After last year’s strike-shortened season, it’s hard to believe the Blackhawks will open their 2013-2014 season tonight at the United Center. But nobody in Chicago is complaining; the Blackhawks will raise their Stanley Cup Championship banner into the UC rafters, and the quest to repeat will officially begin.
Coming off their championship season, Blackhawks management took the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach into the offseason, using most of their moves to retain the cup-winning team from last season. And why not? After starting the year with a record-setting 24 games without a regulation loss streak and finishing it as Stanley Cup champions, it’s clear they did something right. But let’s not forget, much of the Blackhawks’ success came from their depth. And with the losses of Michael Frolik, Viktor Stalberg, and Dave Bolland, that depth took a hit. But the organization has proven that they can find guys to surround their core – the question will be, is this the right group of guys?
Repeating is more difficult in the NHL than any other league – the last team to do it being the ’97-’98 Red Wings. So it’s hard to go into this season with those expectations. They are not going to go 24 games without a regulation loss. They may not win their division, even with Detroit moving to the East. But this team still has a shot, because they have the most talented, dangerous duo in hockey.
To me, the ‘Hawks need to build on the forward steps they made last year, particularly from goalie Corey Crawford. Craw earned his payday after last season, but it is important to note he got a lot of help during the regular season from backup Ray Emery, who left for Philadelphia. Nikolai Khabibulin, making his return to the Blackhawks, is a bit old and will not be able to split starts in the regular season with Crawford. We are going to need to see Crawford become the consistent everyday starter that we saw many great flashes of in last year’s playoffs.
You also need to see steps forward from Bryan Bickell and Brandon Saad. Both played major roles in propelling the Blackhawks to the championship last season, and we need to see them become regular contributors this season.
Even though it is really, really tough to repeat, I think the Blackhawks have a legitimate shot. If anything, they need to worry about the hungry, improved teams around them. The Pittsburgh Penguins got a raw deal last year with the Crosby injury, the Bruins are still a major threat, the Red Wings pushed the ‘Hawks to the brink last year and, with their move to the East, could now be a potential Stanley Cup opponent, and the Blues could be their toughest division rival. The Blackhawks will need to stay healthy, particularly Kane, Toews and Crawford. I think this team will be able to score (so a healthy dose of “Chelsea Dagger”), and if they can stay on the ice, protect the goal and kill the penalty with consistency, they have a real shot.
And the way I see it, they’ll need to figure out how to share Grant Park this summer with the Bulls …