Season Preview: Chicago Blackhawks
Stanley Cup winners in 2010 and 2013, Chicago are unquestionably one of the strongest franchises in the NHL today. The clubs greatest enemy right now may be having ‘too much talent’, as players cash in on the Blackhawks success and put the squeeze on the teams cap situation.
At more than $2m over the cap ceiling, can they shed the required salary and still have a championship winning squad this season?
Chicago locked up its two most influential players to long term contracts this summer, as Captain Jonathan Toews and superstar winger Patrick Kane each signed 8 year, $84m contract extensions. With both now tied up until their mid thirties, the future of this team appears largely secure – how GM Stan Bowman builds around them remains less clear.
Not only are Chicago above the cap ceiling now, they also have $65m already ‘accounted for’ next season – when Toews and Kane’s extensions kick in.
Winger Patrick Sharp has been the subject of trade rumours for much of the summer. With three years left on his current deal, each carrying a cap hit of $5.9m, the Winnipeg native is likely to garner a lot of interest around the league if Chicago starts to actively shop him. But the 32-year old led the Hawks in both goals and points last season, has passed 30 goals four times and has two Stanley Cup rings and an Olympic gold to his name – a CV not to be sniffed at. A key player for Chicago in recent years, does Bowman risk moving Sharp?
The situation may be further complicated by the 7-years Marian Hossa has left on his deal. Entering his sixth season with the club, Hossa is 35 now and although he has put in Selke worthy campaigns for Chicago, the unavoidable question of how ‘age’ might affect the veteran winger lingers, and affects his trade value.
The addition of Brad Richards on a one year, $2m deal provides Chicago with a competent second line centre – a position the franchise has sometimes struggled with – whilst Andrew Shaw is coming off the back of a 20 goal season. Winger Brandon Saad enters the final year of his entry level deal after posting 19 goals and 47 points last year, creating another potential cap headache for Bowman.
It leaves veteran Kris Versteeg and rugged winger Bryan Bickell vulnerable in many respects – with both having multiple years left on their contracts and alternatives such as rookie Teuvo Teravainen and ‘cheap’ veteran Peter Regin available.
At The Back
Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith is tied up until 2023 and Niklas Hjalmarsson until 2019. It’s also hard to conceive that Chicago won’t try and secure Brent Seabrook’s services beyond the end of his current contract in 2016.
Whilst it ensures the Blackhawks top 4 remains one of the strongest in the league for the long term, further ‘asset management’ is required as Johnny Oduya, Nick Leddy and Michal Rozsival all head towards free agency of some form, as does the engimatic David Rundblad. Oduya in particular has become a key member of the team, leading the team in terms of quality of competition last year.
In the short term however, Chicago possess one of the best blue lines in the NHL.
Between The Pipes
Corey Crawford is beginning the first season of his 6 year, $36m extension. Often unfairly labelled as the Hawks ‘achilles heal’, the 29-year old has posted at least a .917 save percentage in all but one of his four seasons as Chicago’s #1 and was an integral part of their 2013 Cup win.
Young Finn Antti Raanta will get a chance to impress as backup, after a wobbly first year in the NHL in which he went 13-5-4 but posted a save percentage below .900.
Behind The Bench
With more than 700 wins and two Stanley Cup rings, Joel Quenneville is one of the most respected coaches in the game today.
The 55-year old has only missed the post season twice (fired by St Louis in 2004, and then with Colorado in 2007), and is as much of an asset to the Blackhawks as Toews or Kane.
Biggest Addition – Brad Richards
Richards recent struggles have been well documented. After signing a 9 year, $60m deal with the Rangers in 2011, the former Conn Smythe winner managed a respectable 56 goals and 151 points in 210 games for the blueshirts; but after two poor showing in the play-offs, the 2014 Stanley Cup Finalists used a compliance buy out on the 34-year old this summer.
Signed by the Hawks on a single season deal worth $2m, the expectations are much lower for the former Tampa Bay and Dallas forward – but he fills a role Chicago have sometimes struggled with. As the second line centre, he’ll be paired with at least one of Kane, Sharp or Hossa and can still be counted on for 50-60 points during the regular season.
And with less pressure to perform in the post season, on a team stacked with ‘clutch’ players, Richards could still be a useful contributor when the ‘real season’ begins.
Biggest Loss – Whichever Star They Have to Trade
Sharp? Bickell? Versteeg? Whoever Chicago has to trade to create the cap space they need, the club is giving up a piece of a well oiled machine.
The Hawks may have survived losing Versteeg (and Byfuglien) once, but to be in the same boat again is far from ideal.
Key Man – Patrick Kane
Kane likely would have led the Blackhawks in points, and possibly goals, last season had he not missed 13 games. On the verge of breaking 500 points, and likely to top 200 goals as well this year, the first overall pick in 2007 is the heart beat of the Chicago offence.
Jonathan Toews may be the best two way player in the game today, but Kane’s near point per game output has been pivotal in Chicago’s rise to the top, and their reputation as an offensive juggernaut.
This Seasons Chances…
Stanley Cup contenders, plain and simple. Frequently one of the favourites, Chicago’s chances may be tempered by the need to shift salary – but they’ll still be firmly in the mix come spring.