After finishing eighth in the West last season, the Chicago Blackhawks were the NHL's best team through 35 games. (Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)
When The Hockey News editorial team gathered last summer and picked the Washington Capitals as our choice for this season’s Stanley Cup winner, I was fully on board with the selection. The THN staff and many others believed GM George McPhee had made all the right off-season moves to buttress what already was a formidable lineup.
However, like the best-laid plans of mice, men and Calgary Flames management over the past seven years, our blueprint for the way the season would play out went astray. The Caps have stalled in their development, canned their coach and their free agent signings – most notably, veteran defenseman Roman Hamrlik and, to a lesser degree, goalie Tomas Vokoun – have been busts. As it stands, Washington could be life-or-death just to make the playoffs, let alone dominate them.
With roughly two-thirds of the year still left to go, it’s always fun to play revisionist historian and use what we’ve seen from NHL teams so far to determine which one we ought to have picked as our Cup favorite.
And for me, as of today, that team is the Chicago Blackhawks.
Now, it wasn’t as if I didn’t like Chicago in the first place. In spite of their eighth-place finish in the Western Conference last season, I was one of the THN staffers who lobbied to put them ahead of Detroit as the Central Division’s best team. The Hawks clearly were coming off a hangover from their hard-fought, Cup-winning 2009-10 season, yet the signs of better things to come were apparent if you looked hard enough.
Last year, Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews – for my money, the NHL’s best player as long as Sidney Crosby is on the sidelines – set career highs in assists (44), points (76) and plus-minus (plus-25). If he could bottle that type of hangover into some performance-enhancing cologne, NHLers would be waiting in line like giggly girls outside a Justin Bieber concert to buy it and spray it all over themselves.
Moreover, although the statistics of Hawks cornerstones Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Duncan Keith all dipped in 2010-11, they didn’t exactly fall off the map. Of those four players, only the 32-year-old Hossa isn’t in his 20s. Their best players still have their best hockey ahead of them – and we’ve seen exactly that from them so far this year. Only the Philadelphia Flyers have more goals (116) than Chicago's 114 in 35 games. And if they ever can get their goaltending situation firmed up, either from Ray Emery, (who has played well with a 5-1-1 record, 1.89 goals-against average and .931 save percentage in his past seven games) Corey Crawford or a late-season veteran addition, they could be head and shoulders above most teams.
An Eastern Conference executive said all the focus on the trials and tribulations of Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin this season have distracted many from seeing just how good the Hawks are again.
“So far it’s all about Sid and Ovie, but how many other teams do you know of that could trade away (former Hawks D-man and current Panthers blueliner) Brian Campbell in the summer and still be one of the league leaders in goals-for?” asked the executive, who spoke on condition his name not be used. “Very, very few, I’d say. (Chicago GM) Stan (Bowman) could’ve panicked after nearly missing the playoffs and traded away key pieces, but he was smart about it and brought in complementary guys like (Andrew) Brunette, (Sean) O’Donnell and (Steve) Montador. That told Toews and the rest of their big guns that it was going to be all on them to make it right again. And I think their response so far to that challenge shows what great character is in that (dressing) room.”
Not only do the Blackhawks have arguably the NHL’s best collection of top-tier talent, they’ve also got ownership unafraid to ship out a bad contract (in this case, Rostislav Olesz’s $3.125 million a year deal) to the American League. That has helped to give them approximately $5 million in available salary cap space – more than enough to make a big-time acquisition before the trade deadline and make an already dangerous squad as lethal as any team in the league.
There’s still time for the Capitals to reverse their downward trajectory and prove THN was right to pick them to win it all. But with every passing game, the Hawks are proving they’ll be the team to beat come mid-April.
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