Chicago Blackhawks – 2013/14 Season Preview

Image courtesy of espn.go.com.

Image courtesy of espn.go.com.

W e’ve all reached that point where the wait for October to arrive, bringing with it the return of NHL action, has simply become too much; that feeling of loss in the depths of our stomachs beginning to dictate our every move, as we wander like ravenous zombies searching for on-ice sustenance.

With memories of last season becoming hazy, drifting into that burnt summer sunset hovering on the horizon and disintegrating as we watch sports that people only ever watch as a last resort, there’s nothing left to do but look ahead to what the 2013/14 NHL season might hold in store for us?

Next up in our series of previews, we’ll take a look at the 2013 Stanley Cup Champions, the Chicago Blackhawks.

What happened in 2013?

D uring the regular season, the Blackhawks destroyed pretty much every team they faced and in the process, set fire to the record-books. Returning from the lockout at a blistering pace, they went 6-0-1 throughout January and set a new franchise record by starting a season with six consecutive victories, replacing the existing benchmark of five wins from the 1971-72 campaign.

Image courtesy of bleacherreport.com.

Image courtesy of bleacherreport.com.

Throughout February (11-0-2) and March (9-5-0), Chicago became the story of the year. Steam-rollering teams on their way to a new NHL record by earning points in 24 consecutive games to start the season. Throughout this period, they also set yet another franchise record of 11 consecutive wins. Both streaks were eventually snapped by a surprising 6-2 loss to the Colorado Avalanche.

Many wondered whether the disappointment of that defeat would prove the death of their season, especially after they tasted defeat to the Oilers in their next game at United Centre and were beaten twice by the fast-pursuing Ducks.

It wasn’t. A stunning April performance of 10-2-2 was more than enough to see them become the first team to clinch a playoff berth, the honour of being Central Division and Western Conference champions, then the Presidents’ Trophy. Heading into the postseason, the formidable Hawks had more than earned the title of ‘team to beat’.

A first-round contest against the eighth-seeded Minnesota Wild, a team without their starting goaltender, looked like it would be a leisurely canter for the number-one seeds and it was. After taking Game One on an OT winner from Bryan Bickell and Game Two by a 5-2 margin, the spirited Wild fought back on home ice with victory off rookie Jason Zucker’s goal in OT of Game Three. However, after imperious goaltending from Corey Crawford and as the star of Bryan Bickell continued to rise, the Hawks won Game Four in Minnesota and then a Marian Hossa double in Game Five helped clinch a deserved 4-1 series win.

Image courtesy of espn.go.com.

Image courtesy of espn.go.com.

In their Western Conference Semi-final, against a Detroit Red Wings team who had defeated the number-two seeds Anaheim in a seven-game epic, Chicago faced a true test of character. Despite victory in Game One, the Hawks suffered three consecutive losses that placed them on the precipice of a postseason exit, but they were not done yet. Showing true mettle, they battled to wins in the next two contests, including Game Six at Joe Louis Arena where the home side could have put the series to bed. Then, in a bubbling cauldron of noise that defined Game Seven, Brent Seabrook’s dramatic OT winner after three minutes ended the series.

The Western Conference Final is always an occasion to savour and this year pitted the Hawks, pretenders to the crown and against defending Stanley Cup champions L.A. Under the brightest of spotlights, and in the vivid glow of a colourful crowd, an effervescent clash of styles took place. The Kings’ ‘get the puck in deep and hit hard’ approach taking on the free-flowing transition play of Chicago. A true hockey conflict.

After the Hawks proved too dynamic for the offensively shy Kings in Game One (2-1) and Game Two (4-2), L.A planted a seed of doubt in Game Three, earning a comprehensive 3-1 victory over an out-of-sorts Chicago. This dip in form was soon vanquished with a 3-2 win in a Game Four and the scene was perfectly set for a superstar to step up. That superstar was Patrick Kane, who rounded off a stunning Game Five hatrick with the game-winner in double OT, sealing another 4-1 series victory and the Hawks place in the Stanley Cup Final.

Image courtesy of o.canada.com.

Image courtesy of o.canada.com.

In the first original six final match-up since 1979, the Blackhawks faced the 2011 champions, the Boston Bruins. Having just disposed of the Pittsburgh Penguins, pre-postseason favourites in the East, the Bruins were high in confidence and represented the Hawks biggest challenge to date. After a marathon Game One, which redefined the term playoff intensity, Chicago got a game-winner from Andrew Shaw after 12:08 of the third-OT period. The Bruins struck back with mammoth force in Games Two and Three, taking both contests in OT to take a 2-1 lead in the series. In a high-scoring Game Four, Brent Seabrook again stepped up in OT, to give the Hawks a vital 6-5 win.

Turning in their most powerful performance of the finals, Chicago took Game Five 3-1 and the series returned to Beantown with Boston needing a win to stave off elimination. In arguably the most dramatic conclusion to a season ever, Bryan Bickell tied Game Six at 2-2 with 1:16 remaining before Dave Bolland scored the winner with 59 seconds to go. An unbelievable end to a dream campaign for the Hawks, the 2013 Stanley Cup winners.

Image courtesy of bleacherreport.com.

Image courtesy of bleacherreport.com.

 Top 5 Scorers

  1. PATRICK KANE (47gp, 23g 32a 55p)
  2. JONATHAN TOEWS (47gp, 23g 25a 48p)
  3. MARIAN HOSSA (40gp, 17g 14a 31p)
  4. DUNCAN KEITH (47gp, 3g 24a 27p)
  5. BRANDON SAAD (46gp, 10g 17a 27p)

Trades in 2012/13

  • 4th-round pick (2012) to San Jose Sharks for 7th-round pick (2012) and 4th-round pick. (2013)
  • 7th-round pick (2013) to Washington Capitals for Henrik Karlsson.
  • Rob Flick to Boston Bruins for Max Sauve.
  • Peter LeBlanc to San Jose Sharks for Mathieu Beaudoin.
  • 4th-round pick (2013) to Tampa Bay Lightning for Michal Handzus.
  • Philippe Paradis to Boston Bruins for Kirill Gotovets.

Signings for 2012/13 Season

  • Sheldon Brookbank (2 years) (Free Agent)
  • Michal Rozsival (1 year) (Free Agent)
  • Drew LeBlanc (1 year) (Free Agent)
  • Antti Raanta 1 year) (Free Agent)
  • Brandon Bollig (2 years)
  • Carter Hutton (1 year)
  • Ben Smith (2 years)
  • Garret Ross (3 years)
  • Alex Broadhurst (3 years)

2013 Off-season Activity

Image courtesy of plymouthwhalers.com.

Image courtesy of plymouthwhalers.com.

The Draft

  • 30th Overall – Ryan Hartman
  • 51st Overall – Carl Dahlstrom
  • 74th Overall – John Hayden
  • 111th Overall – Robin Norell
  • 121st Overall – Tyler Motte
  • 134th Overall – Luke Johnson
  • 181st Overall – Anthony Louis
  • 211th Overall – Robin Press
  • Image courtesy of espn.go.com.

    Image courtesy of espn.go.com.

Free Agency Signings

  • Michal Handzus (1 year)
  • Michal Rozsival (2 years)
  • Nikolai Khabibulin (1 year)
  • Marcus Kruger (2 years)
  • Kyle Beach (1 year)
  • Ryan Stanton (1 year)
  • Mike Kostka (1 year)
  • Theo Peckham (1 year)
  • Drew LeBlanc (2 years)
  • Brad Winchester (1 year)
  • Image courtesy of cbc.ca.

    Image courtesy of cbc.ca.

Lost to Free Agency

  • Ray Emery
  • Steve Montador
  • Rostislav Olesz
  • Viktor Stalberg
  • Joe Lavin
  • Johan Mattsson (Rights relinquished)
  • Henrik Karlsson

Trades

  • Michael Frolik to Winnipeg for 2nd-round pick (2013) and 4th-round pick (2013).
  • Dave Bolland to Toronto for 2nd-round pick (2013), 4th-round pick (2013) and 4th-round pick (2014).
  • Daniel Carcillo to L.A for conditional draft pick (2015).

Projected 2013/14 Roster

FORWARDS:

BRYAN BICKELL – JONATHAN TOEWS – PATRICK KANE

PATRICK SHARP – BRANDON PIRRI/MICHAL HANDZUS – MARIAN HOSSA

BRANDON SAAD – ANDREW SHAW – BEN SMITH

BRANDON BOLLIG/JEREMY MORIN – MARCUS KRUGER – JIMMY HAYES

T here should be no easier job for Joe Quenneville than picking his top-line, even with a roster as flexible as the Blackhawks. The trio of Bryan Bickell, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane became an electrifying, points-producing hockey demon from the Western Conference Final onwards. The three actually tallied a remarkable 13 points in total for Games 4, 5 and 6 against Boston. Although Bickell could conceivably change lines regularly throughout the season, I think the outlay on his new contract at least ensures he will get a shot at playing on the first line.

Image courtesy of cbc.ca.

Image courtesy of cbc.ca.

The key here is really that both Bickell and Toews possess the ability to play several types of game, from gritty, to perimeter scoring and even spotting the perfect pass. The latter is obviously Kane’s forte, but the hard play of the other two generally creates space for him to work his magic in the offensive zone. Short story, with Kane adding important goals to his repertoire, and if Bickell can keep getting his big body to the net, this line should once again be lethal.

The only question surrounding the second line is who will play centre? With plenty of speculation suggesting superb youngster Brandon Saad may get the opportunity, I believe such a move would be a mistake. Instead, I believe Brandon Pirri should fill the position. A natural centre, the 22-year old led the AHL in scoring last season with 75 points in 76 games for the Rockford Icehogs, but the most important factor has been Pirri’s steady improvement over the past three years, enhancing his previously suspect defensive game to a respectable level and even taking defensive-zone faceoff starts.

Image courtesy of hockeysfuture.com.

Image courtesy of hockeysfuture.com.

Now would be the perfect time to throw him into the NHL fray, especially playing between consistent veterans Patrick Sharp (who could stay on his favoured left) and Marian Hossa, who seems to deliver each and every year for the Hawks. Expect nothing but production from this line too, though Sharp is slowly beginning to show the signs of age. Veteran Michal Handzus could also provide cover for the centre position, with the strains of an 82-game regular season probably being too much for him these days, he makes for a reliable insurance policy were Pirri to struggle.

The bottom six for the Hawks will experience plenty of change this season, with third-line staples Michael Frolik, Dave Bolland and Viktor Stalberg all departing over the course of the summer.

I think an exciting line featuring Andrew Shaw, who looked impressive during the postseason, Brandon Saad, the Calder-Trophy finalist who posted 10 goals and 17 assists in his rookie year and Ben Smith, who looks extremely capable of playing winger at NHL level, could provide match-up nightmares for coaches across the league.

I believe the fourth line could feature forward Brandon Bollig, who many feel will struggle to nail down a permanent roster spot this year with Jeremy Morin breathing down his neck and Jimmy Hayes, another solid youngster from Rockford. The fourth line centre may be Marcus Kruger, whose floating role within the roster would keep him away from significant 5-on-5 play and allow him to continue his effective work on the penalty-kill. Michal Handzus may also find himself around the fourth line at times, another logical spot for his aging legs.

DEFENCE:

DUNCAN KEITH – BRENT SEABROOK

JOHNNY ODUYA – NIKLAS HJALMARSSON

MICHAL ROZSIVAL – NICK LEDDY

T here isn’t really much to say about Chicago’s defence that you don’t already know. The top defensive pairing of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook is really as good a duo as you will ever see. The perfect blend of defensively sound and offensively aware, they create issues for not only opposing forwards but d-men too. Keith added 11 assists during their run to Sir Stanley’s Cup and Seabrook scored three vital OT winners whilst moving up on the rush. They are an intrinsic part of Chicago’s transition game, and although Seabrook experienced a dip in form towards the tail-end of the regular campaign, since being reunited with his partner they have been an unrivalled force. I expect much of the same from them this season.

Image courtesy of cbc.ca.

Image courtesy of cbc.ca.

Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson were incredible performers throughout the shortened campaign and into the playoffs, the latter certainly played through the pain barrier towards the end but demonstrated a willing physicality that few could match. The Swedes also developed nice chemistry, with Hjalmarsson putting his body on the line and Oduya screening players from the crease.

The third-pairing of Nick Leddy and Michal Rozsival were highly underrated last season, with the latter posting a team-leading +-18 points differential for the regular campaign. There are however, some doubts surrounding Leddy, who seemed to tail-off towards the climax of the playoffs, turnover prone and looking a little out of his depth. Although this doesn’t ring major alarm bells for the Hawks, they will hope the youngster can put aside the setback and continue to progress in the way they originally imagined.

GOAL:

COREY CRAWFORD

NIKOLAI KHABIBULIN

C orey Crawford cemented his status as the Blackhawks starter with a 19-5-5 record, 0.926 S% and 1.94 GAA during the regular season, followed by a playoff run in which he posted a 0.932 S% and a 1.84 GAA. He really proved so many doubters wrong by making vital saves at shaky moments, of which there weren’t many to be fair. People will continue to ponder a suggested weak glove side, but you can’t argue with those numbers and I see a goaltender finally believing he is world-class.

Image courtesy of espn.go.com.

Image courtesy of espn.go.com.

After Ray Emery was lost to free agency, Chicago brought back veteran Nikolai Khabibulin for a second-spell with the franchise. The 40-year old Russian struggled for form and was plagued by injuries in Edmonton, but a role as back-up to a clear starter may suit him, though I felt Emery and Crawford were able to enhance each-others’ games last season, and I don’t see that happening with this pair.

Expectations for the Season

I n managing to keep hold of all of their key pieces, namely re-signing Bryan Bickell and with a roster bursting at the seams with star NHL performers, it really is tough to see a reason why the Blackhawks can’t dominate again and this will be the expectation placed upon their shoulders.

The main topics of doubt, with people using a full-military grade microscope, will be the loss of their third-line and whether Corey Crawford can be the goalie from last season over a full-schedule. As I see it, they have replaced solid skaters with exceptionally talented youngsters who appear ready for the NHL and will relish the opportunity, and with the likes of Kane, Toews, Sharp and Hossa around them, they will surely snap up the chance to become part of such greatness or watch goals being scored anyway. In response to Crawford, the answer is a simple and discussion killing… yes.

So to summarise the defending champions, awesome offence, great defence and an impressive goaltender. Conclusion:

The team to beat.

RELATED ARTICLES:

  • NHL Free Agent Signing List
  • Montreal Canadiens 2013-14 Season Preview
  • Boston Bruins 2013-14 Season Preview
  • Follow Sam on Twitter.

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