Twenty-year-old Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks has 28 goals and 58 points this season. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to introduce your 2007 Pittsburgh Penguins: The 2009 Chicago Blackhawks.
Much in the same way a young and talented Pitt team cruised into its first post-season in years, only to be stomped by a more experienced squad (in that case, the pre-implosion Ottawa Senators), I foresee pain and anguish when the Blackhawks step back into the playoffs for the first time in seven years this spring.
Not that I have anything against the Hawks; it’s just they have trouble beating good teams. They still haven’t bested Detroit this year and have dropped recent decisions to New Jersey, Boston and Columbus, while grabbing points in wins over also-rans such as Los Angeles and Anaheim.
Even the makeup of the squad is similar to the ’07 Penguins. While Sidney Crosby was the fresh-faced, ultra-skilled captain in Pittsburgh, Jonathan Toews fills that role in Chicago. Patrick Kane even plays his Evgeni Malkin (though in a very different body type). This actually brings up another point – the trend towards naming young phenoms as captains.
I’m not in the dressing room, but if you’re a new NHLer still learning the ropes, do you want to go to war with a veteran captain who has been there before, or a guy you share an iPod playlist with? It should be no surprise the past three captains to hoist the Cup have been Nick Lidstrom (38 years old), Scott Niedermayer (33 at the time) and Rod Brind’Amour (35 at the time).
But I digress. When Toews and crew find out in mid-April why the Vancouver Canucks waited so long for Mats Sundin and didn’t mind when Roberto Luongo got some unscheduled rest in the middle of the season, they’ll use it as a learning experience. Then, in 2010, they’ll use that knowledge to make some noise in the playoffs for real.
Again, much like the Pens, the Blackhawks are set up quite well for the future. Toews, Kane, Patrick Sharp, Dustin Byfuglien, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Brian Campbell and Cristobal Huet are all under contract through at least next season. The biggest off-season decisions will revolve around restricted free agent Cam Barker and unrestricted free agent Martin Havlat.
Barker probably represents the more pressing situation. While Havlat constantly flirts with greatness, he rarely takes it home. Injuries are the root cause, but at some point Chicago brass needs to put that elite-forward money towards a player who can skate in 82 games. Barker meanwhile, has made great strides this season.
The third overall pick in the 2004 draft didn’t even start the year in the NHL, making his ascent all the more incredible. Barker has been a tough, physical presence on the back end and is currently on a six-game point streak. His work on the power play has been excellent and for a team that has Keith, Seabrook and Campbell in front of him, Barker’s contribution is certainly above average.
But that won’t stop the inevitable this spring. The Hawks will be first-round fodder, though I won’t deny the entertaining nature of the series. Heck, with home-ice advantage the battle could go six games. But this is about baby steps. Chicago can be elite; this just won’t be the year.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his features, The Hot List and Prep Watch appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.
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