As part of Puck Prediction’s wrap-up of the 2013-14 NHL season, I’m taking a final look back at the last teams left standing this season: the Conference Finalists. Today, it’s time to look at a team that came five wins short of being the first in the salary-cap era to win back-to-back Stanley Cups: the Chicago Blackhawks.
When you write about all 30 teams in the NHL, you gradually discover that some teams are just more interesting than others. Some teams (e.g., Toronto, New Jersey) are bad, but in interesting ways; some teams (e.g., Colorado, Montreal) succeed even when the numbers suggest they shouldn’t; and with some teams (e.g., San Jose, St. Louis, Pittsburgh) there’s a pathos that comes with regular-season excellence followed by playoff disappointment. Other teams, however, just aren’t as compelling. Usually this is due to the combination of bad results and limited on-ice talent. And then there are the Chicago Blackhawks, a team whose sustained excellence is so predictable that, in looking back on yet another superb season in Chicago, it’s hard to find much to write about.
Since appointing Joel Quenneville head coach prior to the 2008-09 season, and bringing the legendary Scotty Bowman into the front office along with his son Stan, the Hawks have arguably become the NHL’s best-run franchise. In 2008-09, the Hawks ended a lengthy spell of futility, racking up 104 points and winning their first playoff rounds since 1996, making it to the Western Conference Final before succumbing to the juggernaut Red Wings. Tellingly, in Quenneville’s first year, the Blackhawks achieved a Score-Adjusted Fenwick differential of 55.46%, the ninth-highest SAF in the Behind the Net era. Entering 2009-10 with the blockbuster signing of free agent Marian Hossa, the Hawks followed this strong campaign with an even better one. Chicago’s SAF of 58.83% that season was absolutely astounding (no team has matched it since), and with the early upsets of key challengers in Washington and Pittsburgh, the Hawks cruised to the franchise’s first Stanley Cup title since 1961. Salary cap pressures forced Chicago to cut loose key contributors like Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, and Kris Versteeg, and led them to part ways with goalie Antti Niemi, but the core group stayed intact. For the next two seasons, Chicago played well in the regular campaign and posted outstanding possession numbers, yet lost twice in the first round of the postseason. For some teams, this would have led to panic. But the Hawks simply stayed the course and rebuilt their depth, and in 2012-13, they dominated the NHL like no team since the 2007-08 Red Wings. Along with pacing the league in every measure of possession, Chicago’s season was half over before they suffered their first regulation loss, and they achieved the President’s Trophy-Stanley Cup double, becoming the first team in the cap era to win multiple Cups.
Little changed for the Hawks in 2013-14. They were once again one of the NHL’s elite possession teams; with a Score-Adjusted Fenwick of 55.71%, they are the only team since 2007-08 to post four seasons with a SAF above 55%. Paced by 30-goal seasons from Hossa and Patrick Sharp (along with 57 goals from Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews), Chicago ranked second in the NHL in goal-scoring this season, just two behind Anaheim for the league lead. They were a middling team when it came to goals-against, mostly due to a poor penalty kill and troubles in goal. Corey Crawford was a solid 0.927 at even strength in 59 games, but backup Antti Raanta had a dreadful 0.895 season; of course, Chicago was able to mitigate these struggles by posting elite shot-prevention numbers at 5-on-5 (26.1 shots against and 47.1 Corsi against per 60 minutes). The team’s form dipped somewhat in January, when they lost nine games in a stretch of 14, but overall the Hawks were remarkably consistent throughout the campaign, and finished with 107 points. Nevertheless, the stunning, PDO-driven season of the Avalanche and the quality (and torrid shooting) of St. Louis dropped Chicago to third place in the Central Division, and sent them on the road to start the playoffs. Their title defense did not start off well, as they blew two late leads to go down 0-2 against the Blues. Nevertheless, they turned the tables on St. Louis, shutting them out in Game 3 and winning in overtime after a late tying goal in Game 4. After a tight-checking Game 5 went to overtime, a bad line change by the Blues gave Toews a breakaway that sealed a 3-2 series advantage; back at home, they blew out St. Louis to advance to the second round. Facing Minnesota in the second round, they terrorized goalie Ilya Bryzgalov to take a 2-0 series lead, but tremendous defensive play from the Wild allowed the underdogs to even the series at 2-2. The Hawks ground out a tough win in Game 5, and in Game 6, two fortunate bounces allowed them to return to the Western Conference Final. Fans were thrilled at the prospects of a rematch of the 2013 WCF against Los Angeles, and if anything the series surpassed expectations: the two teams played breath-taking, fast-paced hockey, and Chicago made a spirited comeback to force Game 7 after being down 1-3. The Hawks took a 4-3 lead into the third period of the deciding game, but an Alec Martinez goal in overtime brought finished Chicago’s season just short of returning to the Cup Final.
Obviously, after coming within 8 minutes of the Stanley Cup Final and racking up 107 points in the regular season, only a fool would consider 2013-14 anything other than a rousing success for the Blackhawks. And unlike other teams (like San Jose or Pittsburgh, for example), the Hawks are likely to stick with what’s worked so well for them. Chicago is pretty tight against the cap, but with 11 forwards and 7 defensemen under contract for next season, their focus will probably be on the following season: the rising cap will help, but the Blackhawks have Kane, Toews, Brandon Saad, Marcus Kruger, Johnny Oduya and Nick Leddy all entering contract years in 2014-15. Uninspired work from free agent goaltenders Raanta and Nikolai Khabibulin this season could see both move on, in which case the Hawks will need to identify a low-cost backup for Crawford. Plodding center Michal Handzus is also unlikely to return. Otherwise, Chicago is likely to spend the offseason and next season working promising youngsters like Teuvo Teravainen and David Rundblad into bigger roles, while looking to move some of their veterans for salary relief. This will doubtless be tricky, but if any organization has shown itself capable of managing significant roster challenges in the cap era, it’s this one.
Other season wrap-up posts: Buffalo, Florida and Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg and the NY Islanders, Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, New Jersey, Washington, Carolina, Nashville, and Phoenix, Tampa Bay, Detroit, St. Louis, Dallas and Columbus, Philadelphia, Colorado, San Jose, Pittsburgh, Boston, Minnesota and Anaheim, Los Angeles, and Montreal.