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Friday, November 12, 2010
What's wrong with the Blackhawks?

By Jesse Rogers

Blackhawks
Jonathan Toews and Brent Seabrook aren't used to watching opponents celebrate as much as they've done this season.
What's wrong with the Chicago Blackhawks?

It's a question that's permeated the NHL as the Stanley Cup champs have stumbled off to an 8-9-1 start, which puts them fourth in the Central Division.

Roster turnover and a short summer have contributed to the slow start, according to various scouts and league personnel.

"I think the bigger issue that hasn't really been talked about in depth, since the season started, is that this is a different team than last year," an Eastern Conference scout said. "They have the same Blackhawk jerseys, but there were a lot of changes that were made."

Because of salary cap constraints, the Hawks dealt 10 players who figured into last season's success. Several of the departed were key players, including Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, John Madden, Kris Versteeg and starting goaltender Antti Niemi.

Hawks general manager Stan Bowman insisted after almost every transaction that he was keeping the core intact. But so far, the mix isn't working to maximum efficiency.

"When you look at the names that are not here compared to last year, it's a considerable difference," the scout continued. "One of the problems I've seen so far is getting the puck out of their own end. In today's game, you have to get the puck up to your forwards and move ahead, and when you are struggling to do that, you pay the price in your own end."

Doing some scouting for Anaheim now, former NHL great Scott Niedermayer knows what it's like to win the Stanley Cup and feel the pressure the following season. He's a four-time Stanley Cup champion.

"You definitely learn a lot," Niedermayer said. "Especially the first time you go through a long Stanley Cup run. That takes a lot out of you.

Patrick Kane
The adrenaline that flowed for the Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup finals is gone, and trying to find that same motivation level is a major challenge.


"You do have to prepare real quick to get back at it, and all these teams are not going to give you a night off. They're going to be hungry and at you every night."

Interestingly, Niedermayer said getting over the physical issues a short summer presents isn't as bad as other potential problems.

"They are in a different mental position this year," he said. "No doubt about it. You need the rest. You need the mental breaks as well. A lot of those guys didn't get it."

While youth works to the Hawks' favor for long-term success, it could work against them in the short term.

"The Hawks are different than my Detroit teams, or even Montreal team that won it," former Blackhawks star and current Red Wings executive Chris Chelios said. "They are young. They might be overwhelmed a little bit with the expectations. I was on older teams. It's really tough to stay on top."

Repeating is so hard that Niedermayer is most impressed with a team he played on that fell short of the ultimate goal.

"The first time [1995] we won in New Jersey, we missed the playoffs the following year," Niedermayer explained. "The second time we won in 2000, we got back in to the Stanley Cup finals, and I thought that was a great accomplishment. We lost in a seventh game, and to be that close again and to answer those challenges, that was a great thing."

It's not only hard to repeat as champs, just getting back to the playoffs the following season isn't always guaranteed. It's happened more than once to Cup champions, most recently to the Carolina Hurricanes after they won it in 2006.

Chelios said one of the keys in repeating is something that's already eluded Chicago.

"In Detroit, for the decade I've been here, we've expressed how important it is to get off to a good start," Chelios said. "It remains to be seen if they can get over the hump."

And it's not just the new Blackhawks who have struggled. Reigning Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith found himself benched for a few shifts recently.

Chelios and Niedermayer are former Norris Trophy winners who have watched Keith up close.
Niedermayer won an Olympic gold medal with him this year while Chelios played in the same division as Keith since he entered the league.

They've never seen a player coming off a Stanley Cup run log the ice time of Keith, who leads the league at just under 29 minutes.

"I would judge it by how the player plays, and he skates a lot [as a mobile defenseman]," Niedermayer said. "You add all those minutes with how he plays, that's a lot."

The Eastern Conference scout agrees.

"He's proven to be a workhorse, but that's almost too much to ask of a player," he said. "Especially over an 82-game season."

Those minutes are probably the main reason coach Joel Quenneville split up his Olympic duo of Keith and Brent Seabrook. Now he can spread out the playing time as he did Wednesday night against Phoenix, in their first game apart.

"I talked to some guys in the league last week and they were saying how much of this is a hangover and how much of this is getting used to new players," the scout said. "It's probably a combination of both. There are high expectations, and you have to understand the pressure that is on you."

Part of the pressure is to just be as motivated as last season, when Olympic excitement and playoff intensity kept the Blackhawks' adrenaline flowing.

"That's a big part of it for sure," Niedermayer said. "When you are in the rink for an Olympic game or Stanley Cup game, the intensity, the emotion, the excitement is maxed out. When you get to training camp, and preseason, and then the regular season, it's pretty quiet, pretty low key.

"They don't have the same excitement, and it's your job as a professional to be mentally ready. And it's not easy."