The Chicago Blackhawks got off to an extremely slow start to the season last year, and it seemed that they were still hungover from their Stanley Cup victory the year before. The Hawks are looking to battle the Wings for the top spot in the Central Division and they hope to have an easier time getting into the Playoffs this time around, instead of waiting until the final week of the season to clinch a spot in the playoffs.
What Happened Last Season: The Blackhawks started the season off extremely sluggish. They were sitting between the seventh-thirteenth seed for most of the season, and with a late surge at the end of the season, they managed to make the Playoffs and were granted the opportunity to face the mighty Canucks in the first round. After losing the first three games, the Hawks came back and forced overtime in game 7, only to lose on a foolish clearing attempt by Chris Campoli that went right to Alex Burrows.
While the results of the season were a bit disappointing, the play of Corey Crawford was a pleasant surprise. The Hawks after losing Niemi due to financial constraints, were placing their trust in Marty Turco. After Turco showed how inconsistent he can be in the first fifteen games of the season, the reins of the starting job were handed to Crawford and he ran with it. I am sure GM Stan Bowman is the happiest man, as he probably had no chance at landing a solid big name goaltender this season. (Although I might add, inviting Ray Emery to camp was an extremely smart backup plan, should Crawford have a sophomore slump).
Summer Cap Space and Off-Season Needs: The biggest need for the Blackhawks this off-season, was to sign some depth forwards and defencemen. In order to accomplish that one of the big contracts on the roster needed to be cleared off the cap. Bowman did just that by trading Brian Campbell and his albatross $7 million dollar cap hit for the next five seasons to the Florida Panthers. Bowman made some solid depth moves by signing veteran Andrew Brunette and Jamal Mayers up front, and the extremely underrated Steve Montador on defence. Combined with the acquisition of Michael Frolik at the end of last season, the Hawks have gotten some solid secondary scoring and will not be forced to rely on the big guns all the time for goal scoring production.
Stan Bowman is a very intelligent general manager. While many analysts, including myself spent a lot of time praising him for the Campbell trade, the biggest and perhaps most important that happened this off-season was trading Troy Brouwer to the Washington Capitals for a first round pick.Troy Brouwer, while being a talented player, was looking to cash in this summer on a new contract. Bowman realized that players like Brouwer are replaceable cheap on the open market, and if you can get a first round pick for him you go for it. Ultimately Brouwer was replaced with Brunette, a much more talented scorer, and provides some more veteran leadership for this young Hawks roster. Brunette also comes at approximately half a million dollars cheaper than what Brouwer ultimately signed for with the Capitals
What the Future Holds: The Blackhawks will be a surefire playoff team for years to come, and look for them to continue challenging for the Stanley Cup on a yearly basis. They have their core of superstars (Kane, Toews, Keith, Seabrook, Sharp and Hossa) all signed through 2015, and it looks like they have found their goaltender for the future as well. If some of the depth and young players like Dave Bolland, Brian Bickell, Viktor Stalberg, Nicklas Hjalmarsson and Nick Leddy can continue to grow, this team will remain extremely dangerous in the future.
The Hawks biggest problem last season, which contributed to their cap woes, was all of the bonuses that their players received after winning the Stanley Cup. This season, the Hawks are only on the hook for half a million dollars in bonuses, and still remain over three million dollars under the cap, look for them to add a significant piece at about the halfway point in the season if they feel that they are in Cup contention.
What I like most about the way that Bowman has handled the cap issues facing his team is the return that he has been getting for his players. When he traded Byfuglien and Ladd in separate trades to the Thrashers (now Jets) last summer, he received a couple of first and second round picks. This year as well, he received for Brouwer a first rounder. The calculation is simple; Bowman is not looking to draft a star player with these picks. He is looking to continue to have talented depth on entry level, or cheap deals to surround his superstars. While it would be nice to draft another star, if he can continue to replace players like Bolland when their contracts get too expensive with first round talent, he will be able to support the talent he has on the roster for many years to come. Just like when Versteeg, Byfuglien, Ladd and Brouwer got too expensive to retain, they were replaced by Stalberg, Leddy, and Bickell, Bowman is accumulating talent to eventually replace these players as well, should they become too expensive in a couple of years time.
Predictions: Without the Marty Turco experiment to start the season, the Hawks will easily make the Playoffs and as always, will be a tough team to beat in a seven game series. I have them finishing fifth in the Western Conference, barely losing to Detroit for the Central Division title.
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