Blackhawks bring new grit into 2011-12 season
The Chicago Blackhawks have added some fresh faces and a big dose of grit this season.
And according to star forward Patrick Kane, the Blackhawks are hungry again after winning it all in 2010.
''I think a lot of us have to prove that what we did two years ago wasn't really a fluke,'' Kane said. ''Last year, we didn't have our best team and we almost did some damage.''
The Blackhawks won their first Stanley Cup championship in 49 years with a highly skilled, high-energy young team that also fed off rugged forward Dustin Byfuglien. Not long afterward, they shed 10 players in a salary cap dump.
The result: Chicago squeaked into the playoffs on the final day of the regular schedule. They took Vancouver to a Game 7 in the first round, but were eliminated.
General manager Stan Bowman has since added physical and experienced players to complement his core of quick - and still mostly young - holdovers from the championship season. He said his goal has been to make the Blackhawks ''harder to play against.''
''It seemed like if we scored a goal, we would be able to change the momentum of games, but it was our only mechanism to get going when things weren't working from the start (last season),'' Bowman said. ''Sometimes you need to have other players that contribute different things.
''You need to be able to change the momentum, and that's usually with guys who play a certain (physical) style. That's why we've added all those players while we've kept all our top guys.''
On paper, the Blackhawks rate with the NHL's elite clubs. Coach Joel Quenneville's potential group of top forwards includes Kane - who should be ready to start the season after wrist surgery in July - Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Dave Bolland and incoming veteran Andrew Brunette. Sharp, who led the team with 34 goals last season, should return in early October from an appendectomy.
''There's tons of skill and pretty well every line will have some,'' said the 37-year-old Brunette, who has 256 goals and 450 assists in 1,032 NHL games. ''You can talk about the toughness, but I think the skill level of this team is as high as anybody in the league.''
Quenneville will be able to assemble third and fourth lines that will make Chicago more challenging to match up against.
''Now we've got more experienced guys on the third or fourth lines,'' Hossa said. ''You know they're much bigger guys coming in, and that will be a difference.''
Some of the forwards, especially newcomers Daniel Carcillo and Jamal Mayers, play with an edge. They'll mix in with 6-foot-4 Bryan Bickell, Michael Frolik, Viktor Stalberg, and newcomer Rostislav Olesz. Rookies Ben Smith and Marcus Kruger, who were impressive in last spring's playoffs, add to the competition along with 18-year-old Brandon Saad, who turned heads in camp.
On defense, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson give the Blackhawks skill and mobility.
But there are questions here, including whether Keith, the 2010 Norris Trophy winner, has recovered from playing an average of 27 minutes a game over the past two seasons. And Brian Campbell was traded in the offseason to Florida along with his $7.14 million salary.
He has been replaced with 31-year-old Steve Montador, a rugged stay-at-home type who makes quick first passes to start the rush rather than carrying the puck himself. He signed four-year, $11 million contract with Chicago last summer following a career-best plus-16 rating with the Buffalo in 2010-11.
''That's where we kind of lacked a little bit,'' Kane said. ''Now we have a guy like Montador, who I hear will stick up and fight for anyone. It's nice to have that toughness and experience that we didn't really have the last couple of years.''
The Blackhawks are set with Corey Crawford as their No. 1 goalie. A rookie in 2010-11, Crawford was locked in with a three-year, $8 million contract after going 33-18-6 with a 2.30 goals-against average.
He was sensational in the playoffs as the Blackhawks stormed back from a 3-0 series deficit against the Canucks. He will be backed up by veteran Ray Emery or prospect Alexander Salak, who battled for that job through training camp.
Crawford said he is looking forward to the season, which begins Oct. 7 at Dallas.
''The guys who are coming in are some big, physical guys,'' Crawford said. ''Once we have the big guys go out with checks and open up space and get the other team thinking a bit, then our skilled guys can go out there with their speed and their puck handling.''
That sounds a lot like what carried the Blackhawks to the Cup two years ago.