|When the NHL season began back on October 5, 30 teams had one goal in mind: Winning the Stanley Cup!
That honor only goes to one squad. While I realize it is much easier to dwell on some of the negatives for the Blackhawks this past season, I choose to accentuate the positive. Many, including myself, felt that last year's free agent signings gave renewed hope that the Hawks would return to the playoffs. Realistically, the chance of winning it all this year was not really at the top of my mind -- although as the current playoffs demonstrate, once you get in them, anything can happen.
That's why I prefer to call this year "mixed optimism," because if you aren't going to capture the elusive Stanley Cup, maybe the experience garnered this season will provide the players, coaches and management that necessary knowledge that will lead to success.
Besides the fans, I know every player and coach is extremely unhappy about the results this season. No one I spoke with wants to lean on the many excuses. New rules, new players, new coach, and key injuries... I'm sure you've heard them all.
I mentioned back at the start of the season that one of the intangible factors that could spell the difference in the result column was team chemistry. In reviewing the year, there was a total of 28 new faces on the Hawks, which included several rookies and players that really hadn't played one full season in the NHL.
While it may seem simple for pro hockey players, it seemed that the Hawks didn't adapt to the new rules as quickly as some other teams. Rookie coach Trent Yawney stated that special teams would play a greater role in the game. Again, some of the players -- especially a few veterans -- didn't respond as fast. The Hawks wound up as the 2nd most penalized team in the NHL (being short 547 times to Washington's 550). The penalty killers had too much work, which included being short by two men for a league-high 67 times.
Despite their slow start, Chicago wound up 9th-best in killing off penalties.The power play was never able to achieve the success needed, especially when 27 of your losses came by one goal.
Nikolai Khabibulin, sidelined twice during the year with injuries, had an off year and should bounce back to regain the form that made him an all-star goalie. While he was out, his backups did not provide the needed consistency that this young Blackhawk team needed.
Looking at the brighter side of the season, the Hawks had one of the youngest teams and certainly had the youngest crop of defensemen. Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith proved they can play at the NHL level. Unheralded Dustin Byfuglien came up for the last two dozen games, but only time will tell whether he can break into the lineup next season.
Also, Cam Barker should be ready for a shot and hopefully captain Adrian Aucoin will be healthy enough to provide his veteran leadership next year.
General Manager Dale Tallon knows he has to add more scoring punch. With a host of high-scoring draft choices coming up from juniors, time will tell whether they can do it at the NHL level. Rene Bourque notched 16 goals in his rookie campaign but has to be more consistent. It took Patrick Sharp two dozen games to regain his scoring touch and Radim Vrbata demonstrated he has the skill to be a top scorer.
Needless to say, a healthy Tuomo Ruutu will be counted on. Although Michael Holmqvist was a regular on the penalty killing unit and hasn't been considered a big scoring threat, his size (6-4, 210) and speed could provide more than the 10 goals he had this year.
As the current playoffs show, having a great regular season doesn't guarantee a Stanley Cup. The past two seasons provided surprise finalists. The last time the Hawks went to the conference finals was in 1995 when they finished 3rd in the Central Division.
Putting together that magic formula of "team chemistry" is that special intangible that can make the difference. That is the reason why I have optimism for next season -- after being mixed this year!
Harvey Wittenberg is a regular contributor to chicagoblackhawks.com and the author of Tales from the Chicago Blackhawks.