2010. It was a magical and wild ride for the Chicago Blackhawks. What Hawks’ fan will ever forget the first Stanley Cup in 49 years, capped by the overtime winner in Game 6 from Patrick Kane? A goal where Kane himself seemed to be the only person in the building to know that it was actually in the net.
What followed in the summer of 2010 was the Hawks enterring the land of salary cap hell. Traded were key depth pieces like Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, and Kris Versteeg; jettisoning high priced backup Cristobal Huet to Europe, and walking away from the arbitration award for starting goalie Antti Niemi. It was a painful purge that underscored the reality that it is extremely difficult to keep a successful NHL team together in the cap era.
The Blackhawks though were able to keep the core pieces of that cup winning team. The stellar defence pairing of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, the two way play of the captain Jonathan Toews, the goal scoring prowess of their big free agent grab that summer in Marian Hossa, and of course the brilliant Patrick Kane, who scored that cup winning goal.
The losses hurt though, and the team has struggled over the last two seasons, barely scraping into the playoffs. Losing in the first round to Vancouver in 2011, and again losing in the first round in 2012 to the Phoenix Coyotes the team was showing symptoms of decline. While the core was still around and playing to their capabilities the losses of key secondary scoring options, and issues in the net plagued the squad.
That all seems to have changed this weekend as ~20% of the way through the NHL season, the Blackhawks are the NHL’s best team, sporting a 8-0-2 mark. A win over San Jose on Tuesday night really cemented this team as the class of the NHL so far this season, and the Hawks are the only team in the NHL not to have lost a game so far. So what is going on with Chicago? How have they replaced the key depth pieces lost in the summer of 2010, and are they now ready to once again challenge for the Stanley Cup?
Forwards: Toews and Kane continue to lead the way for this unit. Toews is one of the most respected young leaders in the NHL, and has proven his mettle with big-time performances in the playoffs and Olympics. After suffering a severe concussion following a devastating hit from Raffi Torres in last year’s playoffs, Marian Hossa has returned and isn’t missing a beat, scoring 10 points in his first 10 games. Rookie Brandon Saad joins Toews and Hossa on the top line for the Hawks, and gives the Hawks a young powerforward to mould.
It is Kane though who continues to improve at one of the most rapid rates. With 15 points in his first 10 games, Kane is near unstoppable this season. Patrick Sharp is another player who has taken his game past the secondary scoring weapon; he was in the 2010 cup run and made himself into a core piece in Chicago. He has developed a great all around game since moving to wing and is a key contributor to the Hawks success. Centring the two is Dave Bolland. Formerly a checking line centre, Bolland has shown some flashes of the offence he brought in the OHL, but needs to continue to do so, or the Hawks will look to upgrade their number 2 centre position.
On the bottom lines, young players like Andrew Shaw, Viktor Stallberg, and Brian Bickell, who have replaced the lost depth. They are providing secondary scoring options for the Hawks, and taking the load off of the top 2 lines. The Hawks are once again a deep team, and have players like Marcus Kruger on their fourth line, as well as Jeremy Morin, and Brandon Pirri in Rockford looking for their NHL shot. The cupboards are restocked and ready to provide the core with the support necessary for a long playoff run.
Defence: The top pairing is stellar. While Duncan Keith may have regressed slightly from his Norris Trophy winning form, partner Brent Seabrook has more than picked up the slack. On the second pair Nicklas Hjarmalsson has rewarded the Blackhawks faith in him, when they matched a 2010 offer sheet from San Jose, and he has since become a reliable top 4 minutes eater. He forms a solid pairing with stay at home man Johnny Oduya.
In Nick Leddy, the Hawks absolutely stole a prospect from the Minnesota Wild, acquiring him in February 2010 for overpaid, under performing Cam Barker. Barker turned out to be a total bust in both Minnesota and Edmonton, and dumping him when they could was a great move by Stan Bowman.
The Hawks lost a threat on the powerplay when they traded Brian Campbell to the Florida Panthers prior to last season, but by shedding this salary, and freeing up cap space they have been able to add more flexibility to the roster.
Goaltending: After struggling last season, Corey Crawford is playing excellent hockey this year. He has regained his rookie form (when he stole the Hawks starting job from Marty Turco) and may even be better. His 6-0-2 record and 0.930 save percentage are impressive marks. Ray Emery has also been very good in his two starts as backup. However this is the one area that is still a concern for the Blackhawks, and they may look to shore it up for the playoffs, come the trade deadline if Crawford can not maintain his current level of play long term.
Overall, the Hawks look like a true Cup contender again, and will be a force to be reckoned with in the NHL this season. Kudos to Stan Bowman for making the smart calls and retooling this team so quickly.