After one of the shortest offseasons in professional sports history, the Chicago Blackhawks will be back on United Center ice one week from tonight.
Just 79 days after winning the Stanley Cup for the second time in four years, the Blackhawks will be raising the 2013 Champions banner at the United Center next Tuesday before the season begins against the Washington Capitals.
The strike-shortened 2013 campaign was a historic and record-setting season for the Hawks, and now the team will prepare to become the first to win back-to-back Stanley Cups since the 1997 and 1998 Detroit Red Wings. That team was coached by Scotty Bowman, father of current Blackhawks General Manager Stan Bowman.
Stan has done a nice job setting his team up to challenge the accomplishments of his father's late-90's Red Wings. The 2013-14 Blackhawks roster features most of the same talent as last years's Championship roster, and much of it is under contract for some time. There have been some notable departures, however.
Dave Bolland will be the most obvious subtraction from last year's team. Drafted by the Hawks in the second round of 2004, Bolland was an integral part of the 2009-10 Championship team. The Rat came up huge in the playoffs, and excelled at getting under star opponents' skin- a talent which earned him his nickname in the first place. Unfortunately, injuries and inconsistent production have been an issue for Bolland, and with other pressing roster concerns, the Blackhawks opted to trade the centerman to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Another notable missing piece this season will be Michael Frolik. Although rather unproductive during two and a half regular seasons with the Hawks, Frolik always played his best in the playoffs, and was a staple on the team's penalty kill unit.
Bowman needed salary cap space to re-sign playoff stud Bryan Bickell, and was somewhat forced into trading Bolland and Frolik in order to do so. The retention of Michal Handzus should help coach Joel Quenneville counter the loss of these players, but the Blackhawks will certainly need contributions from the youth coming up in order to make this roster-shuffling a success this season.
The continued development of Marcus Kruger, Andrew Shaw, and Brandon Saad will be critical to how the Hawks fare without Bolland and Frolik, but new young talent will have an opportunity to leave a fingerprint on this team as well. The likes of Brandon Pirri, Jimmy Hayes, Ben Smith, and even Jeremy Morin and Kyle Beach, could all see significant playing time this season, though the former are more likely to see any sort of consistent ice-time.
Somewhat less noteworthy departures include Ray Emery and Viktor Stalberg. Although Emery was fantastic last season, the Blackhawks have clearly committed to Corey Crawford. Bowman brought former Blackhawks goaltender, Nikolai Khabibulin, back to the team, and he should be capable of providing adequate back-up to Crawford when necessary. The other loss may even turn out to be addition by subtraction.
Viktor Stalberg is the perfect example of a player who never reaches his obvious potential. Despite his speed and offensive skill, the winger has yet to put it all together. Whether it be due to lack of focus, effort, or just desire, Stalberg had earned the scorn of Quenneville late in the playoffs last year, and should be a player that is replaceable with the young talent in the system.
This is not the 2010-11 season. The Chicago Blackhawks have not had to dismantle a Stanley Cup-winning roster. Repeating in any sport- save for, perhaps, basketball- is a rare and impressive feat. Hockey tends to be the most "random" of sports, especially when it comes to Championships, but if any team has a solid chance to do so, it is the Blackhawks this year.
The extremely short offseason, not to mention the Olympics, will provide for interesting hurdles, but nearly all of the talent that brought the Stanley Cup back to Chicago, just a few months ago, is returning. The back-end of the roster is set with talent ready to develop, and has a large core of players at the height of their talent, with experience, confidence, and Championships.
The Blackhawks will start things off in seven days; not a moment too soon for me.