CHICAGO – It was like a dream, not necessarily a bad one, but with occasional nightmarish moments. Was Patrick Sharp really a Dallas Star for two years? Now he looks around the United Center, and it’s like he never left the Chicago Blackhawks. Except it isn’t.
The uniform is the same. A lot of his most prominent teammates are the same, from Jonathan Toews to Patrick Kane to Duncan Keith. Sharp’s head coach is still Joel Quenneville. Sharp even finds himself back manning the point as the Hawks work on their power plays during the 2017-18 pre-season.
But there are some noticeable differences, too. The home dressing room is brand new, or it is to him, as it was built two years ago, shortly after he got traded to the Stars. He looks around at his fellow forwards and sees youngsters Nick Schmaltz, Ryan Hartman, Alex DeBrincat and John Hayden. Aside from Keith and Brent Seabrook, Sharp has a bunch of new defensemen to meet as well. No more Niklas Hjalmarsson or Johnny Oduya. Excluding Sharp and Brandon Saad, just six players remain from the last Chicago team to hoist the Stanley Cup, the 2014-15 squad. No more Marian Hossa or Marcus Kruger or Andrew Shaw. The list goes on. This year’s team is practically unrecognizable just two years later, a product of GM Stan Bowman’s usual salary-cap crunch. Pundits and fans alike marvel every year at how much the Hawks roster turns over but, even by that standard, the past couple seasons represent Bowman in overdrive. This summer alone, Chicago lost Hjalmarsson, Hossa, Kruger, Oduya, Artemi Panarin, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Scott Darling and Brian Campbell. It’s more difficult than ever to forecast the Hawks’ season, as they’re relying on so many new faces, including several first-time NHLers.
Well, sort of. Sharp returns, signed as an unrestricted free agent. Saad rejoins the team too, reacquired in a blockbuster deal for Panarin two years after being sent to Columbus in the Artem Anisimov deal. So the Hawks regain two experienced, beloved members of their recent mini-dynasty, which hasn’t won the Cup since either guy left.
We know exactly what Saad brings to the Hawks. He’s a great skater with good size and puck-protection skills. He’s a responsible two-way left winger who jives well with captain Toews. Saad is just 24, smack in his prime years, and while he lacks Panarin’s offensive ceiling, Saad’s 200-foot game is welcome on a Chicago team that has slipped defensively of late.
But what on Earth are the Hawks getting this time from Sharp?
He got a new beginning with the Dallas Stars and contributed 20 goals and 55 points on a first-place team in 2015-16. Entering 2016-17, though, he was 34 and had a ton of playoff mileage on him – 19.5 post-season games per year over the previous four seasons – so a bodily breakdown was almost inevitable. It happened, and Sharp only played 48 games. Age got the better of him, to the point his season ended with hip surgery in March. He entered the summer as a UFA, the future of his playing career very much in question.
But if there was one team that understood how to use Sharp, even if it’s a diminished version of the guy good enough to make Canada’s 2014 Olympic team, it was obviously the Hawks. They brought him back on a low-risk deal at one year and $800,000 with a $200,000 bonus if he plays 10 games.
“Summer, July 1, was a busy day,” Sharp said. “It was a busy week leading up to that. I definitely got a lot of support from the Chicago fans and friends from the years past. It just feels right to be back here. Feels comfortable. Feels like I can slide back in on and off the ice and just be myself.”
Now his trying 2016-17 season fades into the back of his brain like a nightmare past, and he strolls the hallways of the United Center just like old times.
“It’s still a transition switching teams but a lot easier coming back home to Chicago,” he said. “Off the ice, a lot of family and friends are excited. And joining the team, it’s as simple as coming to the rink.
“It’s the same coaching staff, and a lot of my best friends are still here. It feels like I never left. I enjoyed my time in Dallas, but I’m definitely excited to be back.”
Not that we’ll necessarily see the same old Sharp lighting it up for 30-goal seasons again. If that’s the Sharp Chicago knew it was getting, it would’ve thrown $5 million at him. He’s 35, after all. But he’s still as savvy a forward as you’ll find in the sport. He’s finished above his team average in 5-on-5 relative Corsi in nine of his past 10 seasons. He had the third-best 5-on-5 Corsi of all Stars forwards last season, per naturalstattrick.com. He remains an above-average driver of possession.
And with Patrick Kane playing on a line with Schmaltz and DeBrincat, Sharp slides onto quite an interesting third line with Anisimov down the middle and Ryan Hartman on the left wing. If that trio sticks, it looks like one of the best No. 3 units in the NHL on paper right away.
So Sharp will play in a world that’s very different and very similar all at once this season. It’s all a bit surreal – his departure and his return. All Sharp knows for now is he’s exactly where he wants to be. He couldn’t be more at peace.