The best thing to happen to the Chicago Blackhawks in the last five years? Their owner died.
Bill Wirtz passed away last September, and since then Chicago has risen from the ashes of a stagnant franchise to become a real factor in the league once again. Their young players have blossomed, fans can watch home games on television, and big name free agents were brought in to make what was once a sad team finally compete in the New “NHL”.
This year a lot has happened in Chicago, with head coach Denis Savard fired four games into the 2008-09 season. Many saw the move as unfair given the time table, but he will always be remembered for the brilliant-but-borderline-racist rallying cry “Commit to the Indian”. Expectations where high with the arrival of Brian Campbell and Cristobal Huet, the Winter Classic held at Wrigley Field, and a spike in attendance figures; and so perhaps the move was somewhat panic-fueled. However, Joel “It’s only buzzed driving” Quenneville has helped the team turn the corner and managed the goaltending situation very nicely so far.
As a Sabres fan looking at the Blackhawks roster, it’s hard to talk about anything but Patrick Kane and Brian Campbell. Kane leads the team in points and has been fantastic in his sophomore season, and Campbell has produced on the blueline as well. He has the occasional issue on the back end, but he was brought in to produce points and that’s exactly what he’s done.
In fact, his play with the man advantage is a big reason Chicago has improved so much. Of his 29 points, 15 have come on the power play, and he continues to play relatively penalty-free hockey, with only 6 PIM all season. This season Chicago’s power play has seen the second largest improvement in the league, currently running at a very good %22.8.
Chicago is much more than just two players, with a lot of guys stepping up on a young team. Duncan Keith has been great on the blueline, and would have made the All Star team if not for Campbell being voted in by the fans. The Hawks have nine players with at least 24 points on the season, and you know a team has secondary scoring when Ben Eager has 8 goals on the year. Forgotten in all the Kane hype is Martin Havlat (who has stayed healthy), Patrick Sharp, rookie Chris Versteeg, and captain Jonathan Toews. All four players have over 30 points and have helped bring a ton of depth to a very young roster.
The Blackhawks are playing very good hockey, but there is still a lot of growing left to do. The Winter Classic was a good example of a great team showing a young team exactly how it’s supposed to be done. It’s not a knock on Chicago as much as it is a compliment to Detroit, but it only shows what the Blackhawks are capable of if things go well. Their roster is full of RFAs likely to get an increase in salary, but this is a team ready to make a run right now.
Needless to say, it will be interesting to see how they come together down the stretch, and how they stack up against the Sabres tonight.