How the Chicago Blackhawks are shaping up as training camp approaches
Chicago fans were disappointed in April when the Blackhawks couldn't make it past their hated rival, the Vancouver Canucks. But even in the face of the loss, there was a lot of positive things to take away from the postseason for the Hawks.
The most important thing was the Blackhawks' performance in games 4-7 of the first series. Despite Vancouver looking like the stronger, healthier team going to the series - and they were, having cruised through the final weeks of their schedule as Chicago battled down to the very last wire in the effort to hold on to their playoff berth - and even despite the Canucks practically skating circles around the Hawks in the first three games - Chicago still pushed the series to overtime in game 7. In fact, despite Vancouver's better play earlier in the series, there were no blowout games during the first three games: the Canucks won 2-0, 4-3, and 3-2.
Instead, the Canucks managed to wake up their sleepwalking nemesis when Raffe Torres boarded Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook behind the goal in game 3. The Duncan Keith that took the ice in game 4 looked like the same Norris Trophy-winning defenseman from the 2009-10 season instead of the one that struggled throughout the 2010-11 season. The Blackhawks stomped the Canucks at home in the United Center, a 7-2 romp that let the hockey world that the Blackhawks weren't about to give up their title that easily. It could've been the series-sweeping clincher for the Canucks, but their body language late in the second when Chicago had it 4-1 and were pulling away said it all. The Hawks made history in forcing a game 7 after being down 0-3 -- taking the next two games 5-0 in Vancouver, and an incredible 4-3 OT win at home.
During the playoffs, the Blackhawks showed the same inconsistent play that had plagued them all year. But in the middle of the series they woke up and played incredible hockey for four games, the kind of hockey that had Vancouver worried that they were never going to get past this team ever in the playoffs.
And the way that Vancouver celebrated after the Game 7 win, you would've thought that they were being handed the Stanley Cup that night, not that there were still three series ahead of them. The dragon might've been slain for that year, but the Blackhawks aren't going away, and are in fact returning to the ice in October a team that might possibly even have gotten stronger during the off season.
Blackhawks fans had plenty to be excited about as July 1 approached. A major bump in the salary cap combined with over $4M in bonuses coming off Chicago books meant that unlike last year, the team had breathing room for next year. There were a few questions on the roster - replacing some absent grit; adding another solid center; patching a possible hole on the blue line - but for the most part, the returning players were predictable. The Blackhawks' core players - Jonathan Toews, Dave Bolland, Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook - are all tied up for a few more years. Rookie goaltender Corey Crawford committed to a new 3-year contract. Patrick Sharp is expected to re-up with the club long before the new season is over. The Blackhawks system is stacked with what is almost an embarrassment of riches, especially in the center position.
It was surprising for Hawks fans to see Troy Brouwer, who has been one of the most physical players on the team, traded away to the Capitals. Likewise, Chris Campoli, who the Hawks had traded for late last season, had expressed how happy and excited he was to be in Chicago -- but when it came down to figuring out a new contract, Campoli and the team couldn't come to terms, so Chicago got his arbitration date moved up so that he could become a free agent earlier. And in perhaps the most startling offseason move of all, it was announced during the first night of the Draft that Chicago had traded defenseman Brian Campbell (and his $7+M cap hit) to the Florida Panthers, which, while it created a hole on Chicago's blue line, also alleviated some major cap room pressure for the Hawks.
Fans who have been following the team long enough can remember the days - not all that long ago - where the UC was echoingly empty; where the team regularly had 40 or more players make their mark on the roster during the course of the season (and some seasons saw 5 or 6 goalies in net!). Players like Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook - those who have been around long enough to remember those days all too well - have expressed what a difference it is to play in the United Center these days.
Chicago has, once again, become a destination team - a city with a proud hockey history, resurrected from the ashes of the franchise that suffered through the tight-fisted leadership of the early 2000s.
Just how much of a destination Chicago has become is evident in the signings that the Blackhawks announced, one after another, on July 1st, combined with those players acquired in trade prior to free agency. Andrew Brunette, most recently of the Minnesota Wild; Jamal Mayers, most recently of the San Jose Sharks; Sean O'Donnell, most recently of the Philadelphia Flyers; Steve Montador, obtained from the Buffalo Sabres; and Rostislav Olesz, who was one of the return pieces in the Campbell trade. The most shocking FA Day signing for the Hawks was former Philadelphia agitator Daniel Carcillo, a move that was met with strong resistance from fans. (We'll discuss him more in a moment). And, finally, once it was clear that Campoli would not be returning, Chicago signed defenseman Sami Lepisto, who split the '10-11 season between the Coyotes and Blue Jackets, but most recently was part of the Finnish gold medal-winning World Championship hockey team.
One of Chicago's biggest flaws during the 2010-11 season was a lack of physicality, whether it was grinding in the corners, hitting the opposition, or simply out-muscling opponents. A lot of grit that helped win the Cup was lost in the 2010 trades - Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager, Brent Sopel, among others. This year's trades and signings were all about physicality. The message is clear: We got pushed around a lot last year. It's not going to happen again this season.
The most important thing about the players who signed is this: one after another, when asked about why they chose to sign with Chicago, said they had other teams come calling, but once they heard Chicago was interested, "That was it." All these players want to be in Chicago; they feel they've signed with a winning team that has a pretty good shot at not only making it to the playoffs, but going all the way again.
Additionally, with the exception of Olesz, who still has time left on his contract acquired via trade, and Montador, who was signed to a 4-year contract after the trade, all these players are 1-year deals at very cap-friendly prices. In short, the Blackhawks are taking very little financial/contract risk on a variety of players known for their skill, their play, their grit, their proven physicality.
Even Daniel Carcillo isn't a bad signing. Sean O'Donnell, who spent the last year with Carcillo on the Philadelphia Flyers, reassured fans at the Blackhawks Convention, stating that "Carbomb" is the type of player that other teams hate to play against but love to have on their team. O'Donnell compared him to Blackhawks fan favorite Dave Bolland, saying that if Bolland was on another team, fans would feel very differently about him. Carcillo also has a history of being a fan favorite in both Philadelphia and Phoenix; he's an energy guy both on and off the ice. The coaching staff in Chicago is guaranteed to help him learn to walk the line more tightly than ever before; Coach Quenneville's methodology of rewarding good play with ice time (and punishing poor play with time in the press box) is sure to help that along.
In addition to those new players signed, there are a variety of Rockford IceHogs players such as Ben Smith, Marcus Kruger, and Jeremy Morin who will be battling for spots on the main team when training camp opens in a few short weeks.
In short, while fans might have fretted over the variety of players lost to free agency and trades, and might not recognize all the names that got signed to the team in their place, the team is actually in a better position as the season opens. Additionally, the 2011 Draft helped deepen the team's already very solid prospect pool, which means that fans of Chicago's affiliate clubs in Rockford (IceHogs, AHL) and Toledo (Walleye, ECHL) have a lot of exciting hockey to watch.
In a dramatic change from one year ago, Chicago will be coming out of the summer stronger than when the season ended.