Previewing the 2011-12 Chicago Blackhawks

Chicago Blackhawks take their time out late in the 4/10/11 game vs Detroit
Chicago Blackhawks take their time out late in the 4/10/11 game vs Detroit (picture by Cheryl Adams)

A year ago, the Chicago Blackhawks were winding down after spending the summer with Stanley, and the team had undergone a radical makeover as it attempted to squeeze under the salary cap. Gone was the grit, the grinders, the character players.

The team was plagued by injuries and inconsistencies all season; backed into the playoffs based on the outcome of another team’s loss; and then battled the Vancouver Canucks to an epic 7-game overtime series.

With such a dramatic ending to the season, there’s been lot of questions: if the team had had their act together throughout the year, and weren’t struggling to make up the points in the final weeks, could they have gone deeper in the playoffs? If they had beaten Vancouver in game 7, how much deeper would they have gone? The “Cup hangover” might have been an excuse for the first half of the season, but what about the second?

They’ll have go to unanswered. The page has been turned, and it’s a new season.

Now there’s a whole new set of questions:
– Can the character players brought in give the team back its grit?
– Will Steve Montador be everything that the Hawks have been missing on the blue line?
– Can Dan Carcillo play “on the edge” and be “another Dave Bolland” for the team?
– Who will be Corey Crawford’s backup – Alexander Salak or Ray Emery?
– Will Ben Smith or some other player from Rockford break into the lineup after training camp?
– Will Andrew Brunette be the other winger the Toews-Kane top line has been looking for?
– Can Marian Hossa and Dave Bolland stay healthy for the full season?
– Who’s going to fill the enforcer role – John Scott, Jamal Mayers, other?
– Most of all, will this combination of players go deep in the playoffs once again?

At the opening of free agency, the Blackhawks made a series of swift, decisive moves. Announcements quickly rolled out: Jamal Mayers, Daniel Carcillo, Sean O’Donnell, Andrew Brunette. During the 2011 Draft, the Blackhawks had managed to offload Brian Campbell’s sizeable contract, so when the final salary cap figure for the year was announced, the team suddenly had a lot of cap space to play with. Chicago had already acquired Rostislav Olesz in the Campbell trade, then traded for and signed Steve Montador, which was an early indication that negotiations between the team and Chris Campoli weren’t going well. Campoli was not signed after his arbitration hearing; and in mid-July, Chicago added one more defenseman, Sami Lepisto, fresh off the Finnish gold in the World Championship. A couple of depth signings (Brandon Segal, Brett Mclean) that will probably end up in Rockford rounded out the summer.

So, what can fans expect out of these players?

Andrew Brunette – One of the iron men of the NHL, Brunette is a front-line veteran who’s both willing to dig in the corners and can make plays happen in front of the net. His most likely fit will be on the top line alongside Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, where his reliable touch should not only help bolster the Hawks’ top two stars, but he should collect his share of points as well.

Daniel Carcillo – Few Hawks fans will forget the moment during the 2010 Stanley Cup Final game where Carcillo went to hit Tomas Kopecky, but ended up flattening his own teammate, Jeff Carter, instead. Carcillo has been the type of player you “love to hate” on the other team; the Blackhawks are hoping he’ll give that agitator edge back to the team.

Sami Lepisto – As a third-pairing defenseman, Lepisto has good skills on the blue line. He doesn’t turn the puck over much and he’s willing to hit and block shots.

Jamal Mayers – Although Mayers probably won’t get much TOI above the third or fourth line, he’s a solid, physical right-winger. He’s not going to score a lot of points, but he’s not the type to make too many mistakes, either. Mayers has been under the guidance of Coach Joel Quenneville before and should slide right into team systems.

Steve Montador – As the Blackhawks traded for his rights then signed him to a 4-year contract, Montador is the clear replacement for Campoli. Montador is a gritty, physical, puck-blocking defenseman; his veteran experience would be a solid counterpart on a pairing with Nick Leddy, who is more of a puck-moving D-man.

Sean O’Donnell – O’Donnell, another veteran with lots of playoff experience, a willingness to block the puck, a solid ability to get the puck out of the zone, and is a “defense-minded” defenseman. He’s not as physical as Montador or Lepisto, but he’s reliable.

In 2010, the Hawks went from a well-rounded team to one that was really good with the puck but not so hot at being physical. For this season, Stan Bowman has brought the team back into balance. The Blackhawks have had a long summer to think about what went wrong last season, and will no doubt return to the ice hungry to prove themselves and earn their space – and home ice – in the playoffs.