We’re now something like 21 days out from the start of the NHL season, which means I have to get a move on with these season previews. This is mainly for two reasons: 1) I am lazy and there’s no way I’ll do one of these every day, and 2) These started early enough that if I just stop doing them entirely you’ll have forgotten by October anyway. Oh and I guess also to show off my near-infinite knowledge of the National Hockey League. I’ll be previewing the teams in reverse order of finish in the 2007-08 season. Please note, though, that this is the opinion of one man, however smart and handsome he may be.
Chicago Blackhawks, you’re on the clock.
The last person you want to be like is Bill Wirtz. No one’s death should be a cause célèbre that actually makes people happy.
While he was philanthropic and loyal almost to a fault in some cases, Old Man Wirtz’s stranglehold on the team he owned for more than four decades had an entire city turned against him and it for the better part of the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st.
More after the jump.
In short, Bill Wirtz was not well-liked. He took the team’s home games off local television when people stopped showing up, he saw to the trades of many of the team’s top stars in the mid-90s (and anyone who played NHL 93-96 knew how incredible that team was), he oversaw the team as it went on the longest Stanley Cup drought in hockey, he nickel-and-dimed everyone he could at every turn. He was the reason the Blackhawks were once ranked the worst franchise in North American sports by ESPN, and got himself named third-greediest owner.
When the Blackhawks had a moment of silence for Wirtz’s death, everyone in attendance booed the hell out of him.
However, Blackhawk fans, keep Bill Wirtz in mind when your team does incredible things this season. He’s part of the reason it will be so good.
Had he not been such a truly hideous owner, and had he not torpedoed the team at every turn, the Blackhawks would have remained what they always were: one of the better teams in hockey, but never a Cup contender. They’d have been just good enough to make the playoffs, and just bad enough to never really get that much better. They would have been, for lack of a better comparison, the Western Conference’s answer to the Bruins.
But because he was such a terrible owner, people stopped caring, and he in turn stopped having to keep anyone happy (though that’s unlikely to have ever been the goal). While the diehards suffered through seasons with Alexei Zhamnov, Kyle Calder and Eric Daze playing in front of quarter-full crowds, the team got worse and worse, culminating in many, many high picks.
Which brings us to where the Blackhawks are today. Wirtz is dead, and his son Rocky is running the show the way it should be run. Games are on free television again for the first time since 1980, for one thing — only five current Blackhawks were even alive then.
Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews would never have played in Chicago if Wirtz kept dumping money into the team. The team’s solid, young defensive corps wouldn’t exist. There’d be no excitement about the team’s new direction. Free agents like Brian Campbell and Cristobal Huet would likely have taken more money elsewhere. There wouldn’t be a line to buy tickets. There probably wouldn’t be a Winter Classic at Wrigley.
The team itself is going to see great improvement from the 88-point season it put together last year. Kane and Captain Toews, now a year older and wiser, will continue to haunt opposing defenses, and if Toews can stay healthy, they’re 95-point guys and the second coming of Yzerman/Fedorov. Patrick Sharp is a strong addition to that line as well, and though last year was a contract year, it’d be hard not to replicate last year’s production of 36-26-62 with linemates like that.
Another reason they’ll be better is the power play will take a huge step forward. It was only 24th in the league last year (and doesn’t that seem difficult to believe?), but will be helped massively by the addition of Brian Campbell, whose 33 power play points last year was good for fourth-best among defensemen. Teams don’t often stumble upon exactly the type of player they need, but in this case, Chicago certainly did. And sure, you can question whether or not Campbell’s, err, less-than-stellar defensive game will be a detriment to the Blackhawks, but the goals he’ll add to the team will likely compensate for the ones he gives up and them some.
In net, the addition of Huet to an otherwise volatile situation (you never know what you’ll get with Nikolai Khabibulin) is a good one, and a decent way to bridge the gap between Khabi, whose contract is up after this season, and Corey Crawford, who is still quite young at just 24. Should the team be spending $12.375 million against a $56-plus million cap? Obviously not, and especially because the team defense hasn’t improved, but because of the team’s repeated assertions that it will not trade Khabibulin, it’s one of those “deal with it” things.
The one wild card, to me at least, is Martin Havlat. He’s entering a contract year (already!?) and though he’s often injured (91 games the last two seasons), he still produces (84 points). If the shoulder stays healthy (huge if), he’ll be a force.
And just remember one thing when you’re watching the ‘Hawks win game after game this season. That’s all William W. Wirtz, and somewhere his ghost is bitching that some little kid in Chicago might just fall in love with the sport because of something he saw Toews and Kane do on TV.
The Hero: Jonathan Toews. Newly-named captain, more goals per game created than anyone on the team (though just barely), and a quiet demeanor. If all goes as planned, this kid is going to be talked about in 20 years the way we talk about Steve Yzerman or Joe Sakic now. He is a phenomenal talent, and he’s 20 years old. Also, the emergence of the Toewsface (see above) is one of my favorite things of all time.
The Darkhorse: Martin Havlat. Stay healthy, and have the Blackhawks competing (and ultimately falling short) for Best in the West. He’s that much of a difference-maker. His shoulder’s just wonky all the time. I would, however, be remiss if I failed to mention Dustin Byfuglien, who split time between the wing and defense last year and scored 19 goals. He’ll be moved to forward for this season and will probably be a crucial part of the second line.
The New Guy: Brian Campbell. If he can even improve the power play to middle of the table instead of being in the bottom fifth of the league, this team is going to win a frightening amount of games.
The Big Question: Can the other guys step it up? People who no one is talking about when they mention the Blackhawks, like Andrew Ladd and Dave Bolland and Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, will all need to pick it up big-time if this team is meant to do anything.
- Acquired conditional second round pick from Calgary
- Acquired the rights to C Tim Brent from Pittsburgh
- Acquired C Pascal Pelletier from Boston
- Acquired 2010 second-round pick from Montreal
- D Brian Campbell
- G Cristobal Huet
- D Matt Walker
- D Aaron Johnson
- D Doug Janik
- LW Rene Bourque (conditional second-round pick deal)
- The rights to D Danny Richmond (Brent deal)
- C Martin St. Pierre (Pelletier deal)
- C Robert Lang (2010 second-round pick deal)
- C Jason Williams (to Atlanta)
- G Patrick Lalime (to Buffalo)
- LW David Koci (to Tampa Bay)
Apropos-of-nothing TLP predicted finish: Second in the division, sixth in the West, 12th in the league.