Are the Blackhawks ready for The Hangover Part 2?
They think they are. Listening to what various members of the team had to say last weekend at the annual Blackhawks Convention, the champions think they know what they're in for, having gone through the exercise of defending their title only a few seasons ago.
Of course, no one in the NHL has repeated as Stanley Cup-winners since the Red Wings did it in 1997 and 1998, and while the oddsmakers in Las Vegas have installed Chicago as the favorite for next season, there are just as many reasons to imagine why it won't happen as why it will.
"We've dealt with that before in the past," coach Joel Quenneville reminded reporters last Friday when his three-year contract extension was announced. But rather than directly elaborate on the lessons of Chicago's 2010 Cup win and what happened the following year, he veered off into a soliloquy on how important the Hawks' depth will be this upcoming campaign, as it was last year.
Now, depth -- or lack of it -- was a theme in Chicago's failure to defend in 2011, perhaps even the main theme. The red double-decker buses carrying the Hawks along their parade route had barely discharged their passengers on Whacker by the Chicago River when the roster overhaul began, necessitated by the salary cap and the big spending that was used to assemble the club, mostly by former GM Dale Tallon. So, gone were some key figures --- Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien, John Madden, Antii Niemi, and more -- roughly half the roster would wear a different sweater after being a Blackhawk in 2010. That's a major turnover and GM Stan Bowman was forced to make some tough decisions about who to keep and who to reluctantly let go. Then he had to rebuild the team's depth.
The 2010-11 Hawks just weren't the same regular season club that had finished first in the Central Division the year before, then knocked out the Predators, Canucks and Sharks (in a sweep, the only one that spring) before defeating the Flyers in six games for the Cup. Instead, they won eight fewer games, dropped 15 points in the standings, and finished third, scoring 13 fewer goals while allowing 16 more than the season before. They didn't get home ice in the first round and they lost a dramatic seven-game series to the vengeance-seeking Canucks, dropping the first three games, rallying to tie the series, then losing Game 7 in overtime.
This time, the Hawks, believe, things will be a bit different. They haven't lost that many players this offseason; so far, only Dave Bolland, Viktor Stallberg, Michael Frolik and Ray Emery have relocated. They feel they have some up-and-coming youngsters who are ready for the NHL, most notably center Brandon Pirri, who won the AHL scoring title while playing for AHL Rockford, and others with the talent to assume a larger role, like Marcus Kruger, Jimmy Hayes and tough Brandon Bollig.
"There's going to be familiarity in the locker room," forward Patrick Sharp said over the weekend, "and hopefully we can pick up where we left off last season."
But here's the thing: Many other clubs have won the Stanley Cup, not undergone massive roster changes, and still fallen short the next season. As we see annually, even with a largely unchanged roster there are no guarantees that things will turn out the same one year to the next. Every season is different.
And next season will be drastically different from last season, about as different as any two seasons could be.
Change to spare
For one thing, we'll have a full season: 82 games vs. 48 in the 2013 lockout-shortened schedule. Plus, there will be an Olympic break from February 9 to 25-- and most of the top Hawks will likely play in Sochi. Eight were invited to the Canadian and U.S. orientation camps (Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Corey Crawford and Patrick Sharp for Canada; Nick Leddy, Brandon Saad and Patrick Kane for Team USA), and you can expect Marian Hossa (Slovakia), Niklas Hjalmarsson (Sweden) and Johnny Oduya (Sweden) to be considered for their respective countries as well. The Hawks will almost certainly end up as one of top NHL clubs for Olympians, if not the leading club, meaning their core players will be traveling more, playing more and have more risk of injury.
Then there's realignment. The Hawks most frequent foes will have a different look with the Red Wings and Blue Jackets gone from the Central Division, but the Blues and Predators are not. And they'll now see more of the Stars and Avalanche -- two clubs that have changed their hockey departments this offseason and will have players eager to impress their new bosses -- as well as the Jets and Wild, who are both hungry for a postseason berth. The format for qualifying will be different, with three clubs in each division getting a spot plus two wild card teams in each conference. No one can predict what realignment will produce, but it could result in an increased number of games on Chicago's schedule having more meaning.
And then there are the things that don't change year to year, like the fact that every team gets geared up to defeat the champions. We can't ignore how hard it is to win the Stanley Cup and the toll it takes on the club that lifts it in June and parties with it all summer. Because of the lockout, most of the Hawks played far fewer games than most champions do, so that's in their favor, but the delayed start pushed the season later than it's ever been. Their offseason is going to be a short one, shorter than for any other team except Boston.
Furthermore, while everything seems to go right for the team that wins the Cup, can it get all those bounces and breaks two years running? It's hard to imagine the Blackhawks reeling off something resembling their half-season unbeaten streak, a run that gave them tremendous confidence that lasted until June and required copious twists of fate.
If they hit a rut in the playoffs this coming season and fall behind three games to one as they did against Detroit last May, would they still be able to reel off three consecutive victories, including managing a Game 7 overtime winner like Seabrook's shot that caromed in off the leg of Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall?
For that matter, the Hawks went 5-2 in OT last spring: Will they, and not their opponents, again get all those game-winners while the other guys' shots hit the post?
There's a large amount of good fortune that comes into play, intangibles that can't be predicted. Chicago had fairly good luck last season with injuries. Will they be as lucky this year? We all know that players who have had multiple concussions are susceptible to more from less severe contact. Can Toews -- the game's best leader, the guy who is key to all the Hawks do and who I considered to be the league's most valuable player last season -- avoid the sort of head trauma that would remove him from the lineup for an extended period?
Then there are the specifics: The Blackhawks got strong contributions from unanticipated sources such as young Andrew Shaw and younger Brandon Saad, old Michal Rozsival and older Michal Handzus, and rugged Brian Bickell. Can they all do it again? Will Kane and Sharp again enjoy high-scoring seasons? Will Corey Crawford be able to duplicate his consistency, especially with his long-time goalie coach, Stephane Waite, having gone to work for the Canadiens? Can ancient Nikolai Khabibulin come close to being as reliable in the backup role as Ray Emery was? Can the NHL's best defense corps continue to shut down the other side?
Make no mistake: I'm not wishing bad things for the Blackhawks. I greatly enjoyed watching them and appreciated their excellence and consistency as much as any team in recent years. I'd be happy to see them be as compelling this season.
But the fact is that so much has to go right to win a Stanley Cup, but so much can go wrong to prevent it.
Judging from their remarks, many of the Blackhawks recognize that defending their 2010 championship held value for them beyond the number of players who returned to defend it. "Winning the first time, you learn a lot about what to do in the offseason the next year," defenseman Keith said. "Obviously we'll see. There can only be one winner at the end of the day. But I still think we have to make sure we're prepared and make sure we know it's important to get off to a good start and use the experiences of last time."
It seems that Toews, not surprisingly, also understands how daunting the task of repeating can be and he's not going to let his teammates get ahead of themselves.
"We don't want to go into the season thinking about the so-called Stanley Cup hangover," he said. "We want to have a great year next year. We'll start with that. Worrying about winning a Stanley Cup is a long ways away, but we ought to have that confidence and know that we have the ability to do so if we want it bad enough. So that's where you start, right there."