Join TSN.ca in a 30 Teams In 30 Days tour of the NHL in preparation for the upcoming season. Today, we examine the 2011-12 campaign for the Chicago Blackhawks. Get the lowdown on their off-season and the issues they face this season. And use the Your Call feature to give us your take.
The Blackhawks learned the hard way that the only thing harder in professional sports than winning a championship is repeating. After setting a franchise record with 52 wins and winning the Stanley Cup in 2009-10, it was always going to be tough for last year's Blackhawks to achieve the same success.
The task was all that much more difficult after drastic personnel changes last off-season. The turnover not only weakened the team, but forced head coach Joel Quenneville to constantly juggle his lines trying to find a combination that worked.
That said, the new-look team battled all-season long though finishing with a 44-29-9 record and grabbed the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Blackhawks actually lost their final game of the regular season to Detroit, but got some help from the Minnesota Wild who beat Dallas and allowed Chicago to sneak in to the playoffs.
The Blackhawks also snuck into the playoffs despite sticking with Marty Turco for so long, hoping that he would be their legitimate starter in net. Their season turned around once Crawford had the No. 1 job.
The Blackhawks (again) faced the top-seeded Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the playoffs, taking the eventual Stanley Cup finalists the distance before losing in Game 7.
The biggest move this off-season for the Hawks was locking up Patrick Sharp to a five-year, $29.5 million deal. Sharp, along with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, will once again be the ones to lead Chicago up front this year. At the back end, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook remain one of the top defensive pairings around. The Blackhawks also pursued tough players in the off-season. Steve Montador, Jamal Mayers, Dan Carcillo and Sean O'Donnell all have a history of dropping the gloves.
Prospect Report: GM Stan Bowman has made the importance of developing prospects clear. Defenceman Nick Leddy and centre Marcus Kruger are the two young players that could have the biggest impact on the team this season. Leddy was impressive in last summer's prospect game and ended up playing in 46 games for the team last year. At times he looked like a top-four defenceman and at times he looked like he needed more time in the AHL. If he can get some more ice time at the AHL level to start the year, he could be a very good call up for Chicago.
Kruger showed a fast learning curve after joining the Blackhawks from Djurgardens in Sweden, as the team pushed for the playoffs last season. He held his own in the seven regular season games and five playoff games he played last year. Kruger has both size and skill and is also willing to block shots and hit.
Breakout Player to Watch: Corey Crawford. The 26-year-old netminder had a terrific first season making the NHL's All-Rookie Team with a .917 save percentage and 2.30 goals-against average. Crawford also had four shutouts in 57 games with a record of 33-18-6. With a grittier, veteran defence in front of him this season his numbers could be even better.
Marquee Match-Up: Nov. 6 vs. Vancouver. The Blackhawks get their first shot at revenge against the team that knocked them out of last year's playoffs. The Blackhawks fought back from a 3-0 deficit against the Canucks, only to lose in Game 7 of the first round. And Carcillo's scathing comments on the Canucks only add fuel to the fire. The Hawks and Canucks have four total matchups in 2011-12.
Other Dates To Watch: Oct. 13 - The Blackhawks get their first and only look at the new Winnipeg Jets. Oct. 15 - The Blackhawks host the Bruins in a battle of 'Original 6' teams and the last two Stanley Cup Champions.
Reason To Get Excited: The dynamic duo of Toews and Kane up front means that Chicago Blackhawks will always be fun to watch. Throw in Marian Hossa, Sharp and Keith and Seabrook at the back gives the Blackhawks one of the most talented cores in the league. With the added veteran presence this year the Blackhawks could very well re-establish themselves as contenders.
Home Hardware: Duncan Keith. Keith won the Norris Trophy in 2010 and should receive serious consideration again this year. Keith, along with Brent Seabrook make up what is perhaps the best shutdown defensive pairing in the NHL. His play did decline last year as he struggled under a heavy workload (29:10 per game in October) after the Blackhawks lost bodies last summer.
On The Hot Seat: Niklas Hjalmarsson struggled early (minus-8 in 11 games in October) after signing a big deal last summer via offer sheet, then played fewer than 17 minutes per game down the stretch in March and April before finally playing more than 19 minutes per game in each of the last four games against Vancouver. For what he's being paid, Hjalmarsson has to fill a top-four role and that means 20-plus minutes a night.
It's Your! Call: Have the Chicago Blackhawks made the right moves to get themselves back into contention for a second Stanley Cup in three years?
Will the veteran additions to the squad make the team a grittier team or will they affect the speed the Blackhawks have become known for over the last few seasons?
Chicago needed help just to make the playoffs last season but were also just three points away from having sole possession of fourth place in the Western Conference. In the playoffs, they showed the kind of fight against the Canucks that helped make them Champions two years ago. With more roster stability this off-season, the team finds itself in a much better position heading into this season than a year ago.
The Blackhawks have as talented of a core as there is in the NHL, but are they deep enough to get back to the pinnacle of the NHL?