WARR’s hockey writer Sidney Brown offers his takes on the Blackhawks throughout their postseason run as well as predictions on the rest of the NHL
A good hockey season will take you from October 1st to June 1st, but that doesn’t necessarily classify as a great one and given that the Stanley Cup Finals start square in the sixth month, it doesn’t qualify as a championship season.
The Chicago Blackhawks’ latest “good” season ended on the first of June when the Los Angeles Kings eliminated them from the Western Conference Finals in Game 7 of that spectacular series, a disappointment to say the least, though one that may very well had come to the eventual champs (the Kings lead the Cup Finals 2-0 over New York).
Expectations coming into this season were that this team could be the first to winning back-to-back Stanley Cups since 1998 when the Detroit Red Wings did it, but that stat itself shows just how tough it is to maintain dominance in the NHL, even an elite team like the Kings had to wait a year after their 2012 championship.
So now it is the Hawks’ turn to wait, and re-motivate, they are officially the hunters again. Given the team’s talent, and their established championship pedigree, that can be looked at as a positive overall, even if it doesn’t come with the grandest trophy in sports. If that’s not enough to make the early summer break easier to take, Hawks fans, a few more things I thought were positive about this year.
1) Duncan Keith — Once again a nominee for the Norris Trophy, which he first won during the Hawks’ Stanley Cup run in 2010, Keith led the team in assists with 55 and was fourth in total points (61). Considered by many to be a top defenseman in the NHL, Keith can create scoring chances for his teammates as well as shutdown the opponent’s top scoring line along with partner-in-crime Brent Seabrook.
2) Patrick Kane — For the first half of the year, Kane was playing at a MVP level, arguably more so than anyone besides Penguins star Sidney Crosby, but fatigue along with a lower body injury sidelined him for the final two weeks of the regular season and derailed that campaign. Kane’s rest wound up being a positive in regards to his playoff performance, overall he finished second on the team in total points (69) and tied for 3rd in assists (40).
3) Andrew Shaw — With 20 goals and 19 assists in the regular season, Shaw was expected to play a bigger role in this year’s playoffs but he was slowed down by an upper body injury early in the Minnesota series. Still, Chicago’s sparkplug was effective with his physical play and goal scoring against St. Louis in round 1 and he returned in the middle of the Kings series and provided energy. If Shaw was healthy throughout the entire postseason, there’s no doubt to me that the Hawks would be playing in the Stanley Cup Finals today.
4) Brandon Saad — Saad improved his play with a 19 goal and 28 assist regular season, showcasing his skill to create plays whether on the second or third line and proving himself very valuable to the future of the franchise. After Coach Q benched Saad for a game late in the regular season, he responded and had his best playoff run to date, pairing up with Andrew Shaw and Patrick Kane in the Kings series and doing much to keep the Hawks within striking distance of the eventual Western Conference champs.
5) Ben Smith — This rising star proved to be a consistent player and an anchor of the third, and sometimes second, lines. Smith played in 75 regular season games, tallying 14 goals and 12 assists and he proved his worth in the playoffs with four goals and two assists. Smith is a restricted free agent this summer, let’s hope that the Hawks management recognize his value and secure him with a new contract.
1) Kris Versteeg — Traded back to the Hawks from Florida early in the season, Versteeg was expected to provide a spark to the team’s power play along with helping out on the penalty kill unit. He started off hot, but was in consistent for the rest of the year and wasn’t much better in the playoffs, his play was inconsistent, leading to healthy scratches in both the St. Louis (Game 6) and Kings (Game 6) series.
2) Michael Handzus — Handzus was brought in last season to be the team’s second line center, which he did a tremendous job in to help the Hawks win the Cup, but this year was a different story. This 15 year veteran gave it his all during the playoffs with his shot blocking, but he struggled to win face-offs, which became one of the major factors why the Hawks were eliminated by the Kings. Handzus is a free agent and I don’t expext the Hawks to bring him back.
3) Bryan Bickell — Playing through injuries during the regular season slowed him down and contributed to his overall low production on offense (11 goals and 4 assists). In the playoffs, Bryan picked up his game physically but after a hot start to the Minnesota series his offensive game disappeared. After proving to be a difference maker in the Kings series last year, Bickell only had one goal to show for it in this year’s edition. After singing a huge contract last summer, Bickell’s play in the playoffs this year was shaky at best. I expect Bryan to be fully healthy and with a clear head for next year for the Hawks to make another run.
4) Team defense — Inconsistency on the defensive end has plagued this team all season long and it came to ahead in Game 7 against the Kings as they twice blew leads. From giving up goals right after a score to coverage breakdowns to turning pucks over and not carrying the puck out of your own zone, the Hawks put together a new recipe for frustration and failure.
The Hawks will have to correct these mistakes and perhaps pickup a strong defenseman this offseason to help with this situation. They have the best offensive team in the NHL, now they need to follow the lead of the Kings and put an equally strong defensive team on the ice as well.
5) Marian Hossa — Hossa’s performance in the layoffs can be categorized as a mystery. Known for his scoring ability and his skill even at the age of 35, Hossa showed his age more than one would like to see this postseason, tallying only 2 goals and 12 assists. Given the large amount of playoff games he’s played over the last six years, maybe fatigue has finally set in with him, hopefully he isn’t past the point of no return and can return fresh and ready to go next year.
Overall, it was a good season given the circumstances, but the ultimate goal for this franchise is the Stanley Cup and the Hawks failed to deliver this time around.
The season was far from a failure, though, it would have been such if they gave up in the first round and lost to St. Louis after falling behind 0-2. This season would have to be classified more as a disappointment one that was only five minutes away from putting the Hawks in the drivers seat for another Cup title, given that the best Western Conference team would be seen as a favorite to beat the Rangers of the Eastern Conference. As it was, the Kings proved to be the better team in the Western Conference Finals but we can all admit to this, the Hawks are incapable of quitting and with their backs against the wall multiple times during these playoffs they managed to respond well.
As I exist stage left for this year, keep this in mind Hawks fans — this team will not have to dump salaries in a mass or make dramatic chances to their core moving forward. The respective re-signings of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are a priority which will get done, but they also will need a second line center as well as a tough strong defenseman to be a consistent contender for the Stanley Cup.
With a bitter taste in their mouths after the Game 7 loss to the Kings, expect the Hawks to come out with a different mindset and a sharp focus as they will try to re-claim what they want most to lay claim to in 2015 — Lord Stanley’s Cup.
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