Hawks Still In A Prime Spot

By pushing back from a 3-1 hole in the Western Conference Finals vs a talented Kings team, the Blackhawks proved they have the heart of a champion. Now…

…The attention turns to the off-season & the contract negotiations for Patrick Kane & Jonathan Toews.

When your organization’s motto is One Goal, it’s easy for fans to be enraged, frustrated, miserable and letdown after a crushing game 7 overtime loss at home in the conference finals. Any Blackhawks fan has the right to feel however they want after their team’s exit to an insanely good L.A. Kings team. However you’re feeling after seeing every bounce and non call go the Kings’ way Sunday night, it shouldn’t cloud your opinion of a team that was so close to repeating as Stanley Cup champions, and have the word dynasty follow them forever. In the end, however, it just wasn’t meant to be.

Winning one Stanley Cup is difficult enough, but winning three in five years is virtually impossible. There’s a reason the NHL playoffs are the most competitive and grueling of all of the four major sports. For the 15th straight season, there will be a new champion crowned. The NHL’s Western Conference isn’t the NBA’s Eastern Conference, that’s for damn sure. If it was, the Hawks would be gearing up for an inferior Rangers squad and starting the parade plans.

When you dig yourselves a 3-1 hole against a team as good as the Kings, you leave yourself no margin for error. The 5-4 overtime loss in game 7 squashes the dynasty talk until the playoffs begin next spring, but the fact the Hawks made their fourth conference finals appearance in the last six years is a testament to this team’s character, talent and will.

In reality, the Hawks were outplayed for much of this postseason. If not for Corey Crawford’s brilliance vs the Blues and Wild, the Hawks might have never made it to within a game of the Finals. After an early flurry in game 2 vs the Kings, L.A. was the more consistent team in all aspects. Unlike coach Q (who I still love, but isn’t perfect), Daryl Sutter played young players, trusted them & allowed his team to have the speed advantage over the defending champs. Yeah, I won’t get over Bollig and Versteeg “earning” opportunities at this stage vs this good of a team. It still doesn’t make any sense.

Repeating in the NHL is just a bitch, and there’s a reason nobody’s done it since the Wings in ’98. The Hawks were gassed, but got by on heart and supreme talent. In the last two years, the Hawks have played more games than any other team, had the shortest off-season ever after last year’s championship and had to deal with their best players expending even more energy because of the idiotic & useless Olympic break.

They were mentally and physically spent. My biggest concern for a potential repeat was that Olympic break. I had a feeling it would come back to bite them in the ass, and it did. It’s pointless to play the what if hypothetical game, but what if the Hawks players took those two weeks to rest and get away from the game? Would it have made a difference? Probably, but that’s the price you pay when you have a star studded squad.

The fatigue factor can’t be ignored, and it’s why I can’t get too pissed off at a team that left it all on the line. If the Hawks had dogged it vs the Blues after getting down 2-0 in that first round series, my mentality would be different. But I’m proud of this team for they fought, defied the odds and gave fans like me a few extra weeks of anxiety driven-nail biting excitement. I’m also excited about what lies ahead the next few years, because this team is poised to contend for the duration. The Hawks aren’t just a great team, they’re a great hockey organization that will rest, get healthy, remember this pain & put themselves in position to win a 3rd Cup in 6 years a year from now. Speaking of the future…

The Hawks are in a money spot in every possible aspect. They have a motivated owner that lives by the One Goal mantra. That owner is committed to hiring the absolute best people to ensure his franchise is the envy of the league. They have the Bowman’s over seeing the roster, which is loaded with young talent waiting to breakthrough. They have a championship coach (who needs to learn to trust young players more, but still one of the very best) that has the respect of his players. And they have an insane fan base in a major market that all free agents who are chasing a Cup will lust after.

What the Hawks don’t need, is to make a sudden and dramatic change to the roster. There’s nothing more stupid than losing a series on a freak goal and overreacting by trading Patrick Sharp or Brent Seabrook. The organizations that stay competitive at a high level never make moves just for the sake of shuffling the decks. I trust the Bowman’s, so if a deal is made involving Sharp, Seabrook or Johnny Oduya, it will be with an eye towards the future. All three players would bring a solid return to the team, but you can bet a trade will only be made if it improves the Hawks in the short term with an emerging player on a cheaper deal, and/or long term as the team prepares for extensions for Toews and Kane.

I’m not just dumping any of these players to give the team a different look. There’s already rumors about a Sharp (32 years old & fresh off a 78 point season) for 34 year old Joe Thornton. Sure, Thornton could be the second line center the Hawks have been seeking, but I’m not ready to give up a potent goal scorer, especially when the Hawks have won two Cups without the “ever important” second line center.

Seabrook has a cap hit of $5.8 million for the next two years, Sharp $5.9 million for the next three and Oduya $3.3 for next season. If Bowman’s looking to free up money (ya know, besides moving Bollig & Versteeg for a roll of tape), Oduya’s a likely candidate to be dealt on draft day because it could prove to be impossible to keep him after next season. Bowman spoke highly of Nick Leddy, so perhaps the front office is preparing for life without one of their top four defenseman.

For me, I’m only moving Seabrook or Sharp if I’m getting a cheaper-young player at each of those positions that gives me cap room to make the team deeper.

The Hawks have Toews & Kane locked in at $6.3 million each for next season, but both are line for massive extensions that, hopefully, are signed this summer. This team doesn’t need the distractions that could come with the two faces of the franchise heading towards free agency. Both players want to win and want to be here, so the negotiations shouldn’t be too acrimonious. Signing these two is the highest priority for this team, and signing both will eliminate any talk about Kane going to Buffalo, or Toews going anywhere.

The Hawks have youth and skill in their system, and will need a few of those kids to step up next season to give them the four line depth that defined the 2013 championship team. In the final stages of game 6 vs the Bruins in the Finals last spring, Quenneville sent out Michael Frolik, Dave Bolland & Marcus Kruger because he had the confidence they could get the game to overtime. Bolland scored the game-winning goal, of course, but that move showed how deep that team was.

Quenneville didn’t trust his 4th line nearly as much this season, and it’s on guys like Jeremy Morin, Joakim Nordstrom, Teuvo Teravainen (who could fill the second line center void), Mark McNeill & Phillip Danault to prove the coach they deserve time next season. Quenneville will likely give them chances during the season, so the hope is they give the veteran loving coach the confidence to play them when it matters most.

Stan Bowman said the team is hopeful it can sign 22-year-old right winger Kevin Hayes. Hayes is 6’3, 205 pounds. He was the team’s 1st round pick in 2010, and had 65 points at Boston College this past season. Also, keep an eye on 22-year-old left winger Matt Carey. Carey had 37 points (18g, 19a) in 38 games at St. Lawrence University before making his Hawks debut.

On the blue line, the Hawks have Stephen Johns, Adam Clendening & Klas Dahlbeck in their system, so if an Oduya or Seabrook trade materializes, there are talented options that could prove to be bargains on cheap contracts. Remember… With Kane & Toews about to start earning crazy money, every dollar counts in this NHL.

As you can hopefully tell, the Hawks are loaded from top to bottom. I know the sting of the game 7 loss will linger into the summer, but an elite franchise isn’t going to sit around and wonder what might have been? The Bowman’s will instead get back to work and do whatever’s possible to ensure another Cup run next spring. And even if they do little to alter this roster, they’d still be one of the favorites to win the championship next season.

So relax, be proud of how far an exhausted team made it, know you’ve got two Cups in your pocket already, pimp the fact Kane & Toews haven’t even reached their prime, be grateful for having Rocky Wirtz & John McDonough running the show and know this team’s run isn’t anywhere close to being over. Oh, and take a second and think about how filthy good Brandon Saad is going to be next year…

Remember, even Jordan’s Bulls lost a devastating series in ’95. It happens. Get over it, and gear up for another deep playoff run a year from now from a team that’s already talking about how motivated they’ll be.

 

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