The Chicago Blackhawks are the team to beat. Loaded with talent at every position, bursting with playoff experience and they’ve already won twice since 2010. Some of the lesser core pieces have been moved (and some brought back) but the big five remain. They took a bit to get going at the start of this year, but stellar performances from Patrick Kane and Corey Crawford kept them winning at a reasonable clip. Once the team gelled they were near unstoppable. This is practically the same squad as the 2013 Cup winners, though now featuring a bona-fide second-line center in Brad Richards as well as two more years experience/growth for superstars Kane and Toews.
While looking strong in last year's playoff, they lost a heart breaker to eventual cup winners Los Angeles. Chicago must be looking on with glee as the Kings have struggled throughout this year with player controversy and currently sit outside the playoffs in an incredibly competitive Western Conference. Chicago’s toughest competition in the West should come from Anaheim, St. Louis and Nashville. Nashville and St. Louis are both deeply talented, but lack both the abundance of top-end all-star talent and playoff experience of Chicago. Anaheim looks to give a great fight, but suffer from an average defence and young, unproven goaltending.
The East is in major transition. Detroit is always competitive, and has quietly reeled off an impressive season. While they consistently restock their team with their unparalleled drafting and development, they still remain outclassed by Chicago per position, and you’d have to give Chicago the nod in a seven game series. Boston is not the team they once were. Tampa Bay and the Islanders are newcomers to the top, and the Canadiens are their usual unpredictable selves, as Carey Price currently has his squad punching above their weight. Pittsburgh hasn’t added enough to expect any more success, and Washington still has a lot to prove. The Rangers have a similar core to last year's Cup Final squad, but lost a few quality depth pieces to Tampa over the offseason. They do however have a resurgent Rick Nash, and have looked like the most dangerous Eastern team so far. I'm personally hoping for Pittsburgh, purely from an entertainment perspective, as Chicago/Pittsburgh has been the most elusive Cup Final matchup of this era.
On paper and on the ice, Chicago looks to be the most dominant team in the NHL. This core has already done it, and with their new and improved pieces, they just have to go out and do it again. Here are the 10 top reasons they will be crowned champions for the third time in the modern era.
10 Duncan Keith
One of the two most common ingredients of a Stanley Cup team is a dominant defenceman. Keith has been so great for so long that you almost forget about him. Drew Doughty has been the recent poster boy for defencemen with his matching two Stanley Cups and Olympic success, but Keith has not regressed from what made him so special. He does have an edge over other defencemen of his caliber, as his long contract is now an absolute bargain at $5.5 million. Being a defenceman, he is able to greatly impact almost half of a game, as a workhorse neutralizing the opposition's best weapons while driving plenty of offence with his fantastic wheels. Keith is still just 31 and looks to add a third Stanley Cup to his already impressive resume.
9 Nik Hjalmarsson, Depth on Defence
Defence wins championships. Chicago not only boasts two all-star Olympians in Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, but also Hjalmarsson to round out the top four. He plays a reliable, quiet game, and could crack the top pairing of many NHL rosters. A big bonus is his modest cap hit of just $4.1 million.
Hjalmarsson has accomplished much in his 27 years. He has already won the Cup twice with this Chicago core, becoming only the 10th Swedish player to accomplish that feat. The scary thing about Chicago’s depth is that they could have either Keith, Seabrook, or Hjalmarsson on the ice at all times.
8 Kris Versteeg, Depth up front
While Chicago has already proven it can win without Versteeg, his return to the team should help put them over the top. Already boasting arguably the best top-6 in the league, Versteeg is a fantastic utility player, able to play on any line, providing excellent two way play and grit. Chicago, like Boston, have a prototypical player they seek. Versteeg is the perfect Hawk; speedy, gritty, able to play at both ends of the ice, up and down the lineup. The NHL has quickly transformed into a league that demands four lines of competent hockey players. Versteeg is a huge part of Chicago’s ability to do that.
7 Corey Crawford
Antti Niemi and Crawford usually get about as much credit as Chris Osgood when it comes to Stanley Cup winning goaltenders. While Chicago walked away from paying $2.75 million to Niemi, they went the opposite direction with Crawford, awarding him $6 million annually. With his new salary, elite play is now consistently expected. While he will probably never get the proper accolades while playing for the Hawks, Crawford has nonetheless provided some stellar play this season.
Crawford and Kane hoisted the team on their backs for the first half of 2014-15, allowing Chicago to win at a decent clip while the rest of the squad rounded into form. Crawford did have a rough January along with the rest of the team, but anyone could expect some mid-season doldrums for a team expected to win the Cup each year. With his play in top form, Chicago looks set for a Cup run.
6 Their Biggest Threat is in Disarray
Winning a Stanley Cup can really take a lot out of you. It’s four rounds of gruelling playoff hockey, followed by a shortened offseason filled with celebration. L.A. definitely looks exhausted. While the Kings were never at the top of the standings in both of their Stanley Cup seasons, they look to be in genuine disarray this year. Slava Voynov’s domestic violence charges and the subsequent $100K fine the Kings received after he practiced with the team during his indefinite suspension not only stripped them of a quality d-man but has perhaps been a significant distraction.
Furthermore, GM Dean Lombardi’s mistake of not buying out Mike Richards when he had the chance has been a further detriment to the team. His lacklustre play and gigantic contract caused a demotion to the fourth line, healthy scratches and finally resulted in him being waived from the team after no trade takers were found. After eliminating the Hawks last playoff in a seven-game thriller, Chicago has to be happy to see the Kings in danger of missing the playoffs completely.
5 Jonathan Toews
Another prevailing ingredient of a Stanley Cup winner is a dominant center who can shut down as well as score. Steve Yzerman, Peter Forsberg, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews were all absolutely integral to their team's win. They all embodied the will to win, neutralizing the best weapons of the opposition and providing game-breaking offence. Toews is a pure leader and winner. At 26, he’s already won two Stanley Cups (Conn Smythe 2010), two Olympic Gold medals (Best Forward 2010), World Championship Gold (while still in college!) as well as two straight World Junior golds.
Besides his two-way excellence, perhaps Toews's greatest benefit to the team is his effect on Patrick Kane. Not much separates Kane from Phil Kessel as far as talent goes, but Kane benefits from playing second-fiddle to Toews. Imagine if Kessel was in Kane’s position. The fan base could care less about his leadership and defensive qualities, and he would be allowed to focus purely on scoring. Toews assumes complete leadership and responsibility for the team, driving them forward, and allowing Chicago to get the most out of Kane.
4 Goal Differential
Chicago may not seem so dominant, as they sit six points back from division leading Nashville. The far more telling stat however is goal differential. At one point, the Blackhawks led the league with a staggering +40. The last 10 Stanley Cup winners have all been in the top 10 of this category. This is an incredibly balanced team, boasting all stars at every position, able to score, defend, playing loose or tough.
3 Second Line
Almost every team in the league can throw together a potent enough first line. At the same time, every team in the playoffs will throw their two best defenders and three best shut down forwards at said first line. Chicago has always had a dynamic top line as well as a deep bottom six, but now they have finally plugged the second-line center hole. Brad Richards and his bargain contract look like the steal of the offseason. After his early-season struggles he has emerged to provide exactly what was expected of him. His partnership with Kane and either Versteeg or Sharp has been absolutely deadly. It can compete with any other line in hockey and forces the opposition to choose which line to throw their best at.
2 Patrick Kane
Kane sits at the top spot based on reason no.5. Toews gives Kane the freedom to score, and score he does. Especially this season, as Kane is quietly putting together a case for Hart Trophy consideration, carrying the Hawks through their tougher stretches, as the team settles in for a playoff run. He has battled Jakub Voracek for the NHL scoring lead all season long. While Kane’s scoring efforts have allowed Chicago to continue their winning ways while many on the team have slumped, Voracek has not been able to translate his individual production into team success. ane will still be hard pressed to win the Hart of course. Like their goaltender, Kane’s achievements will never be as highly valued due to the talented cast surrounding them. But I’m sure Kane can handle losing the Hart if he captures another Cup.
1 End of the Window
When this core won their first Stanley Cup they had to immediately jettison some big pieces that were integral to the win. Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg, and even their number one goaltender Antti Niemi had to go. Chicago is facing an even tougher cap crunch at the end of this season. With Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane's cap hits jumping from $6.3 to $10.5 million, Chicago will already be at $64.9 million with only 14 players signed!
The team is well aware of the upcoming changes and as a group must know that anyone outside of Toews, Kane, and Keith could be playing somewhere else next year. With that hanging over their heads, this current group should be plenty motivated to win one last time.