out of the gate early in the season like a man possessed. Freed of the mental weight of chasing the Cup, and fully healthy, he set a blistering pace of 11 points/+5 in just the first 7 games of the regular season. (If he could have kept up that pace, he could have had a 129 point season!) Due to Hossa's history, he will remain one of the most-scrutinized players on the Blackhawks roster, but there is no doubt that injuries sustained early in the season affected his play. He missed 17 games, and only put together a 57-point season. Hossa remains one of the most formidable players in the Blackhawks lineup - you simply have to watch his ability to hold onto a puck - but next season, he needs to stay healthy and be better; he cannot disappear for stretches like happened this season. Despite missing 20% of the season and plagued by stretches of not getting on the score sheet, Hossa still posted an average .877 pts/game this season - his worst average since his 2001-02 season - but it is abilities beyond simply scoring that make Hossa an invaluable player.
Dave Bolland, center - Dave Bolland seemed to be suffering from "Byfuglienitis" this season: disappearing for huge stretches at a time during the regular season, and then showing up big for the playoffs. His name became one of the most frequent to fans' lips when discussing who should be traded, especially with 3 years and a $3.375M/year cap hit remaining. But when Bolland was sidelined with a concussion and missed the end of the regular season and half the first round of the playoffs, his value became noticeable with his return in game 4. His production this season was also the highest it's been since he left the AHL; if "the Rat" could find the consistency he had in his game that he had in the OHL, Bolland would be a very formidable player - and a bargain at his current cap hit.
Patrick Sharp, center/wing - Patrick Sharp had a career year this season, posting 71 points in 74 games. His 34 goals put him tied for 6th overall for goals this season; imagine what he could have done if the team hadn't been plagued by inconsistency and he hadn't been sidelined by injury. While Sharp has been consistently underrated for years, he came into his own last spring in the playoffs, and people sat up and took notice this year. Sharp brings great skill, talent and flexibility; he can be used both as a center and winger. He has one year left on his contract before reaching UFA status; but expect to hear about Sharp being a mid-season re-signing, rather than Chicago waiting for the season to wane. Although fans like to talk about trading Sharp based on value, it is highly unlikely that this talented player will wear anything but a Blackhawks sweater in the years to come.
Brian Campbell, defense - Campbell missed the first month of the season - the heaviest part of the Blackhawks' year - due to injury sustained in a preseason game. However, it was very clear that his presence on the blue line was missed. While his contract is still an albatross for Chicago, the Blackhawks struggled to replace his ability to get the puck out of the defensive zone. As much as it would help the team's salary cap to move his contract, it's highly unlikely for him to go anywhere. In the meantime, it's hard to replace what he brings to the table. And, despite losing 20% of his season to injury, he came away with the team-high +28 for the year, and put up 0.42 pts/game - nearly out-producing forwards Bryan Bickell (0.47/gm) and Troy Brouwer (0.46/gm). "Soupy" is continually bashed by the fanbase for his contract, but this year he has shown not only leadership, but the team suffered when he wasn't on the ice.
Niklas Hjalmarsson, defense - One of the major stories of last year's post-Cup-winning fire sale was the re-signing of Hjalmarsson to a contract forced by a Sharks offer sheet. Hjalmarsson's drop in production this year coupled with Niemi's solid second half for the Sharks made it look like San Jose ended up with the better end of the deal. However, Hjalmarsson decided to take up where Brent Sopel left off, collecting 166 blocks this year (13th in the league). He also suffered from an otherwise inconsistent game this year, sacrificing offensive play to focus on defense, so if he can adjust his game over the summer, and strike the balance between being a puck-blocking/stay-at-home defenseman, and adding enough to the jump-up-and-join-the-play that Chicago's style of play favors, Hjalmarsson may resurge next season. Although fans disappointed in his play this year have been calling for his trade, expect the Blackhawks to hold on to him - at least for now, because due to post-offer-sheet restrictions, he will not be available as a trade piece until late July.
Duncan Keith, defense - It wasn't what fans (or the front office) really wanted to hear, but at the end of the season, Duncan Keith admitted what everybody had been thinking: after the post-Cup-win euphoria, it was pretty hard to go back to work and repeat the previous year's effort. Despite a hugely inconsistent (there's that word again) first half of the season, Keith still produced 45 points, but his -1 year was not what one would have expected out of a Norris-winning defenseman. It was a 24-point drop in production from 2009-10, and the first year since his rookie season (2005-06) that Keith posted a negative +/- at the end of the year. The Duncan Keith we all know and recognized began showing up again after the All-Star Game. He was particularly noticable during games 4 and 5 of the first round of the playoffs, playing like a man possessed when his usual defensive partner, Brent Seabrook, was sidelined two games with a concussion sustained in game 3. There is little doubt that Keith will re-find his focus during the summer and return hungry in the fall.
Brent Seabrook, defense - With the contract renewal for Seabrook, the Blackhawks now have nearly $20M/year tied up for the next three seasons across their top 4 defensemen (Campbell, Hjalmarsson, Keith, Seabrook). Of all the Chicago D-men, however, Seabrook remains the most physical, and brings a powerful shot to boot. Although Seabrook struggled early in the season, he turned his game late in the year. Seabrook is far and away the most physical of the team's D-men, and an important part of the defensive core.
UNDER CONTRACT THROUGH AT LEAST 2012 (NON-"CORE")
Bryan Bickell, left wing - Most people forget that this was Bryan Bickell's rookie year in the NHL, because he's ridden the Norfolk/Rockford Express for a couple years now. But Bickell came up through the Blackhawks system, first in Norfolk, then Rockford, and he signed a cap-friendly/barely-above-league-minimum 3-year contract last summer. He produced 37 points while being shuffled through the lines. There's little doubt he'll return next season, but like everybody else on the team, he will have to show far more consistency that he did this year. Bickell has a powerful shot, and needs to aim to put the puck towards the net more frequently next season. He also showed the flexibility to play on different lines; so there is no reason for him not to return in the fall.
Nick Leddy, defense - Nick Leddy was the gem of the of the Kim Johnsson/Cam Barker trade with Minnesota. After an impressive showing in last summer's prospect camp, it was expected that Leddy would spend the entire season in Rockford for maturing after choosing to leave his collegiate career early. Early-season injuries saw Leddy called up for a couple games to start off the season, and further issues on the blue line saw him graduate full-time from the IceHogs to the Blackhawks mid-year. It was no doubt a difficult decision for the team to make, because there's little doubt that getting top-2 minutes in Rockford for another half season would have improved his game even more. His average ice time of 14:18/game makes things a challenge for next season. Leddy was, at times, better than the players who make up Chicago's core top 4. But there were also times where he looked like he still belonged in Rockford. It will be interesting to see what Chicago does with him next season. He needs more ice time for development than being a number 5 or 6 defenseman will give him, but will the Blackhawks want to send him back to Rockford, even if it's only for a month or two to start off the season? It is unfortunate that his number of games played means this year qualified as his rookie year; the talent and maturity he is already showing might have qualified him for the Calder had he debuted next season.
Ben Smith, right wing - Ben Smith was a late-season call-up from Rockford due to injury reasons. Although he had looked decent in mid-season call-ups, those who were not watching Rockford regularly were in for a surprise when Smith took the ice in Chicago. His solid play in Rockford earned him "Rookie of the Year" status there; he had also been solid during his career at Boston College. He put his experience in the Frozen Four to good use, scoring twice in game vs Vancouver, and scoring the OT GWG in game 6 that forced a game 7 in the series. Expect to see Smith on the Blackhawks roster from day one next season. Smith is big and solid, smart with the puck and with good sight on the ice.
Marcus Kruger, center - Kruger was considered a late-season surprise on the Blackhawks lineup. He already had a contract signed with Chicago, but spent the regular season with Djurgardens in Sweden. His production there was solid, 31 points in 38 games, but it meant he was accustomed to European ice size and play styles when he arrived late in the season to Chicago as an injury replacement. Kruger showed a fast learning curve considering he was thrown into the fire as the team pushed for the playoffs. Despite that, he held his own, and improved noticeably between the last seven games of the regular season and the five games he put in for the playoffs. His faceoff ability needs work, but he's willing to hit and block, and has speed and skill. The team has spoken well of Kruger's play, and with a $900K cap hit for the next two years, he's an affordable option for the team.
John Scott, defense - John Scott was brought in on a 2-year contract to fulfill a clear need on the team: to be big and physical. He filled that role to a "T" in the 40 games he appeared on the ice - say what you want about him, but Scott served his purpose, and nobody was about to mess with the star players if it meant rumbling with the 6'8" defenseman afterwards. He might not have been the fastest player on the ice, either, but Scott also clearly worked on improving his game through the season, and - despite perceptions, was only credited with 3 giveaways all year - the fewest GvA for any player who suited up for at least 15 games this season. (Marcus Kruger with 7 games, and Jeremy Morin, with 9, both also had 3 GvA). Scott was aware of his limitations as a player, and focused his game on sticking to the basics and trying not to be a liability - it's too bad the same could not be said of every player that the ice this year. While he barely scratched the score sheet (just one assist), he was not a heinous player. Assuming the Blackhawks bring him back and don't trade him away, put him down in Rockford, or buy him out (the Blackhawks still need all the cap space they can get), expect on him to continue to work on his game and be a flexible roster option for next year.
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In the part 2 of report card, we'll discuss the team RFAs and UFAs - and who is most likely to get re-signed to the team.