This time, no Blackhawks hangover
Not since Detroit in 1998 has a team won back-to-back Stanley Cups, and in the salary-cap era only one team -- the Red Wings in 2009 -- has sniffed a repeat.
That's the bad news. The good news is that the final four in June consisted of the previous four champs, and in the last decade only the Blackhawks have won twice in a span of four seasons.
So where are the Hawks this time around? The odds of a repeat are obviously against them, but not nearly as they were when last they tried to defend their title.
Unlike 2010, they didn't lose half a hockey team this summer to a poorly managed cap. The Hawks were prepared and sacrificed only a few spare parts.
Yes, there are things about Dave Bolland, Michael Frolik and Viktor Stalberg that the Hawks will miss, but not one was irreplaceable or essential to making a long playoff run.
Stalberg could skate like the wind, but he couldn't hit the ocean if he were standing knee deep in the Atlantic. His playoff production in three years amounted to a single goal and 6 points in 32 games, and his whining about ice time in the postseason sealed his fate.
Bolland brought an edge and was a solid checking-line center, but he has an old body for a man his age (27) and was a fourth-line center by the time he scored the Cup-winning goal in Boston.
Frolik's speed and penalty killing will be missed, but if you can't replace fourth-line players in the salary-cap era, you have bigger problems.
Among those who will get a long look, Ben Smith has a nose for the net and gets more out his ability than he has any right to expect. No wonder Joel Quenneville has such a fondness for him. Smith ought to finally find himself a regular spot on the third or fourth line.
Brandon Pirri and Jeremy Morin were sent down, but this roster is a work in progress. Both have second-line scoring ability and this may be the season that allows one of them to break through and get some serious ice time.
That's crucial because even though Michal Handzus did a fine job as a No. 2 center in the postseason, he'll never survive a long season physically and will need lots of rest even when he's not hurt.
And then there's big Jimmy Hayes (6-6, 225), who looked like he spent considerable time on his skating over the summer. The Hayes of the preseason looked nothing like the Hayes of the last couple years, and if he can play a regular shift, that's a big addition for the Hawks.
Swede Joakim Nordstrom will get the first shot at the penalty kill with countryman Marcus Kruger, but Quenneville loves to tinker with the lineup and anyone who doesn't get it done will quickly earn a bus ticket to Rockford.
Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw and Nick Leddy will all be better players this season, so that also offsets some of what they've lost over the summer.
More than anyone, the Hawks will miss Ray Emery, who left because he wanted a full-time job. Emery was not only a terrific backup that played well while giving Corey Crawford a rest, but he was also a terrific teammate and never played clubhouse lawyer or politicked for the job.
Nikolai Khabibulin was an odd choice to replace Emery because he's none of the things Emery was for the Hawks, and that will be fascinating to watch as the season progresses.
The Hawks do have lots of depth on defense, so the big issue -- outside of the chronically bad health of Marian Hossa -- is likely how the team responds to a short summer and a long season that includes an Olympic tournament for all their best players.
Mentally, these guys will be ready to go. Hockey players love playing hockey more than anything on Earth, so that won't be a problem.
Physically, the Hawks will have a rough go of it. They're still beat -- and beat up -- from a brutal playoff run, but the infusion of young kids hungry for ice time and a chance to win will help a lot.
At the same time, the Western Conference doesn't look all that daunting, even less so with Detroit gone to the East.
So it won't be a first-round exit for the Hawks as it was the two years following the 2010 victory, but how far they go will depend largely on how healthy they are come April, and how they answer some significant questions.
Which kids step up? Will a second-line center emerge? What young player will find chemistry with Kruger on the penalty kill? Will Crawford and Bryan Bickell handle the pressure of big contracts?
There's no point in asking about the power play. You already know the answer.
So here we go. It seems like only yesterday that the Hawks were dancing in Boston, partying in Chicago and traveling around the world with the Stanley Cup.
There is little time for banners and no time for hangovers.
It's time to drop the puck.
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