The following article was written by guest writer, Anthony Paulsen. Anthony was born and raised in Bakersfield, California (home of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard). He has played three years of juniors on the east coast. Currently Anthony is in his junior year playing college hockey out in Worcester, MA and loving the winters. He proclaims to be a die hard Avalanche fan (altogether now, booooooo) but filters that insanity with a great love for the game of hockey. I met Anthony on the recent LA Kings hockey cruise and we talked a lot of hockey. We welcomed his contribution to the site and he picked this topic, which I am sure will put a fire under a few Blackhawk fans who may respectfully disagree. I am not sure I agree completely with his analysis but the analogy to the Lightning has a lot of merit. Read on and tell us what you think?
After a stellar playoff run in the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs that ended with the Chicago Blackhawks carrying Lord Stanley’s Cup, Chicago’s offseason moves have been far less than impressive for a team that openly expressed optimism for the upcoming season. It’s a little early to decide who I like to win the 2011 Stanley Cup but I feel quite confident that the Chicago Blackhawks will not be the one.
At first look, the Blackhawks still have some big name players who can definitely provide quite a bit of offense, namely Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and Brian Campbell. Unfortunately, it is going to take more than just these star players to carry their hopes of a repeat. A lot more.
Before considering the offseason moves, lets pretend that the Blackhawks did not make the drastic changes that they have and are returning, for the most part, the same roster. Even with all the right tools in place, the Central division has become an increasingly tougher division over the last few years. St. Louis made arguably one of the best moves this offseason in acquiring Jaroslav Halak and they already have a strong, young defensive core that is only going to get better. Columbus may have had a rough year in 2009-10 but they’re a team with a good leader in Rick Nash, good potential and an insatiable hunger for the postseason. Then there’s the Nashville Predators who may have gone somewhat unnoticed on their way to a playoff berth but they’re a team who can make a serious run in the playoffs if they can secure good, consistent goaltending. That leaves the Detroit Red Wings and there’s not much about the Wings that needs to be said. They’re always good in all three zones on the ice, period.
Now lets talk about a Chicago team that has sacrificed many of the tools that made them so effective during the regular season and the postseason last year. I’d like to draw attention to the similarity between what is going on with the Blackhawks and what happened to the 2004 Champion Tampa Bay Lightning in their ensuing offseason. Does the term unloading come to mind? If you’re familiar with the dismantling of that Lightning team then you’ll notice some similarities as you read on.
The first line talent is going to be there without a doubt; the only question is who they’re going put on the line with Toews and Kane. Then there’s a second line that essentially consists of either Patrick Sharp or Marian Hossa, assuming the other is on the first line. The losses of Dustin Byfuglien and Kris Versteeg as the third parts of the first two lines is going to be massive. Regarding Versteeg, speed and good penalty killing are two of his biggest assets but he is also a player that can snipe a corner from the top of the circle off his back foot either. He’s a star player and the loss of a star player is always a hurdle.
I recently had a chance to debate views with a Chicago native and Hawks fan who argued that Byfuglien was overrated because his he didn’t produce in the regular season. This may be a valid argument based on his 34 points (17g, 17a) in 82 games but when your offense is loaded with Kane, Toews, Hossa, Sharp and a couple talented defensemen, it’s not necessary for Byfuglien to put up big numbers. What is very necessary to consider, though, is the impact that Byfuglien had in the playoffs. If you ask me, Byfuglien was just as much the playoff MVP as Toews, although Toews was a very legitimate selection. Byfuglien had outstanding numbers in the playoffs with 16 points (11g, 5a) in 22 games and more importantly his physical presence on the ice was unbeatable and rarely matched, even by Chris Pronger. Byfuglien created a lot of the space that allowed Toews and Kane to dominate puck possession and movement in the zone by getting to the front of the net and making a bang with his physical presence and when you give guys like Kane and Toews time and space with the puck, it’s like walking through a mine field wearing clown shoes. Something bad is going to happen. So with this I raise the question, would you prefer to have a player produce big in the regular season or in the playoffs? The Hawks without Byfuglien means much less time and space for Kane and Toews, so I’d call that question a no brainer.
Having two lines full of star players was a big part of the Blackhawks’ success but what really set them apart was their depth. One of the most important and overlooked parts of a hockey team is exactly that. How good can your third and fourth line be when the first two need a rest or when you need someone to shut down your opponent’s top line? Chicago had it all the way through four lines.
There was great two way players in Andrew Ladd, John Madden and Tomas Kopecky. Ladd could score, he was good with the puck, good vision and played tough in his own end. Madden is arguably one of the best penalty killing forwards to play the game and that skill is a huge asset to any coach. Although he doesn’t have the offensive ability of Ladd, Madden was a grinder and knew how to create offense and space with his grittiness and physicality. Although Kopecky is returning, the losses thus far leave him in a spot on the second line in which I would question whether he is fit or ready for that role.
Then there’s the toughness of Ben Eager and Adam Burish. Both brought a physical presence and were an important part of the fourth line. Their grittiness wore down opponents and created loose pucks. Eager played like a starved animal, never missing an opportunity to throw his weight around. Occasionally it would cost him two minutes but they were somewhat marginal calls and, as a coach, you’d much rather see a guy take a penalty for throwing hits than not hit at all, especially as a fourth liner.
Even though there are numerous important losses up front, the Chicago D-core has pretty much remained intact. It’s nice to have the solidarity of Brent Sopel on your blue line but the Hawks are fortunate enough to keep good depth on defense and some youth in the system. Like last season, Keith and Campbell will lead the way with Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook and Nick Boynton rounding out a solid top five.
Last but certainly not least, the most important part of any good playoff team, goaltending. Possibly the biggest loss this offseason for the Blackhawks has to be Antti Niemi. To have a guy who doesn’t make big money as a goaltender but clearly plays like he does is such a hidden gem. Unlike his adversary with Philadelphia, he did it consistently, too. This isn’t to say that Marty Turco is a bad goalie, but his prime is in the past and, even with a new team, the best you can expect to see from him is “good” not “great”. There might be some flashes of greatness here and there but Turco is not going to be the goaltender who can step up and put his team on his shoulders when the puck isn’t bouncing their way like he used to. When it comes to a playoff run, this is going to hurt them the most. Every team who wins a Stanley Cup anymore wins at least one or two games in the playoffs that they shouldn’t because their goalie shuts the door and refuses to lose.
Chicago will still be a tough team this year but their task has become exponentially tougher over the course of the offseason. I would venture as far to say that I wouldn’t be too surprised if they don’t make it to the playoffs. What would surprise me is if they were to get home ice. Either way, the likelihood of the Chicago Blackhawks repeating as Stanley Cup champions, or even getting to the finals for that matter, is a slim chance at best. Irony will probably strike deep in their hearts as they get eliminated by a team with more depth and better goaltending.