I can hear the collective grumblings already. You can call me crazy, or an eternal optimist, but the Blackhawks will win the central division. You can book it. Seriously, call Vegas right now and place your bet. I’ll wait.
As a Chicago native, I’m all too familiar with the old saying “There are two season in Chicago.” For many, the running joke is “winter and construction,” but for me those two seasons are Blackhawks hockey and White Sox baseball.
As a White Sox fan, I can’t help but to draw some parallels between the 2011 Blackhawks team and the 2011 White Sox. Before the 2011 MLB season many analysts and experts had the White Sox winning the Central Division, and going as far as the World Series. The offseason acquisition of Adam Dunn at DH, plus high hopes for all-star outfielder Alex Rios and the return of Jake Peavy had the media praising how good this team looked…on paper. Even the organization itself bought into the hype by making “All In” the team slogan. Reality hit all too soon, as the Sox underachieved right out of the gates and finished the season third in the division with a 79-83 record.
Fast forward to 2012.
Despite an underwhelming and highly criticized 2011 season, White Sox GM Kenny Williams made very little noise in the offseason. Besides releasing manager Ozzie Guillen, the team lost Ace pitcher, Mark Buehrle and (cough) Juan Pierre to free agency, and traded closer Sergio Santos to the Blue Jays and right fielder Carlos Quentin to the Padres for prospects. No big name free agents were signed (unless you count Kosuke Fukudome, which I don’t), and no blockbuster trades were made. Yet here we sit in August with the White Sox (who were predicted to finish last in the division by the same experts that had them winning the World Series the year prior, by the way) atop of their division. How is this possible you ask? Rookies.
With outstanding pitching from Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Nate Jones and Addison Reed, plus fielding and added depth in the batting order from Alejandro De Aza and Dayan Viciedo, this team was capable of overcoming various injuries and keeping it’s head above water even when they struggled.
“Ok, Justyna, what does that have to do with the Blackhawks?”
Simple, unlike the White Sox, that actually lost a core pitcher, and division rivals like the Predators and Red Wings that lost top defensemen, the Blackhawks core stayed intact. Rookie defensemen Nick Leddy and sophomore goalie Corey Crawford added another full season of experience to their resumes, which in turns adds growth, confidence and knowledge to their game moving forward. The more controversial figure of the two is obviously Crawford, whose undeniable struggles in net last season were highlighted by two soft overtime goals in the playoffs. Much like Adam Dunn, Crawford seems to have washed his hands of last season’s underachievements, and is ready to move forward with newfound confidence and a fiery anger, as should the fan base. After all, with a high-octane offense, and improved defense, the Blackhawks don’t need Crawford to be Jonathan Quick; they just need him to be solid.
More importantly, however, the lack of signings and trades by the front office, which has many fans criticizing General Manager Stan Bowman for trying to re-sell us a product that didn’t work last season, could simply mean the kids are ready to play. Jimmy Hayes and Andrew Shaw had stellar debuts with the team last season. The iron fists of Brandon Bollig weren’t a bad addition towards the end of the season either. Brandon Saad, Mark McNeill, Phillip Danault, are also forwards/centers not to be overlooked come training camp. Defensemen Dylan Olsen had a brief shot with the big team last season as well, but Adam Clendening and Klas Dahlbeck can fit right in as well if necessary.
The point is, the free agent market wasn’t exactly crawling with second line centers this offseason, and with the list of quality players dwindling, and their price tags rising, maybe it’s time to look within the organization to fill in the missing pieces rather than signing another Andrew Brunette (sorry, Bruno).
Last season’s team lost a grinder in Daniel Carcillo to injury in January, lost the Captain to a concussion in February, and lost 20 points of production from winger-turned-center Patrick Kane, yet still managed to finish sixths in the conference standings with 101 points.
The core is heading into training camp healthy, determined and stronger than ever, with an eager and capable youth in their midst, while Stan Bowman has over $7 million in cap space to work with come trade deadline. Call me crazy, but this sounds like a recipe for success.
Follow on Twitter @MidwayJustyna