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October 15, 2013 | 7:50pm ET

Doorstep of a Dynasty
 The Chicago Blackhawks have the goods to become repeat Stanley Cup champions.

LOS ANGELES, CA -- Over the past decade and a half, the NHL has achieved greater parity than any other major North American sport. Victors have emerged from small markets like Anaheim and Tampa Bay, while metropolises such as Chicago and Los Angeles have tasted triumph too.

Without or without a salary cap, throwing money at players doesn't secure a title in this sport. It is essential to draft and develop players not only to get to the Promised Land, but to stay in annual contention.

Though Western teams are hamstrung with heavier travel through the regular-season, it seems to have little effect as the field is reduced a chosen few. Of the 14 championships won since the Detroit Red Wings went back-to-back in 1997 and 1998, eight have been won by a Western Conference team.

Besides being a signal that Eastern fans and media should stay up late to watch the West, it's an affirmation that the best team in this sport emerges as the champion. While there may be injury "luck" involved in a championship season, there's no proof that geography or seeding is impedes a team from winning it all.

As for this coming season, there's every reason for fans to be excited -- there's a high visibility defending champion in the Chicago Blackhawks eager to defend their title over a full season.

From all accounts, every marquee name is healthy enough to hit the ice for Opening Night. There will be a Winter Classic, which stands to break all records for an outdoor NHL game, and the Stadium Series will create excitement in the markets they're executed in. The shaky ownership situations have been resolved in Phoenix, New Jersey and Florida, and that will insure the NHL is on a path to an $80 million salary cap in a few seasons. The demand for the game extends beyond the 30 markets in plays in and we'll see 32 teams (Seattle and Quebec City) inside of five years.

With a new generation of players developing and the standard bearers like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin primed for big seasons, the game is positioned better than it's been in recent history.

It's a great time to be in the hockey business.

The competition on the ice will be as robust as the action at the cash registers off the ice. There are eight teams with a legitimate shot at winning the grand prize, all with flaws that can see them fall short of their goal.

In no particular order, the roll call is:

Pittsburgh Penguins -- They'll still be fun to watch, but even with the addition of Rob Scuderi, from the blueline back is a huge question mark. They lack a big-bodied physical puck stopping rearguard and all you need to know about the goaltending is the recent rumor about Ilya Bryzgalov being an option. It would be no shock to see them in the Final, but if they don't, they'll have the "underachievers" tag placed on their collective shoulders and Dan Bylsma will be looking for employment elsewhere.

Detroit Red Wings -- They had the champions on the ropes and couldn't deliver a knockout punch, a scenario that likely had head coach Mike Babcock up more than one summer night thinking what could have been. They arrive in the Atlantic Division with two new weapons in Daniel Alfredsson and Stephen Weiss. They're deep at forward to the extent that the talented youngster Gustav Nyquist started the season in the AHL despite being NHL ready. If they don't go four rounds, it will be because those aging bones didn't cooperate over a 100+ game schedule.

Boston Bruins -- Like the Penguins, it would be no surprise if the B's returned to the Stanley Cup Final. Their bitter Game 6 loss to Chicago is all the motivation needed to insure they're all in starting from Game 1. Their strength down the middle rivals any and GM Peter Chiarelli's belief that Loui Eriksson is a better fit in Boston than Tyler Seguin will be a key to emerging from the East. Tuukka Rask proved he is a top flight NHL goaltender, but the most telling post-season statistic was the collective minus-11 posted by Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg over the final three games of the Final. A repeat performance deep in the playoffs by this duo will have Boston on the outside looking in.

Vancouver Canucks -- Win or lose they stand to be the entertaining X factor of this season. The installation of John Tortorella, a Roberto Luongo novella and the contract years of the Sedin twins presents us with never ending story lines. Drama aside, the Canucks possess more talent than most and the feeling is that Tortorella toughness is exactly what this team needed. The Sedins won't block shots and Torts' best behavior will shortly evaporate, but if he can extract every drop of talent from this roster, they can win the Pacific? Though they're playing in a far tougher division, a divisional title is a stretch but only huge years from Luongo and Ryan Kesler can make a deep playoff run a reality.

San Jose Sharks -- It's the last ride for this school of Sharks, our co-favorites to win the Pacific. They are the pound for pound equal of division rival Kings and the torch is in the midst of being passed from Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau to Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski. They will be in contention for a Final berth because they a) have a smart coach, b) don't beat themselves with dumb penalties, and c) take full advantage of the cozy confines of the Shark Tank. What they have yet to do is find the guy who will stand up and score the one goal that would put them over the top. San Jose lost the second round battle to the Kings despite surrendering fourteen goals in seven games. They played the Kings even in game seven on the road, but couldn't find a way to pot a game tying goal given numerous chances. Championship teams usually 'find a way' to win a series along their run (see Chicago v Detroit in 2013) and that's what San Jose needs to do to get their first ever championship.

Los Angeles Kings -- The betting choice to win the Pacific, the Kings return big and more importantly, healthy in an effort to get back to the Final. They've played the most playoff games of any NHL team over the past two seasons and have totally bought into Darryl Sutter's way; "that's Darryl being Darryl" are how his tactics are addressed by those in the room. If they come up short, it's because they won’t score enough, Matt Frattin is in the spotlight to deliver on his off (left) wing in support of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. Anze Kopitar, who went through a horrible cold streak in the season's second half, appears to have come to this season with a 'shoot first, ask questions later' attitude that can make the difference in the West.

It's never smart to pick a repeat champion given the grueling nature of winning the Stanley Cup, but no one has ever accused me of being a brilliant hockey mind.

Though the odds are against them, there's no team positioned better to do it than the Chicago Blackhawks.

The only player who was lost of consequence was Cup-winning goal scorer Dave Bolland, but his regular season production should be easily replaced. There's an abundance of proven talent, so the timeliness of the departed center's post-season scoring should come off another veteran's stick come next spring.

Will Corey Crawford exhale this season? If you're in the camp that he played over his head throughout the final two rounds, GM Stan Bowman smartly brought in Nikolai Khabibulin to support any drop in production between the pipes. It's true that valuable glue guys like Michal Frolik and Viktor Stalberg have departed, but the organization's depth along the forward wall will keep them dangerous on the bottom six.

But that's not why I'm selling you on a repeat championship for the Chicago Blackhawks. Yes, they can go pound-for-pound with any roster in the League. Their coach is tough and the GM is savvy after figuring out that tricky salary cap thing that crushed his roster in the summer of 2010. Patrick Kane stayed out of trouble (as far as we know) over the summer and the tandem of Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith are as fine a pair of defenseman as there is on the blueline. They all are major contributors to a potential repeat, but none of them is the dude that makes it all go.

At 25 years of age, Jonathan Toews is in a position few have been at this stage of his career, regardless of the sport. He captains a team that is on the doorstep of a dynasty and he entered the season no less confident than he did prior to the start of the 2013 campaign.

Toews looks at this roster and sees the core is in their prime and reasons a lot would have to go south to lose four out of seven to any team.

Those that think the man they call "Captain Serious" will come with any less vigor defending the title are mistaken. He's achieved both personal and team success, winning the Conn Smythe and Selke Trophies, as well as Olympic Gold to accompany his two championship rings.

If Toews never played another game, his legacy would be forever etched in the Chicago sports landscape. He was the driving force in bringing an Original Six franchise out of the dark ages of drawing 6,000 a night in February at the cavernous United Center to the ear splitting renditions of the Star Spangled Banner by Jim Cornelison in June.

Objectively, there are teams that rival the Blackhawks on the ice, but given the opportunity to ascend to a status few have achieved in the game's history, Toews' intensity and drive will make the possibility a reality.

Dennis Bernstein is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period Magazine. Be sure to follow him on Twitter.




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