CHICAGO – The Chicago Blackhawks have heard all the questions from the skeptics. They know they seem like a longshot to repeat as Stanley Cup champion after losing their goaltender, goal-scoring hero and eight other players from last June’s roster.
The Blackhawks, however, aren’t ready to give it all up that easily.
Chicago remains one of the NHL’s youngest, fastest and most-talented clubs. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Patrick Sharp—all high-octane 20-somethings—are back and so is Marian Hossa, one of only four Chicago regulars who’s over 30.
“You look at our team and we lost a lot of guys,” said Kane, the 21-year-old who scored the Cup-winning overtime goal in Game 6 in Philadelphia. “But at the same time you still have those core guys who have been here for a while.
“I think it’s overrated how long it takes to get that chemistry because playing with guys a couple of times, you should be able to get it down right away. I don’t think that’s going to be any big deal.”
Neither does coach Joel Quenneville.
“I thought we found out about some of our guys and the depth of our organization (in training camp),” said Quenneville, who received a contract extension through 2013-14 before camp opened. “I still think we’ve got some work to do on our team game, and our line combinations as well. But I think everyone’s excited about playing for keeps starting this week.”
Still, some introductions are in order for fans tuning in now for the Blackhawks’ regular-season opener at Colorado on Thursday night.
Chicago’s goaltending has changed completely, with 10-year veteran Marty Turco taking over the No. 1 spot from Antti Niemi after signing a one-year, $1.3 million free-agent contract. He’ll be backed up by Corey Crawford, a second-round draft pick in 2003 whose time to stick in the NHL has come.
After spending his entire pro career with Dallas, Turco said he chose Chicago—and less money—to help the Blackhawks repeat as champions.
The 35-year-old Turco is one of the NHL’s most-active puck-handling goalies. That appealed to general manager Stan Bowman, who envisions Turco sparking the Blackhawks’ already fast transition game.
“We’re still getting used to each other,” Turco said. “My game is all right, but in my head there’s just some fine-tuning.”
Niemi? He’s now in San Jose, one of Chicago’s salary cap casualties. Bowman had to part with his Cup-winning goalie to keep his payroll under the NHL’s $59.4 million ceiling, and said goodbye to Dustin Byfuglien, the six-foot-three, 250-pound forward who had a knack for game-winning goals.
Chicago’s mobile, skilled defence changed little over the summer. Back are the Norris Trophy-winning Keith, Seabrook, Brian Campbell and Niklas Hjalmarsson. Campbell will miss the first month of the season with a right knee sprain and he may be replaced by 19-year-old Nick Leddy, the team’s biggest training camp surprise.
“He looked good back there,” Quenneville said. “We liked his instincts and the way he moved.”
The Blackhawks will be big up front as Quenneville works in some new skaters and gives Troy Brouwer, Dave Bolland and Tomas Kopecky added responsibilities.
Brouwer, a six-foot-three right-winger, expects to help pick up some of the physical slack created by Byfuglien’s departure. Bolland emerged as an effective checking centre after returning from back surgery, but Chicago would love to see him scoring goals and making assists this year.
Among the new forwards to watch is Viktor Stalberg, is a six-foot-two left-winger who was acquired from Toronto in a trade that sent Kris Versteeg and his $3 million salary to the Maple Leafs.
Right-winger Jack Skille, Chicago’s first-round draft pick in 2005, also stepped up in the pre-season. Fernando Pisani, who at 33 is the oldest skater on the Blackhawks, signed as a free agent from Edmonton for just US$500,000.
The Blackhawks still believe they can become the first team to win back-to-back championships since Detroit in 1997 and 1998.
“We knew there were going to be some moves,” Brouwer said. “We didn’t know maybe the extent of what it was going to be. We can’t worry about it any more. What we have to do now is defend the Stanley Cup.”