Saturday, June 9, 2012

Two Years Later, Hawks Still Rebuilding

It's been two years since The Goal
Jesse Rogers, the Hawks beat writer for, published an interesting article in rememberance of the Hawks' two year anniversary today of their 2010 Stanley Cup Victory. In the article, Rogers, who I respect very much for the work he puts into following the team, details the team's failures in achieving success in the two years since the Hawks won the title. He brings up several valid points, whether it be that only 8 players and 1 coach remain from that team, the general manager of that team is up for an award for a different team, and how all the expectations of the team's core have not thus far played out. But most importantly to me is the distinction that Rogers makes regarding "dynasties." His claim is that as of right now, the Hawks, who organized their core of players to resemble the dynastic underpinnings of the annual success of the Detroit Red Wings, more closely resemble the failed "dynasty" of the Chicago Bears in the mid to late 1980s than the Detroit Red Wings of the past 10-15 years. In a way, he's right. But I don't quite agree with him.

We all remember 2010. We specifically remember the beginning of 2009-2010, because it came after an upstart year in 2008-2009 that saw the Hawks ultimately fall to Detroit in the playoffs. Everyone knew though that the young, talented Hawks were a team on the rise. So when they played well all season, stormed through the playoffs (albeit not without a few speedbumps against Nashville), and finally won on the goal we all remember, the sky was the limit for this team.

Jesse Rogers says the same. But I would argue that there are a few distinctions here that must be mentioned. First, the 2009-2010 Stanley Cup Hawks, in my opinion, were a team that was constructed for that one season for one singular purpose - to win the Cup. That's not to say that the Hawks went out and bought high priced free agents; no, they just had overpaid for some of their own players. And really, in the NHL's hard salary cap system, it's impossible to keep such a talented team together. Thus, it was well known throughout that particular season that certain players would not be with the Hawks after the season was completed, regardless of how successful the season was. Perhaps that pushed that Hawks to work harder towards their goal of the Cup, for they knew the team would be broken up. And indeed it was, with Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Antti Niemi, Troy Brouwer, Adam Burish, Brian Campbell, John Madden, Tomas Kopecky, Brent Sopel, and Kris Versteeg all being shipped off. All of those players but Campbell were gone within a month after the Cup had been won (Campbell was traded by the Hawks to Florida in the 2011 offseason).

It's far to early to check out on the core
But in the midst of that same season, the Hawks were recognizing that although they would not be able to keep their entire team together, they could follow Detroit's lead and maintain an elite core supplemented by veteran players and players drafted and developed by the organization. As a result, Marian Hossa was signed to a 12 year deal in the summer before the season, and Duncan Keith, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Kane all received contract extensions during the season. The goal was, at least, for the Hawks to build a team around these players, in addition to Brent Seabrook, Patrick Sharp, and Dave Bolland. And for that season, it worked brilliantly. The team was a joy to watch, and when it wasn't one of the core, it was any of those several players listed above that brought so much happiness to the Blackhawks' fanbase. But in reality, this is where I differ from Rogers again. I feel that we should treat the 2009-2010 season as an enigma; a special outlier that was a mere bridge to the true rebuilding project of the Chicago Blackhawks that began the season after that.

In my opinion, that's really what happened. Treating the Cup year as a special, singular season makes sense because that's exactly what it was. That team was, above all, constructed to win the Stanley Cup. That was never considered by the front office to be the team that would build together towards a consistent winner, simply because the financial numbers would never make sense. So in all reality, the Hawks brass were all in on 2009-2010 to win the Cup knowing full well the entire time that the true rebuilding project would begin the following year. Remember, now, that in 2008-2009 the Hawks shot up the ladder and became a success story almost over night. This was the same team that had top 5 draft picks in both 2006 and 2007. The recent history of the Hawks had not been kind; essentially, this was hardly the type of situation where a consistent winner could come quickly.

What a special team
That's what made the Cup year so special. The fact that the Hawks could take a team and turn it into a Cup contender within a few short years was nothing short of astonishing. But in doing so, the Hawks knew that they would have to somewhat start over again the year after they won the Cup. And they certainly did. In the offseason of 2010, the Hawks dumped those players, in the meantime acquiring top prospect Jeremy Morin, Viktor Stalberg, a second round pick that would become top prospect Brandon Saad, and other various draft picks. That offseason should also be remembered, though, for the failure to resign Niemi. That was a huge blow that the Hawks still feel today. But also try to remember that the Hawks' hands were forced. They had to make these moves. And they'd known about them all season. So it was no wonder that the 2010-2011 season was a struggle, ultimately culminating in the 7 game heartbreaking opening round playoff loss to the Vancouver Canucks.

And then there was this season. Season 2 of the Stanley Cup rebuilding project was supposed to be a giant leap forward. If we take the angle that this was indeed the second year of an actual rebuilding project, then we can definitely term this season to have been a success. The Hawks had a far better year than the year before, even if they did lose in the first round of the playoffs. The team is stacking the minors with talented prospects that they intend to use to supplement their core. The core is worn out from two years of pressure filled seasons, but if you think about it, there were points during this season that the Hawks resembled the Cup-winning team. That's what makes next year so crucial.

I guess it all depends on how you look at it. Most Hawks fans, myself included, get caught up in the fact that we expect a Stanley Cup winning franchise to contend for the Cup every year. We were, in essence, spoiled by that championship. I wouldn't take it back for anything in the world - for there is simply no greater feeling in sports than your team winning the championship - but I would argue that as Hawks fans, we need to remember that this is a process. For the Hawks to fashion a consistent, cup-contending team every year, they need to continue to develop a model going forward. This is one area that Rogers did not touch on completely. Simply, where do the Hawks go from here? How does their plan to model their team after the Detroit Red Wings stack up now?

For me, it stacks up well. Sure, there were times where you let your fandom take over and you plead with the team to do more. But at the same time, I would claim that we need to see how the Hawks do next year with this same core before we start making claims that the window on the Hawks potential championship era is closing. First, Corey Crawford is only 27, and is entering his third year as netminder, the season where many goaltenders bounce back from rough sophomore seasons to show their true production and potential. As for the rest of the core? Kane is 23, Toews is 24, Sharp is 30, Bolland is 26, Keith is 28, Hossa is 33, and Seabrook is 27. The ages of those key players hardly suggests that a window is closing. And with the NHL salary cap temporarily rising, who knows what is going to happen going forward.

Framing this team as one in the midst of an advanced rebuilding mode (not many teams get to rebuild with the talent that Hawks have in their core) helps us remember how truly special that 2009-2010 Cup team was. They were a complete joy to watch, and brought this city together unlike anything I've ever seen. Remember that parade? I was in the thick of it, and it was insane. I've also never seen a city collectively party like they did just two short years ago. What a special time. I know that these past two years have been hard, and rough. It feels like it's been 5, not 2, years. But as we remember today the goal Kane scored 2 years ago to bring the Cup back to Chicago, focus on the feeling that victory brought us as Hawks fans. Remember that as we try to watch this team patch together a consistent winner that can potentially bring many more of those moments back home to Chicago.