Blackhawks' Overhaul Not a Roadblock to Stanley Cup Contention
Replacing 10 contributors of its first Stanley Cup championship in 49 years -- most for the purpose of squeezing under the salary cap -- these Blackhawks will not be complacent. As core stars Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane remain, over the long grind of an NHL season they could be energized by the opportunity to contend for another title with a different supporting cast. Except for goaltender Marty Turco, most of the new faces have not come close to winning a ring.
"We're still grasping our system," said captain Jonathan Toews, emphasizing the "we" to include the holdovers, after the Blackhawks lost to the Rangers 3-2 at Madison Square Garden on Monday. "If we keep getting better, we'll see the results."
While the Blackhawks said goodbye to a handful of players vital to the Cup run, most notably clutch power forward/defenseman Dustin Byfuglien and No. 1 goalie Antti Niemi, they will almost undoubtedly benefit from a step-up in performance from a pair of holdover big-contract players. Teams were not going to absorb the long-term contracts of Brian Campbell and Marian Hossa, no matter how many sweeteners placed before them. This could be a blessing for Chicago. After all, on their worst days this is a pair of very good hockey players.
"My timing was off a bit, but I'm excited to be back and I know we've got a very good hockey team again," Campbell said in the visitors' locker room after logging 20 minutes in the loss to the Rangers. "Once I get in the flow, we'll have our D pairings settled and we'll go on a run."
Campbell made his season debut Monday against the Rangers after missing the first 13 games with an injury. His eight-year, $56.8 million contract is no doubt a burden on the Blackhawks' cap -- especially since Keith and Seabrook have passed him on the blueline depth chart. But it's easy to forget Campbell's free-agent signing three summers ago was a calling card for a franchise, under new chairman Rocky Wirtz, that the Blackhawks would compete financially to be the best.
Now that the Blackhawks achieved their goal of winning a Stanley Cup, as promised when they signed Campbell and added cornerstones Kane and Toews at the top of the draft, Campbell will be a more relaxed and efficient player. Expectations are lower, but his ice time will not be. When Joel Quenneville wants to give anchors Keith and Seabrook some rest, the coach can turn to Campbell. What a luxury for any team to have, despite the high cost. As a visiting pro scout said in the Garden press box on Monday, "No reason to think about Campbell's contract anymore. He's a darn good defenseman any coach would love to have out there for more than 20 minutes."
The same can be said for Hossa. There is so much talk of "Toews and Kane" and "Kane and Toews" around the Blackhawks that it's easy to forget the team's third-best forward has been an all-world performer. Before suffering an upper-body injury that will sideline him a couple of weeks, Hossa was magnificent in the early going and it wasn't a surprise. With the tag of being "that guy who lost in the Cup Final with Detroit and Pittsburgh" ripped off him when Kane's wrist shot fooled everyone in the Flyers' rink in Game 6 in June, Hossa is a different man. And now that he has to watch a few weeks of games in a suit, he should also have plenty left in the tank when the playoffs start in April.
Five of the roster additions are well-versed in Chicago's system from playing with the AHL development team in Rockford, but five outsiders are still trying to learn the Quenneville way. This, in part, explains Chicago's unspectacular 7-6-1 start.
"We're slowly growing into a team," said Toews. "We're gelling together and the new players are going to contribute a lot."
Then the captain stopped, transitioning into a polite vent about being tired of talking about the roster overhaul in every city the Blackhawks have played this season. Toews was reminded that the question actually was about this season, and it even had an optimistic slant. "Oh, I know," he said. "Those were my words. I just wanted to get that off my chest."
No problem. Fourteen games into the season, the Blackhawks have every right to look forward. What they see should give them plenty of reasons to believe again. With a foundation of three premier forwards and one of the best D pairs in the game, the Blackhawks are going to be in the contending business for at least the next five years.