Sidney Brown writes on the Blackhawks and the NHL for WARR, look for his weekly dispatches from the front lines of Hawks fandom every week during the hockey season.
It’s about that time again for the Men in Red to hit the ice and embark on another journey towards Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Since the last time that the Chicago Blackhawks played a meaningful game — this past June 1st against the L.A. Kings in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals — things have changed quite a bit.
Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane each signed long term extensions, Brad Richards was signed as a free agent from the New York Rangers and more recently defenseman Nick Leddy was traded to the New York Islanders due to salary cap restrictions and Dan Carcillo was brought back to instill toughness to the fourth line.
With a full summer of healing and rest, the Hawks are re-charged and ready to to reclaim what they believe is theirs, which is a third cup within the last six years, but, as I warned fans throughout the summer and into training camp, while the team’s core is in tact with Kane and Toews, the Hawks’ overall age will start to play a factor as this season progress.
In this present salary cap era of the NHL teams aren’t allowed to stockpile talent a generation at a time. The Hawks have certainly been put in that position, meaning that this franchise will need its young talent of the to see ice time and make an impact with it sooner rather than later.
Here are the three main things that the Hawks must improve if they want to win another Cup:
1) Goals Against
2013-14 — 2.6 (12th in NHL, regular season)
2.9 (10th in playoffs)
As I often wrote last season, too many times Hawks players were out of position on the ice and the apparent lack of focus for Chicago cost them in the long run and it played a part in their final bow in the West Finals against the LA Kings as the Kings also wore down the high-powered Hawks with their physicality and defensive structure. In order to keep their opponents off the scoreboard as much as possible, the Hawks must play better defensively, clearing out pucks and blocking shots with more consistency while taking the pressure off Corey Crawford.
2) Penalty Kill
2013-14 — 81.5 percent (19th in NHL, regular season)
84.6% (7th in playoffs)
The PK unit started off slowly last season primarily because of the trade of former Hawk Michael Frolik to the Winnipeg Jets, but as the season progressed, this unit improved tremendously. In 2013, the PK unit was stellar and a key aspect of that season’s Cup run but in 2014, it was merely good (but not good enough) and it became exposed while playing exhausted most of the time against the Kings. Throughout this season this unit must start strong and stay consistent.
Over the course of last season and the postseason, the Hawks were stuck with a bug of taking untimely penalties and among the guiltiest was Andrew Shaw.
Shaw brings an energy and passion any team would want and his 19 goals last season were representative of his scoring skill along with his ability to intimidate opposing players, but he has to play under control in order to give his team a better chance to win and not fall behind.
The returning Dan Carcillo must also take heed to this advice because things didn’t end well for him the first time he was here, even though he got a ring out of it, he also gained a checkered reputation that has followed him through most of his career.
Gaining Extra Edges
We all know that the Hawks can score at a moments notice, featuring as good of a top foursome of scorers in the League (Toews, Kane,Hossa and Patrick Sharp). The Hawks were second in the NHL in Goals Per Game (3.2) and third in the playoffs (3.05), expect more of the same this season with the addition of Richards and hopefully with the emergence of Saad and Bickell.
The power play unit was much improved last season from 2013, finishing 10th in the NHL during the regular season (19.5%) and seventh in the playoffs (21%), and with the addition of Brad Richards to the second power play unit, expect the Hawks to create more scoring chances to this already super skilled group.
Key Blackhawks for Start of 2014-15 Season
Patrick Sharp — age 32
Marian Hossa — 35
Bryan Bickell — 28
Kris Versteeg — 28
3 Potential Breakout Stars
1) Brad Richards — This former Conn Smythe Trophy winner (2004 — Tampa Bay) is expected to add extra to an already skilled offensive team. Richards tallied 20 goals during the last regular season and another five during the playoffs while helping lead the New York Rangers to the Stanley Cup Finals. Richards was expected will be paired with Kane and Brandon Saad as a second line center but it was announced Wednesday that he will start the season on the third line. Either way, Richards is expected to create scoring chances and help improve the depth of the power play unit.
2) Ben Smith — This young phenom came into his own late last season while Kane and Toews were out with injuries. Smith wound up with 14 goals and 12 assists for the regular season and served himself well in the playoffs, kindly scoring four goals while playing in between the third and fourth lines. As a key member of the fourth line, expect Smith to do more of the same and if by chance he gets moved up to the second line, his scoring totals will improve from a year ago.
3) Brandon Saad — Now entering his third year in the NHL, Saad has improved his offensive game tremendously and it was noticeable during the last three games against the LA Kings in the Western Conference Finals as he was paired on a line with Kane and Shaw.
After tallying 19 goals in the regular season, Saad followed it up with six more in the playoffs and playing regularly with Kane on the second line should do nothing but give him more confidence moving forward in 2014-15. Expect Saad to score between 22 to 29 goals this season.
3 Players That Need To Step Up
1) Kris Versteeg – After being traded back to the Hawks early last season, Versteeg struggled to score and lacked energy at times thanks to a knee injury that he suffered while still a member of the Florida Panthers. This problem plagued Versteeg all year long and it showed also in the playoffs, leading to him being a healthy scratch for three games.
He was presumably back healthy, but another set-back occurred this week with the news of Versteeg having to miss the initial three weeks of the season due to a lower-body injury. Not the start anyone wants for Versteeg, but I’m still confident he’ll bring energy to the third line along with scoring skill.
2) Bryan Bickell – After a stellar, MVP-type performance during the 2013 Stanley Cup run, Bickell was rewarded with a new contract but struggled out of the gate and wound up hampered by injuries through the bulk of the regular season. Bickell totaled only 15 points during the regular season but regained his form somewhat during the playoffs, leading the team in hits and picking up his scoring during the last half of the Blues series and the beginning of the second round series against Minnesota.
Still, when it mattered most against the L.A. Kings, Bickell scored only one goal in seven games. Fans and experts have said that Bickell is a player built for the playoffs and don’t worry about him in the regular season. I say if Bickell is healthy, he must show up during the regular season and the same formula should follow come playoff time.
3) Andrew Shaw – With 20 goals a year ago, Shaw showed an increased offensive ability, but his over-aggressiveness at times got him in dangerous waters. An injury for Shaw in Game 1 against the Wild caused the Hawks to miss his energy, but the team survived. As the Western Conference Finals began, Shaw was still out and at this point desperately needed, he returned to the lineup in Game 3 and later helped the Hawks get back into the series, but he wouldn’t be a difference maker.
As a Hawks fan, you have to take the good with the bad at times. Shaw has done a good job in the preseason and got himself locked in as second line center, as anchor of this unit he’ll be looked at to shutdown the opponents’ fresh lines. If Shaw can play under control, the Hawks will be a major factor in the Western Conference.
Led by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, this area of the team features a combo that can shutdown any top opponent’s scoring line at anytime. Michal Rozsival, Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson are also all still in the mix and will help newcomers Kyle Cumiskey, Trevor Van Riemsdyk and David Rundblad anchor the other two defensive pairs.
This group struggled at times last year in turning the puck over and not clearing pucks out of their zone, leading to numerous scoring chances for opponents. Expect this group to be refreshed and refocused as much as any other and play a lot better with the injection of youth into its heavy veteran presence.
Corey Crawford’s very good season (32-16-10 record, 2.26 Goals Against Average, .917 save percentage, 2 shutouts) wasn’t quite on the level of his great 2012-13 campaign.
The playoffs were also good (11-8, 2.53 GAA; .912 save, 1 shutout) but it wouldn’t have gotten him votes for MVP like in 2013.
In his time as the main for the Hawks, Crawford has proven that he can go toe to toe with any goaltender in the NHL and with his extensive experience from the last two years, Corey should have all the confidence he needs to be a mainstay for Chicago for years to come.
With a bitter taste in their mouths from last spring’s playoffs, the Hawks should and will have a great regular season. Nothing matters more than what happens in the postseason, though, and this coming postseason I expect to once again come down to the clear top teams in the West, and perhaps in the NHL, in the Hawks and the defending Stanley Cup Champion Kings.
The Hawks will learn their lessons from last year and eliminate the Kings. Awaiting them will be an Original Six Stanley Cup opponent for the second time in three years when the Hawks face…..the Montreal Canadiens! Can you say 1971 all over again?
Montreal has traditionally had the Hawks’ number in the championship round, but this present team has enough skill, depth and motivating experience to bring home another Stanley Cup for 2015.
Blackhawks All Access
If you missed the premiere episode of CSN Chicago’s “Blackhawks All Access,” you can watch the entire first episode here on the CSN Chicago website. Additional airings will also be on the channel this Friday at 7 pm; Sunday at 8:30 pm, Thursday, October 16th at 3 pm and Sunday, October 19th at 4:30 pm.
Follow Regal Radio on Twitter @regalradio1 and Sidney Brown @sidkid80