BY MARK COUCH
Just under four months after winning the Stanley Cup on June 15. against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Chicago Blackhawks opened their 2015-16 season against the New York Rangers at the United Center. The puck dropped after a celebration that included raising another Stanley Cup Championship banner up to the rafters. While it was a celebration for Chicago, the Rangers scored three goals in the first period and came away with the win.
This year’s Blackhawks team is the newest product of General Manager Stan Bowman’s drastic offseason roster changes. The changes were necessitated by the NHL’s salary cap rules that keep each team’s total salary under $71.4 million.
Roster changes are nothing new to Blackhawks fans. Because of the huge amount of money being paid to superstars like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, after the Blackhawks’Stanley Cup Championships in 2010 and 2013, Bowman was forced to make changes to the team. But his general managing prowess has always kept the Blackhawks an elite team, and he has created an NHL dynasty in the Windy City. After the Blackhawks won their third Stanley Cup in six seasons, fans knew it would be back to business for Bowman and the Blackhawks. Some of Bowman’s biggest offseason moves this year include trading fan favorites Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp.
The Blackhawks were expected to make changes to free up some salary cap space, but no one saw the Brandon Saad trade coming. Saad was one of the Blackhawks’best young skaters coming off the best season of his career. He was a restricted free agent after last season but Bowman seemed optimistic that Saad would be re-signed. However, they were unable to reach an agreement, and Saad was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets. In exchange, the Blackhawks received center Artem Anisimov, right wing Marko Daňo and prospects. It’s a tough loss for the Blackhawks, but Anisimov is a big center who can do a little bit of everything, and Daňo shows good promise as young player. While the Saad trade hurts for Blackhawks fans right now, the return for Chicago could pay off and look like a steal in the future.
From the moment the final horn of Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Finals went off, everyone knew Sharp had played his last game in an Blackhawk’s sweater. After a steep decline in production, his time in Chicago was up. On July 10,he was shipped off to the Dallas Stars in exchange for defenseman Trevor Daley, forward Ryan Garbutt and prospects.
Daley will fill the gap in Chicago’s defensive pairings left by defenseman Johnny Oduya, who looked like he might re-sign with the Blackhawks after the Saad and Sharp trades, only to sign a contract with the Stars. Last season, Daley posted career highs in goals (16) and points (38). Garbutt looks to be a solid depth player for Chicago.
Stan Bowman also dealt forward Kris Versteeg to the Carolina Hurricanes in exchange for two prospects and afifth-round pick in the 2017 NHL Draft. This freed up cap space which was used to re-sign free-agent forward Marcus Kruger, one of Chicago’s best penalty killers. Veteran center Brad Richards left the Blackhawks via free agency, signing a contract with the rival Detroit Red Wings. His spot on the second line will likely be filled by newly-acquired Anisimov.
Despite all the roster changes, the Blackhawks are the favorites to win the Stanley Cup again in 2016. The core of the team that won the Stanley Cup in 2010, 2013 and 2015 is returning again this season. Toews, Kane and Hossa are returning on offense, and their leadership will be vital to developing center Tuevo Teravainen and the other young skaters on the roster.
Teravainen had a breakout playoffs last year and will look to contribute in a bigger role this season. Toews is coming off a very successful playoffs, tallying 21 points in 23 games, and he’s always a consistent playmaker. He, too, had a great playoffs last season with 23 points in 23 games. At 36 years old, Marian Hossa is the second-oldest player on the team. However, he has not experienced a decline in production, and he is arguably the best two-way skater on the team.
The Blackhawks will once again be boasting one of the best defensive lines in the NHL in Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Keith had one of the best playoffs for a defenseman in the history of the NHL. He played a superhuman 715 minutes total, averaging 31 minutes a game on his way to winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP. Seabrook just signed an eight-year, $55-million contract and will be looking to show that he is deserving of that hefty sum of money. Chicago’s second defensive pairing will be better than last year’s.
This season, the Blackhawks will feature Niklas Hjalmarsson and Trevor Daley instead of Hjalmarsson and Oduya. No Oduya means fewer turnovers in the defensive zone and less defensive breakdowns. Goaltender Corey Crawford is also back this season. After being awarded two Jennings Trophies and winning two Stanley Cups, it’s safe to say he’s silenced his critics.
When talking about the Blackhawks’ success, you have to mention head coach Joel Quenneville. Coach Q has coached the Blackhawks for seven seasons and has led them to three Stanley Cup titles in that span, firmly cementing his legacy as a Hall of Fame coach.
The Blackhawks play in the NHL’s ultra-competitive Central Division, but it looks like all roads will lead to the Madhouse on Madison this season. Bowman has again retooled the Blackhawks’roster, keeping it talented enough to bring home the Stanley Cup and perhaps host another banner-raising ceremony a year from now.