Welcome back to Puck Drop: NHL Preview 2013-14, where our hockey department gives you a detailed look at each team from around the NHL leading to the start of this hockey season. Check back often as new teams are added to our Puck Drop page. Today we take a look at the 2013-14 Chicago Blackhawks.
The Chicago Blackhawks started off the 2013 season in unforgettable fashion; they started off the year earning points in 24 consecutive games (a record of 21-0-3), which shattered an NHL record. During that stretch, they won eleven straight games, the most in franchise history.
Capturing the President’s Trophy for the first time since 1991, the Hawks were in the driver’s seat as they secured home-ice advantage throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
After easily defeating the eighth seeded Minnesota Wild in five games, the Blackhawks were faced with some well-needed adversity in the Western Conference Semifinals against the hated Detroit Red Wings.
The Hawks eventually defeated Detroit in seven games after falling behind 3-1. Brent Seabrook was the hero in overtime to send the Red Wings home early and the Blackhawks to the Western Conference Finals.
Their next opponent would be the club that hoisted the Stanley Cup in 2012, the Los Angeles Kings.
Surprising many, the Blackhawks solved reigning Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick early and often and took a commanding 3-0 series lead. In double overtime of Game 5, Patrick Kane scored his third goal of the game to propel his team to their second Stanley Cup Final appearance in the last four years.
Joining the Blackhawks in the final round of the playoffs would be the Boston Bruins. It was the first time two Original Six teams faced off in the Stanley Cup Final since 1979.
It was a hard-nosed series where both teams held momentum but the Hawks found themselves one win away from lifting Lord Stanley’s Cup heading into Game 6.
The sixth game would become one of the most unpredictable games in Stanley Cup Finals history. The Cup was prepared to be given out if the Blackhawks could seal the deal in Boston. However, the Bruins held a 2-1 lead with under two minutes remaining in the third period. Players on both teams were preparing for a Game 7 in Chicago to decide who would be crowned Stanley Cup Champions.
Bryan Bickell was not one of those players. He ripped a one-timer through Tuukka Rask’s five hole tying the game at two with 1:16 to go. Seventeen seconds later, the Blackhawks made history. A Johnny Oduya slapshot was re-directed by Michael Frolik and clanked off the left post. Dave Bolland was the one to pound the puck into the back of the net with 58.3 seconds to go. TD Garden was silent as Boston fans watched the Blackhawks become the first team to win two Stanley Cups in the Salary Cap Era (since 2005).
Similar to 2010, the Blackhawks were forced to let go of some significant players in order to free-up cap space this summer after winning it all.
Dave Bolland, the man who scored the game winning goal in Game 6, was dealt to Toronto less than a week later at the draft. Michael Frolik and Daniel Carcillo were traded to Winnipeg and Los Angeles respectively. General Manager Stan Bowman made the decision to not re-sign forward Viktor Stalberg and backup goaltender Ray Emery.
Emery finished the 2013 season with a record of 17-1. The Philadelphia Flyers signed him to a one-year deal while the Nashville Predators grabbed Stalberg off free agency.
The Blackhawks used their two compliance buyouts on defenseman Steve Montador and forward Rostislav Olesz this offseason. Those moves allowed the Hawks to re-sign Bickell, Kruger, Michal Handzus, Michal Rozsival, and Nick Leddy to new contracts.
Starting goaltender Corey Crawford was also re-signed to a six year, $36 million deal on September 2nd. It will be very interesting to see how this deal will play out because most goaltenders signed to long term deals find it difficult to replicate their previous success – just ask Roberto Luongo, Rick DiPietro, and Ilya Bryzgalov.
Two days after Crawford’s deal, defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson agreed to a five year, $20.5 million extension.
Filling Emery’s role will be 40-year-old Nikolai Khabibulin who is already well acquainted with the Blackhawks organization. He played for Chicago from 2005-2009. Some wonder if he still has enough in the tank but I think with the defense the Blackhawks put in front of him, he can hold his own.
Finnish goaltender Antti Raanta could be the one to back up Crawford if Khabibulin performs poorly. Defenseman Theo Peckham was signed for depth purposes and is on a two way deal.
Story to Watch
Who will fill the opening at center on the second line? Now with Bolland gone, the Blackhawks have a rare dilemma on their hands, filling his spot on the roster. Coach Joel Quenneville had this to say about the issue: “I’m not concerned because we’ve got about six or seven different options and you know something is going to work.”
Quennville has many possibilities in mind, but I believe 22-year-old Brandon Pirri will be the man come opening night. Pirri has only seven NHL games underneath his belt, but he has built up quite the resume in the American Hockey League. Last season in Rockford, Pirri put up 75 points in 76 games leading the AHL. He received the John B. Sollenberger Trophy for his outstanding play.
The 59th overall pick in the 2009 NHL Draft may have a chance to play alongside Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa. Similar to Brandon Saad, Pirri’s production will skyrocket with an abundance of talent surrounding him. The reason I think Brandon Pirri stands out among the rest of the players vying for that center spot is because of his excellent offensive talent, specifically his puck handling and aggressiveness. Although he is only 6’ 0” and 170 pounds, Pirri is able to use his elusiveness and speed to create a surplus of scoring opportunities despite his smaller frame. Despite his small stature, the Toronto native is a fore checking machine and forces many turnovers off his opponent’s miscues. Pirri will have a chance to showcase his skills against NHL-caliber players during training camp and the preseason. He will need to put on more weight similar to Patrick Kane did in his early years in order to be able to compete with the bigger, stronger players of the National Hockey League. His inexperience might cause uncertainty amongst others, but I believe Brandon Pirri will be wearing the Blackhawks sweater regularly in the 2013-2014 season on the second line.
Player to Watch: Bryan Bickell
After signing a four year, $16 million extension with the Blackhawks this offseason, Bryan Bickell will be under the microscope this year. He had 23 points in 48 games this season, but his production in the playoffs shocked the hockey world. During his team’s Stanley Cup run, Bickell registered 17 points in 23 games, which was second on the team behind Conn Smythe winner Patrick Kane. Will he carry his playoff numbers over into the regular season?
Bickell has the ability to use his size in front of the net similar to Detroit Red Wings forward Johan Franzen. He has more offensive skill than the average grinder. In 2012, the 27-year-old had 24 points in 71 games, which led many to believe the Blackhawks were going to get rid of him by the end of his three year contract. However, Bickell threw his body around and buried pucks in the net consistently this season, proving that he belongs in the National Hockey League. He will be successful again this year and anything less than his numbers in the 2013 regular season would surprise me.
Expect Bickell to have his first 20-goal season this year, especially if he is put on a line with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. This combination was Joel Quenneville’s go-to line in the playoffs. Their talent and size was too overpowering for opposing defenses, which is why they found themselves on the score sheet almost every game in the postseason. Bryan Bickell has the capability to break out in this league, and this is his year to do it.
The Stanley Cup champions are ready to defend their title.
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