Despite changes, Hawks still have look of a champion
Wednesday, 09.22.2010 / 9:50 AM / Features
By Dan Rosen - NHL.com senior writer
It's easy to forget, but the Atlanta Thrashers are the most recent team to win the Southeast Division before the Washington Capitals started their current run of three straight division titles.
The Thrashers haven't done much since clinching the franchise's only playoff berth in 2007 to keep that memory of success fresh in fans' minds, but they enter the 2010-11 season with fresh blood on the ice, behind the bench and in the front office. With a new regime comes the hope there will be a new beginning for hockey in Atlanta.
The summer of change in Chicago has been well documented, with several key players from the Stanley Cup championship roster, including the starting goalie, moving on as Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman spent the summer trying to get under the $59.4 million salary cap.
So, yes, the Hawks have taken a hit, but there isn't a soul working or playing in the 29 other organizations that's shedding a tear for them. The reigning Stanley Cup champions don't get sympathy -- they get a target on their backs.
That's just fine for Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, et al. The way they see it, the cruel end of the business cost them some dear friends, but the core of the team remained untouched, and it's still good enough to contend for another Stanley Cup.
There is the aforementioned "Core Four" of Toews, Kane, Keith and Seabrook, but don't forget about Dave Bolland, who grew into a great two-way asset for coach Joel Quenneville last season.
Of course, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp are horses the Hawks will ride, and Brian Campbell and Niklas Hjalmarsson make up a pretty good second defense pair. Troy Brouwer is 20-goal scorer and Tomas Kopecky should be ready to play a bigger role.
Then there are the additions, like veteran goalie Marty Turco, who is taking over for Antti Niemi. Viktor Stalberg will get a chance to flourish and Fernando Pisani could be in a third-line role. John Scott should be a towering presence as a fifth defenseman, taking over for Brent Sopel. Former first-round picks Jack Skille and Kyle Beach could make the roster, too.
The cupboard is filled with some different pieces, but it's not bare -- not by any means.
"You look at the team, the guys we lost, yeah, there have been a lot of good guys, a lot of good buddies and a lot of good players, but now the biggest thing is for players to step up and fill those roles," Kane told NHL.com. "At the same time you can better your game and bring it to the next level to try to become one of the elite players in the NHL. If you're already elite, then maybe you can even go to another level. You're looking forward to that next challenge. I'm really trying to take this year serious and do that."
Sticking with their slick, puck-moving offense, the Blackhawks return five 20-goal scorers, all of whom should play in the top-six.
Kane, the leading scorer last season with 30 goals and 88 points, is a lock along with Toews (25 goals, 43 assists), Sharp (25 goals, 41 assists) and Hossa (24 goals in 57 games). Brouwer, who had a career-best 22 goals and 40 points last season, has played well when put on the left side with Toews and Kane and could start on the top line.
Sharp and Hossa found chemistry in the playoffs last season, with Sharp serving as the pivot on the right side. It's likely coach Joel Quenneville pencils those two in on the second line to start the season, but the left wing remains a mystery. Quenneville's best options are Kopecky and Stalberg, but his decision could hinge on what he wants the checking line to look like.
Bolland has developed into one of the best two-way centers in the League, but his linemates from last season, Kris Versteeg and Andrew Ladd, are gone. Pisani could start as the right wing while Kopecky or Stalberg, who is 6-foot-3 with offensive upside, could be on the left side.
Training camp will determine the rest of Hawks' forward depth, but there are several candidates in the mix, including Beach and Skille.
Beach, 20, is an agitating, aggressive forward who some believe could work his way into a top-line role on the left of Toews and Kane. Skille, 23, has been up and down with the Hawks for three seasons, but the offseason changes likely mean a roster spot is his to lose now.
Look out for Bryan Bickell, Jeff Taffe, Evan Brophey, Brandon Pirri, Nathan Davis, Jake Dowell and Igor Makarov in camp, as well.
The top four haven't changed, and that's good news for the Hawks because it was one of the best quartets in the League.
Keith and Seabrook are coming off career years. Both won gold with Team Canada in the Olympics and Keith took home the Norris Trophy, as well.
Campbell enters the third years of his expensive eight-year contract, and while he may be paid like a No. 1 defenseman on this team, he's better served in the No. 3 role. He's especially important on the power play, where his speed and puck-moving skills enabled the Blackhawks' power play to take off when he returned from injury in the first round of the playoffs.
Hjalmarsson got a big offer sheet this summer from San Jose (four years, $14 million), but the Hawks like him so much, they matched it and kept him. On most teams a contract like that would bring huge expectations, but in Chicago he's still a No. 4 defenseman, and that's a role that should serve the young Swede well.
It appears Scott, Nick Boynton and Jordan Hendry are in line to be the final three defensemen, but playing time is up for grabs. Ivan Vishnevskiy, who was acquired from Atlanta this summer in the Ladd trade, could make a push for a roster spot.
Dominik Hasek went into temporary retirement after winning the Cup with Detroit in 2002, and the work stoppage came after Nikolai Khabibulin led Tampa Bay to the Cup in 2004. But you have to go back 13 years to find the last time a Stanley Cup championship team voluntarily chose to go in a different direction with its goaltending the very next season.
Mike Vernon won the Cup for the Red Wings in 1997 and was traded to San Jose that offseason.
Well, Niemi won the Cup for Chicago this past June, but the Blackhawks balked at his one-year, $2.75 million arbitration award and chose to let him walk. Cristobal Huet was making too much money to be a backup, so the Hawks loaned him to a team in Switzerland to free up the more than $5 million in salary-cap space he was taking up.
Starting in net this season will be Turco, who signed much more cap-friendly deal of $1.3 million for one season, and they'll use long-time prospect Corey Crawford as his backup. Hannu Toivonen, who hasn't played in the NHL since 2008, was signed as insurance and likely will start the season in Rockford of the American Hockey League.
Turco, a three-time All-Star, spent his first nine NHL seasons in Dallas. He has to show that his last two seasons with the Stars, subpar by his standards, were not signs he was losing his touch.
The Blackhawks are relying on Turco not only to steer the ship from the back but also to mentor Crawford, who has spent five seasons in the American Hockey League and is ready to assume the role as a No. 2 in Chicago.
The 2003 second-round draft pick has played in eight NHL games dating back to 2005-06, but he could be in line for 25-30 starts this season depending on how Turco holds up.
"I'd like to say 55 to 60 (games) is probably a good number to start with, and everything opens up after that," Quenneville said of Turco's expected workload. "Marty is going to be the guy and it's nice knowing he's going to play. I think there's a lot to look forward to with the stability he can present. Having that nailed right from the outset will be healthy for us."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Columnist