Thursday, October 7, 2010
Hawks' leadership will make the difference
By Jesse Rogers
The Blackhawks' mind set improved dramatically with the arrival of Jonathan Toews.
Over the course of a three-day stretch at the end of training camp, I asked each of the Chicago Blackhawks leaders --the ones wearing a "C" and two "A"s --what would motivate them after the championship season and the summer they just experienced.
The answer was simple: Winning. Or at least: Not losing.
"Every time I take to the ice it's a chance to win," Keith said. "I hate losing. Just because we won once doesn't mean I hate losing less."
"I expect to win the Stanley Cup as much as anyone in the league," Sharp said.
These are new times for this organization. In the early half of the last decade, it was hard to find a player who would lose sleep when his team lost.
That changed with the arrival of Captain Serious. For those who remember, he made an infamous remark his rookie year that summed up the feeling at that time: "We don't have enough players around here that hate to lose."
Those days are over. And that -- more than any other reason -- gives hope for a repeat. The leadership on the Hawks is second to none. While other teams -- Vancouver and Montreal for example -- are making big news in naming new captains, and others are trying to find reasons to be optimistic -- San Jose, the Hawks are already ahead of the game in those areas. Now, it's just about filling in the blanks. Filling in where the summer ripped it apart.
The Canucks are a good example of a team trying to find what the Hawks already have. Bounced out of the playoffs -- in some ways rather easily -- in consecutive years by the Hawks, they have re-made -- not so much their team -- but their leadership. The captain will no longer be their goalie, and gone is motor mouth, albeit good guy, Shane O'Brien. The Canucks aren't missing talent, they've been missing leadership.
The Hawks continue to have both.
Slowly but surely this preseason I became convinced that the theory of a championship team suffering from a success hangover -- which is usually right on -- wasn't going to materialize. I don't know if the Hawks are going to win the Stanley Cup again, but I know being complacent won't be the reason they don't.
It's interesting how youth can quickly turn from a concern to asset. Experienced youth is what the Hawks have, and that's the best kind to possess.
So many wondered out loud about Patrick Kane, but what I see in Kane through the fog of a party guy is what everyone sees clearly in Keith, Toews, Sharp, Marian Hossa and Brent Seabrook: a commitment to hockey and to team, as well as to the city of Chicago.
If the preseason is any indication, Marian Hossa is poised for another big season.
What hasn't been given enough attention is the window this team has that comes with that youth. It's not the window of talent, it's the window of fewer distractions. Kane and Toews in particular are not married, don't have kids, and really don't have a worry in the world. What is their world? Hockey. And that won't always be the case, but it is for now. And they need to take advantage of it.
Their leadership will be called upon in a new way this year. It's unchartered territory for them, as well as for Joel Quenneville. Can they get the new players to fill in where it's needed? Almost no team wins it all with just their stars performing. The word "role" is used more in hockey than maybe any other sport. New players for new roles.
Who will play vanilla enough to get the job done but may not get the recognition? Rookies and newcomers want to make their mark. Who will be the new Andrew Ladd? If that question can be answered come spring, then the Hawks will have a better than good chance of repeating.
Dustin Byfuglien didn't like playing in front of the net -- but he did. Kris Versteeg wasn't your classic third-line player -- but he thrived in the role. Dave Bolland would most assuredly like to be more of an offensive threat, but he had one of the great defensive runs a center could have in the playoffs. He chose to embrace the role. And that's what many players did in the postseason. They chose a role for the team over their own wants or needs. It's the job of Toews and the other leaders to convince the new guys the same is needed for a long postseason run. Team defense is the answer to the question you've been asking. What would stop the Hawks from going far? Remember, that's team defense -- not just the six defensemen who suit up every night.
On the ice, Quenneville is electing to start the season by spreading the wealth. Let's see if Tomas Kopecky can handle the first line with Toews and Hossa. Same goes for newcomer Fernando Pisani with Sharp and Kane. A third line featuring Bryan Bickell, Bolland and Troy Brouwer might be deceptively productive on offense, but that bulk and defensive ability should work as a checking line. Viktor Stalberg and Jack Skille can work their way up from the fourth line. Smart money says when it's all said and done, first-liners might be fourth-liners and vice versa. But that's a good thing.
Former general manager Dale Tallon made some mistakes out of the lockout but quickly moved to fix them by putting together a team of three -- some might argue four -- lines that were somewhat interchangeable. Stan Bowman was in the organization during that time, and Quenneville has seemingly bought into that concept as well. He can always load up on the top two lines -- I still think Brouwer could have a monster year if teamed up with the right players -- but why not give other coaches a match-up nightmare? It worked all of last year, especially in the playoffs, where coaches like Alain Vigneault of Vancouver and even Peter Laviolette of Philadelphia were caught between a rock and a hard place when it came to those matchups.
The Hawks face immediate adversity with the injury to Brian Campbell, but actually it's a good test. It's not going to be smooth the whole way, it never is. Plus, he'll be back rather quick, but can he be the same player wearing a knee brace? Campbell not moving the puck the way he can is like Kane forgetting how to stickhandle.
Under the headline of "The Rich Getting Richer," the Hawks have two teenagers poised to be part of the core soon, if not now, at least in Nick Leddy's case. Sometimes you know special when you see it. And both Leddy and Jeremy Morin showed it pretty quick in camp. No one says they are Kane and Keith, but they sure remind you of those stars with their talent and instincts.
And then there is Hossa. A freak of nature is what he is. If you haven't seen him this preseason you missed something special. He is simply one of the best players in the league. On his worst nights, he's better than most. And smarter. When Toews and Hossa take to the ice as penalty killing partners, it slows down an opposing team's power play in an instant. There is no better PK duo.
In goal could be the galvanizing figure of the team, if the season breaks right for him. His story of coming to the Hawks has been told many times, but you get the feeling Marty Turco really wanted to be here. Remember, last season many veteran goalies got off to slow starts. It's hard to know where Turco's game is right now coming off two down years in Dallas and a preseason that didn't tell you much. Give him time and judge him on the postseason. That's been his Achilles heel anyway. More than any other position or player, the pressure will mount on him quickly if things don't go well. How will he react? The last veteran in goal for the Hawks didn't exactly rise to the occasion through tough times. Hopefully Turco will.
That brings us full circle to Kane and Toews. Their status was enhanced in the Finals last year. One won the Conn Smythe, the other scored the game-winner in overtime. Could it have happened any other way? The scary part is they are both still getting better. I'd be surprised if Toews wasn't a near-point-per-game player and Kane didn't get close, or go over 100 himself. The offseason losses might actually help their statistics due to an increase in possible playing time. And how long will it be before they are re-united on the same line? For now, it will happen on the power play only, or when Quenneville gets antsy near the end of close games.
In the end it's that leadership -- including Quenneville -- that makes the difference in the Western Conference. It's an often repeated cliché about teams or players, but it fits for the West: prove it to me.
Vancouver has had its extreme makeover, now let's see if that new leadership takes hold. San Jose has been the other underachiever in the spring and the Sharks need to prove it as well. Fine, take the clutch Antti Niemi and send Evgeni Nabakov packing, but if Joe Thornton is still smiling his big smile after losses in May, the Sharks still have problems. I want to know Thornton hates to lose the way Toews does. The L.A. Kings are scary and resemble the Hawks in a way, and they are the team to watch.
That brings us to Detroit. Everyone's favorite "turnaround" team. Who could blame them for liking the Wings? There is a lot to like. Mike Babcock knows how to coach. Good health and a tweak here and there might be all they need. Leadership is in place as well. I'll still take the youth of the Hawks, though, and there was no doubt Niemi came up bigger than Jimmy Howard, but will Turco? That might be the deciding factor in the division.
Bryan Bickell, Jake Dowell, Skille and Stalberg might not be household names, but if the Hawks have a chance on the forecheck and the backcheck, these guys have to get it done. Some will simply have to play "vanilla."
In the final analysis, the Hawks will need the entirety of the regular season to figure themselves out, which means they may not win the conference. But does that really matter when you have the experience and you already set all kinds of lofty records for winning on the road in the playoffs? The Hawks know the road map come spring, which puts them back in the finals.
Prediction: The same as last year in this blog. The Hawks lose to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the finals. But no one says they can't prove me wrong again and win one more series.
I wouldn't bet against those leaders.
Other Predictions: Record and Points: 47-28-7, 101 points
Points: Kane, 101
Goals: Hossa, 36
Assists: Kane, 72
Fights: Scott, 8
Team MVP: Toews