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The “Go To” Guy?

When it comes to rising powers in the NHL, the Chicago Blackhawks are definitely on the short list of those teams.

It was only 3 years ago when the ‘Hawks finished 5th (last) in the NHL’s Central Division – during the time when the division was nicknamed “Comedy Central”. But, much like the rise in the ‘Hawks fortunes, so has the Central Division risen to respectability.

The transformation wasn’t easy – from their last playoff appearance in 2001-2002 – a 1st round, and painless, exit – the ‘Hawks were mired in sub-mediocrity, the low point being in 2005-2006, when they finished 14th in the Western Conference, with fellow Central Division rival the St. Louis Blues occupying the “coveted” 15th position, with a putrid 26-43-13 record. In addition, they accomplished something previously deemed impossible in Chicago – they found a way to become irrelevant – any Chicagoan can tell you, when the ‘Hawks are/were good, THEY ruled the sports landscape, NOT the Bears, Cubs, Bulls or their other sports teams. Why? Two words – Bill Wirtz.

Bill Wirtz – derisively known as “Dollar Bill” – raised ticket prices to an average of $50, and then, Wirtz did the unthinkable – Wirtz did not allow home games to be televised in the Chicago area. It had gotten so bad that ESPN deemed the ‘Hawks the worst franchise in professional sports, in 2004. The club under Wirtz was then the subject of a highly critical book, Career Misconduct, which was sold outside games until Wirtz had its author and publisher arrested – the truth hurt, I guess. At this point, many hockey fans in Chicago were over the ‘Hawks, and changed their allegiances to the American Hockey League’s Chicago Wolves, who delivered the ultimate salvo/slogan to Bill Wirtz: “We Play Hockey the Old-Fashioned Way: We Actually Win.”

Enter Dale Tallon – Tallon had quite a tall task on his hands, trying to restore one of the proudest, Original Six (O-6) organizations back to prominence. Tallon, to his credit, while maybe not obtaining all of the players he sought, it was certainly not for a lack of effort. Let’s face it – the ‘Hawks were no longer exactly a “destination” – more of a punishment, or a signal that retirement might be a logical option – the KHL wasn’t a fall back plan, at that time.

However, Tallon was able to build a foundation – at least it was a start, by obtaining the following players: Nikolai Khabibulin, the Stanley Cup-winning goalie of the Tampa Bay Lightning; Adrian Aucoin; Martin Havlat; and Michal Handzus – via trade and Free-Agent acquisitions.

Then came the resurrection – while none of us likes to speak ill of the deceased – Bill Wirtz passing (in September, 2007), seemed to mark the point where the clubs fortunes and direction began to change. Enter Rocky Wirtz, Bill’s son, who then drastically altered his father’s long standing, high criticized, policies.
First off, Rocky Wirtz created with a partnership with Comcast SportsNet Chicago and WGN-TV by, once again, airing selected Blackhawks games on television. During the next season, Comcast and WGN began airing all of the team’s regular season games. Rocky Wirtz also named John McDonough, formerly the president of the Chicago Cubs, as the franchise’s new president. Since taking over the position, McDonough has been an instrumental figure in the Blackhawks current marketing success, and a return to the goodwill to its once loyal fans.

As they say, one man’s pain is another man’s pleasure – as a result of their woeful record and finishes at the bottom of the league standings, the ‘Hawks were able to draft at/near the top of the NHL’s draft lottery. The Blackhawks roster was bolstered by the addition of two young players, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Toews, the third overall selection in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft lead all rookies in goals scored, while Kane, the first overall selection in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, lead all rookies in total points. Both players were finalists for the Calder Memorial Trophy, during the 2007-2008 season. Kane ultimately ousted his teammate, and won the award. The Blackhawks finished with a record 40-34-8, narrowly missing the Stanley Cup playoffs by three points. The 2007-2008 season marked the first time in six years that the team finished above .500.

At the beginning of the 2008-2009 season, the ‘Hawks added Joel Quenneville and Scotty Bowman to their organization – - Quenneville as its head coach, replacing Denis Savard very early in the season, and Bowman – with a legacy far too long to recount – as a team consultant.

The result? The Blackhawks finished the 2008-2009 regular season in second place in their division, with a record of 46-24-12, putting them in fourth place, overall, in the Western Conference. with 104 points. They lost to the Detroit Red Wings in the SC Western Conference finals, in five games.
So, return to prominence? Almost complete. But first, additional changes were made…

The Blackhawks made a major free agent purchase before the 2009-10 NHL season, signing Marián Hossa to a 12-year contract worth 62.8 million dollars – I will go on record and say this was quite a “drunken sailor” move, given Hossa’s age, when signed (30), and an undisclosed shoulder injury, not to mention his penchant for wearing down, physically, as the season’s progress. In addition to Hossa, the team also acquired Tomáš Kopecký (Red Wings) and John Madden (Devils). In early July, general manager Dale Tallon and the Blackhawks management came under fire when the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA) claimed the team did not submit offers to their restricted free agents before the deadline. In the worst case scenario, the team’s unsigned restricted free agents at the time, including 2008-2009 Calder Memorial Trophy finalist Kris Versteeg, would have become unrestricted free agents. Despite the ordeal, the Blackhawks were able to sign Versteeg and all of their restricted free agents before the NHLPA could take further actions. These actions, however, cost Dale Tallon his GM position, as the Blackhawks demoted Tallon to the position of Senior Adviser. Stan Bowman, son of Scotty Bowman, was promoted to general manager, shortly thereafter.

Now, to the present, and to the one possible sore thumb for the ‘Hawks possible rise to glory – ‘Hawks’ goaltender Cristobal Huet.

In allowing Nikolai Khabibulin to leave the Blackhawks, for Edmonton, the organization essentially gave the keys to the car – its Stanley Cup aspirations – to Huet. In July, 2008, then GM Dale Tallon inked Huet to a 4-year contract with the Blackhawks, then announced the team would enter the season with a tandem of Huet and Khabibulin. Khabibulin began the season as the starter, however, due to Huet’s inconsistent play. Injuries, twice during the regular season, then allowed Huet to be the starter, thus ditching the goaltending tandem method that was used, to that point. However, in the end, Khabibulin was named the playoff starter for the Blackhawks, and they defeated the Calgary Flames in the first round, as well as the Vancouver Canucks, in the second round.

Huet didn’t make his next appearance for the Blackhawks until game three of the 2009 Western Conference Finals, where he was called to replace an injured Khabibulin, who sustained a lower body injury, late in the game. Huet made six saves, and allowed the Blackhawks to collect on overtime win. Khabibulin missed the remaining three games of the series because of the injury. With Khabibulin out, Joel Quenneville named Huet the team’s starting goalie for the fourth game against Detroit. Huet allowed five goals on 21 shots, and was temporarily replaced by Corey Crawford. Huet started game five, and was stellar, stopping 37 of 39 shots, when Detroit ousted the ‘Hawks, by a score of 2-1.

The example of Huet’s Game Four performance, or lack thereof, leads me to my point – Huet, to be kind, has been an inconsistent goalie during his career. Huet has also been a goalie who hasn’t exactly been considered a “stopper” – a guy who steps up in big games, particularly during his last two Stanley Cup experiences. Huet’s also been the victim of some less-than-stellar performances, so far, this season – an example was when Huet was pulled, after giving up 3 goals on 5 shots, during 7 minutes of Time On Ice (TOI), during their October 12th game against the Calgary Flames. Antti Niemi replaced Huet and led the ‘Hawks to an improbable 6-5 overtime comeback (the ‘Hawks were losing, just over 12 minutes into the 1st period, 5-0, to the Flames).

If Huet is indeed, the man in net to lead the ‘Hawks, this season, they’d better hope either Huet does develop into a dependable net minder – his history doesn’t support that contention, at least as it relates to consistency – or that Niemi is a dependable backup, one capable of acting as the stopper when Huet enters a funk, something that has happened, one more than one occasion, so far this season.

Otherwise, one would be hard-pressed to find much in the way of concerns or chinks in the ‘Hawks armor. They are an exciting, explosive, young team, one that now serves as a model for other NHL, particularly, Central Division teams – Columbus and St. Louis immediately come to mind – to emulate.

While I expect the Hawks to contend for the Central Division title – it wouldn’t shock me, in the slightest, to see them win the Divisional title – but, there is enough doubt over Huet’s abilities to carry them to prominence, particularly during the Stanley Cup playoffs. To that end, they could become a newer version of the San Jose Sharks – watch in awe during the regular season, let you down, as a result of another painful, first-round exit.

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