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