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Know Thine Enemy: The Chicago Blackhawks

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The Chicago Blackhawks won the Central Division last season, despite not winning the Central Division. Can they repeat that trick this season, and emerge from the dogfight of the Central for a rematch against the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference Finals?

"Are you not entertained?!"

Everybody knows that Jim Nill and the Dallas Stars have already won the 2014 offseason. Of course, that doesn't mean that the other six teams of Conference III spent the summer sitting on their hands. No. The Central Division is about to get fun.

Which is why we're taking the opportunity this summer to look at the offseason moves and acquisitions of the other Conference III teams. Who's improved, who's trending in the other direction, and what to watch for in the 2014-2015 season. We debuted with the Winnipeg Jets, then looked at the Nashville Predator's summer of stopgap measures, last week revealed that the Minnesota Wild are actually pretty good, and  today we continue with the team that wound up Central Division Champions last season, despite finishing third place in the Central Division. Thanks a lot new playoff format. Thanks for confusing me.

Anyone else find it strange that the two teams playing in last season's Western Conference Finals both finished 3rd in their respective divisions? And in the East? One 2nd place finisher, and another 3rd. Based on that extremely small sample size, it's clear that the goal of every NHL team this year should be a third place finish in the division.
Good news for us Conference III-ians, seeing as winning this division? Phew. If the Chicago Blackhawks couldn't even do it last year, what hope does anybody have? Colorado? Pshah. Not bloody likely.

Having said that, everybody knows that Chicago are going to win the Central Division. It's just the way things go. Sure, last year the St. Louis Blues were everybody's pre-season darlings, and they basked in that glory for the majority of the regular season, before trading a perfectly good goaltender for another perfectly good goaltender, simply to show they were willing to ‘do what it takes,' and then freefalling the rest of the way towards a first round loss to the Blackhawks. This year, let's skip the drama. St. Louis are pretty good, what with the addition of Paul Stastny and all, Minnesota are pretty good, what with the addition of Thomas Vanek and all, Dallas are pretty good, what with the addition of Jason Spezza and all, Colorado are pretty good, what with the fear instilled in every player that Patrick Roy will get pissed off and destroy something if they lose, and Nashville and Winnipeg, well they try real hard. But we all still know who the team to beat is.

Why? 

Well, because they were a bounce away from winning the Western Conference Finals, which were essentially the Stanley Cup Finals this past season. That series the Kings won against the Rangers? A mere footnote to the story. Kinda like the USA beating some Scandinavian country Finland in the gold medal match, after the Miracle on Ice against Russia in the semis.

And that Chicago team that was a single Fenwick-event from yet another Stanley Cup Final? It's returning, nearly in its entirety. Oh, but of course, because it's Chicago and Stan Bowman is almost on a level with Jim Nill when it comes to awesome GM-ing, the Blackhawks found a way to improve one little niggling complaint on their roster...

Biggest Splash

That niggling complaint? The lack of a true number two center. Sound familiar Stars fans? And while Brad Richards is no Jason Spezza, he has been a positive possession player for the Rangers the past couple years, and a 50-point scorer this last season to boot. From a Chicago perspective, it definitely also helps that Richards signed a significantly lower contract than he probably could have in free agency, simply because he wanted to play for the Blackhawks. Of course, he was in a position to do that, since the Rangers had just bought him out of his contract. Somebody remind me, why did they do that again?

Now, Richards shouldn't be praised too much for accepting such a cap-friendly contract, seeing as how this one will be mere supplementary income for him. But I do always find it refreshing when a player signs with a team for factors other than money. I mean, the allure of winning a Stanley Cup must be worth more than a few extra dollars, right? If so, then somebody needs to have a chat with Kevin Hayes. Hayes was the first round draft pick of Chicago in the 2010 draft, and now, after finishing his collegiate career with Boston College, it's looking unlikely that he'll sign an entry level contract with the Hawks before the deadline of August 15th. First off, how is that even a thing, that a drafted player can simply not sign with the team that drafted him? And second, it's the Chicago Blackhawks man! You think Aaron Ekblad, Sam Reinhart, and Leon Draisatl weren't all secretly hoping the Hawks would trade up for them and save them the fate of going to Florida, Buffalo, or Edmonton? Although with Hayes... wait a minute. Kevin Hayes? He's that guy? Maybe the Blackhawks will be relieved that he's dumping them and searching for a number two destination.

Missing Faces

The Blackhawks did lose two players this offseason. Will they miss them much though? Well, Michael Handzus was a point per game player. Kind of. I mean, well, at least a point per 60-minute player. Same thing right? Maybe the better way to put it is that with similar minutes per game, and only ten fewer games played, Handzus only produced half the points that Ray Whitney did. I'm pretty sure that puts him well below replacement level.

The other player lost? Brandon Bollig, a player who is lucky he has such a high #grit rating, because otherwise he would be a career AHL player. Which is why the Calgary Flames are going to love him. You can just imagine Brian Burke congratulating himself on acquiring even more ‘grit and truculence,' the missing pieces that will allow the Flames to land a higher draft pick than the Oilers next year.

On a side note, did you know that Brian Burke is a member of Rugby Canada's board of directors? I can only assume that whenever Burke hears mention of a 'scrum' in hockey, he panics and goes out looking for someone who could play in the front row. I feel like this would explain a lot...

Wow. So much on the Flames. Maybe we'll have to give them their own article at some point...

For now though, back to the Blackhawks. I feel I've been much too praising of them as a whole. I mean, they didn't even really do anything this summer, besides sign some 34 year old center whose previous team was so disappointed with him they decided to pay him to not play. You don't think that move's gonna come back to bite the Hawks?

Fine! I'll admit it! They're good, they're fun to watch, there's a great budding rivalry between them and the Stars (thank you Antoine Roussel), and I'm looking forward to this coming season.

However! At least there's one thing that we can all unite in hating the Blackhawks for. And that is their casual fans. Those bandwagoners who turn the American Airlines Center into a Christmas festival with their red jerseys getting in the way of victory green... On the Forecheck says it best: ‘It's a raging drunken horde of raiders, reeking of Marlboro, and played by pudgy Irish-Polish actors.'

There. Now. Having gotten that out of the way, I'm going to turn this over to fellow blogger Mike Devine to delve a little deeper into a few final questions. Just to be clear, Mike is of Irish descent, being Irish and all, and is a regular member of drunken hordes, being Irish and all, but he is not an actor, does not smoke Marlboro's, and is anything but a casual, bandwagon fan. Maybe if bandwagons made stops in Ireland things would be different, but for the moment you can trust him as a blogger dedicated to his team, even before they started winning everything. For more of Mike's work, you can check out Cheer the Anthem, and during the season he can also be found over at everyone's favorite Conference III blog, III Communication.

1) Talk to me about the Kane and Toews deals. No complaints about keeping them around I'm sure, but is there some concern about the contracts themselves? Seeing as those two guys alone will take up $21 million in cap space come 2015? Is it going to hamper Chicago in the future with salary cap issues? And speaking of, what are the Hawks going to do about their current salary cap issues? Who's out to get them back under?

You know, it actually seemed to come as a surprise to some folk in the Chicago fanbase (and beyond) that two of the best players in the world, coming into their prime years, might reasonably expect to be paid a lot of money. I think some of these chuckleheads actually believed that Kane & Toews would say "Oh, gee, we get to appear in commercials together so we'll sign for $5 mildo each because we're all such great pals". Yes, $21 million is a ton of money and now makes the Hawks reliant on a significant cap hike. However, Stan Bowman is a smart man and has taken care of most of the Hawks core for the immediate future. The issue is going to be next year when Brandon Saad, Marcus Kruger and Nick Leddy need new deals. Stan likes to take care of these things early, but due to the lower-than-expected cap and tagging, he won't be in a position to do that.

But no, I have zero problem with the money these guys are making. As we have seen from Subban's new deal, elite players are going to be making $9 million as a base-level.. just wait till Stamkos gets his next contract to see some truly eye-watering sums of money being thrown around.

As for this year's cap issue: I believe that the lower cap caught Stan a little off balance: he'd assumed he'd be able to pick up a 2C on a cheap, short deal (which he did) and be able to fit under the cap as is. When it became apparent that he couldn't, he didn't panic, stuck to the plan and has now given himself a few months to figure out who goes. (He's on the record as saying a player might not be moved till training camp, which is very smart when someone, inevitably, gets hurt and teams panic as the season looms).

All the chatter, initially was about Patrick Sharp being moved and, Chicago being Chicago, we had all sorts of rumours about locker-room rifts, marital infidelity and substance abuse swirling about him, all of which has curiously subsided now that he hasn't been traded. Mainly because it was all a load of dingo's kidneys. Sharp is just coming off his peak and had a career season last year, was, in fact, the Hawks' leading scorer. His contract is decent, too, so I really don't see the Hawks moving him unless the return is spectacular and the cap issues mean that they can't take on much salary, so it'd be hard to get value for him. If I had to bet, I suspect they will salary dump Michal Roszival or Johnny Oduya. But we'll see. In Stan we trust.

2) The Blackhawks lost Michal Handzus to free agency this summer. And by ‘lost,' I mean ‘gained a roster spot.' Fair enough. They also traded Brandon Bollig though. Which can't be considered a bad move at all, but it does beg the question, why did they give him a three-year extension back in March, only to move him a couple months later?

First off, I will never bear any ill-will towards Zus: he did his best and was clearly a very popular leader in the locker room. It wasn't his fault that he was being asked to play 2C on one of the fastest teams in the league, a role for which he was probably never suited, and certainly not these days. But yes, bye, Michal, thanks for everything.

As for the Brave Loin, he of the 2 minute TOI and Twitter outbursts (if you missed it, Bollig is well aware of how disliked he is by rational Hawks fans and got all passive-aggressive by posting the "A Lion Does Not concern Himself With The Opinions Of Sheep" thing from Game of Thrones. Which was received about as warmly as you'd expect. I, personally, got some decent mileage out of it), good bloody riddance.

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[Some of the mileage Mike got out of that episode...]

I know he worked very hard to improve his game and scored a few goals while playing hard minutes.. but there's a limit to how much you can polish a turd. As for the contract, I think there are a couple of possible reasons: one scenario is that they planned to keep him after a decent (for him) first half of the season only to lose faith when his numbers and TOI disintegrated immediately afterwards. The other might have been to reward a player who'd worked hard with a bit of security for his future. Whatever the reasoning, the trade came as a surprise to Bollig who had just bought a condo in Chicago when he got flicked North-West like a tidy-bearded booger. Brain Burke is going to love him.

Of course, Hawks meatballs may well be given a new idol,as word is that Brad Mashinter [Ed. note: The nickname there is all too obvious] is going to get a look next year. Sigh.

3) I remember back in March there being a lot of buzz in Chicago circles about the recall of Teuvo Teravainen from Finland. He then proceeded to play, what, three games before being sent to the AHL? Is he assumed to be on the NHL opening day roster for the coming season, or was there a bit of overhype this past spring about his preparedness to play at the top level?

Ah, Teuvowatch! Those were heady days, my friends. We all got very excited about one of the hottest prospects in recent years coming over from Finland. Giddy, like kids on Christmas morning. Of course we were overdoing it, none of us truly believed that he was going to jump straight into the team at 19 and win the Conn Smythe, we were just itching to get a proper look at him. That didn't stop certain thundering flangeheads in the Hawks media from sneering at the fans for, you know, getting excited about a hugely talented young player. Screw them. As my dear friend Fork from Hockeenight says "(Eff) it, it's Hockey.. it's MEANT to be fun.

In reality, the main reason for bringing Teuvo to the US as soon as Jokerit were knocked out of the playoffs in Finland was to get him to North America: Jokerit join the KHL this coming season and there was no way in hell they were going to let the K get a sniff at him. I saw Teravainen play at the World Juniors and a few Eliteserien games and believe you me, this kid has magic hands. Phenomenal raw talent in the Patrick Kane mould. However, he's tiny and doesn't have Kane's strength yet (PK may be short but the dude is built like a brick outhouse: he's stronger than people think). He also plays a very European style, floating around looking for lanes rather than going in and creating one. So he needs seasoning. I expect him to start the season in Rockford, but wouldn't be at all surprised if he gets called up to the big team before Christmas. Although, and you heard it here first, I have a sneaking suspiscion that they'll put him on the wing rather than at center, a least to start with. But there is no overhype (aside from deliberate stuff for comic effect). This lad is something very, very special.

4) Speaking of a prospect, how do you feel this year's draft went for the Hawks, and which prospects besides Teravainen might be making waves?

Aside from proving that Stan hates Canadians (I think they went something like thirteen picks over two drafts without selecting one), they had a good draft. Nothing spectacular, but some useful-looking pieces. As for the prospects: this is a burning issue in the Hawks fanbase: basically there are a raft of players in Rockford who should be ready to make the leap to the big team and, in fact, are going to have to with the money already committed against the cap.
For those of you who don't know, Joel Quenneville has a strange attitude towards young players: if he likes you (generally, if you're 'gritty' and 'truculent') then you're in the side and get away with the odd subpar performance: see Bollig and Andrew Shaw. If he doesn't, then one dodgy shift gets you benched or sent back to the AHL: see the now-traded Brandon Pirri and Jeremy Morin for examples of this. Hell, it took Dan "Gorilla Salad" Carcillo getting hurt for Brandon Saad to make the team last year.

However, Stan has been emphatic that Morin makes the team this year. In addition, Stephen Johns, a monster of a defenseman from the NCAA, may well get a look, as well. Mark McNeill, Philip Danault and Adam Clendenning are going to need blooding in the NHL, too. How long a leash they get is anyone's guess, but there can be no doubt that the Hawks' much-praised system depth is going to have to start making the jump to the big league, and soon.

5) You guys were the team to beat last season in the Central Division, and yet contrived to finish 3rd in the season standings. Granted, you still won the Division come playoff time, but still. With summer upgrades to St. Louis, Dallas, and Minnesota, and with Colorado being the lucky S.O.B.'s they are, how do you see this season going for the Hawks?

Let us bear in mind that the Hawks were one bounce of the puck away from repeating last season (anyone who thinks that they wouldn't have crushed the Rags as emphatically as the Kings did is, frankly, delusional) The Hawks know that they just have to get to the post-season: seeding isn't uppermost in their mind. So let the Blues and the Avs bash their brains out to win the Division: the Hawks will conserve their strength and take it one series at a time in the playoffs.

That said, getting to the postseason in Conference III will be easier said than done this year. Five of the seven teams will have realistic aspirations of a deep playoff run and I wouldn't count Nashville or Winnipeg out, either. The Blues have added Statsny but lost Sobotka (and re-signed Steve Ott, just to keep their drooling thug quota). [Ed. note: I resent that last remark. Steve Ott doesn't drool.] Their big question will be in goal, with Brian Elliott now the starter and the promising but relatively untested Jay Gallon as backup. They'll still be tough to beat, but I'm still not convinced that they're a championship-calibre team.

Everyone expects the Avs to fall off a cliff this year, based on their baseline stats. I'm not so sure. They still have a frightenng amount of firepower at their disposal. Guess we'll have to wait and see. Minnesota are going to be a titanic pain in the ass for everyone this year, with some quality young guys coming through to back up the $uters and Pari$es. Goaltending might be their achilles heel too: any recurrence of Josh Harding's illness or regression from Darcy Kuemper leaves them exposed in net.

As this is a Stars blog, guess I'd better mention them, too! Dallas have had an excellent offseason, which should be of no surprise to anyone who remembers that Jim Nill came through a Red Wings system that was delivering regular Cups almost on the quiet. All the pieces are in place for a deep playoff run, with a tilt at the Cup not out of the question. Then again, I thought similar about the Sens this time last year, and the shreds of my Fantasy Hockey teams, that I accordingly stuffed with Ottawa players, attest to how badly wrong I can be. But Dallas certainly look like the smart person's 'Dark Horse' pick this year.

Add Nashville getting a "New Coach" bounce and Winnipeg slowly improving and Conference III is going to be a living hell to get through this season. To my mind, the Hawks are still the best team in the Division and, in adding Brad Richards at a steal of a contract , they may have finally solved their 2C issue (if you can call it that, having won two Cups without a "proper" 2C). This alone should make the Hawks top 6 featuring any of Toews, Sharp, Hossa, Kane, Richards, Saad, Bickell, Teravainen, thoroughly terrifying to play against. The Hawks have improved a team that lost in OT of the Conference Final Game 7 against the eventual Champions. I expect to see them at least matching that this year.

But I guess we'll find out, and find out the hard way. It's shaping up to be one hell of a season.