I've been writing about sports for a long while - well over a decade. I remember when I used to write about sports. Now writing about football is as much about abuse, brain injury and the legal system as Xs and Os. And now, thanks to Patrick Kane, we can't just focus on the stress of being the defending champions or the realities of the salary cap when writing about the Blackhawks We have to keep an eye turned to the legal system in Buffalo and the truly bizarre soap opera which is playing out around rape allegations directed at Kane.
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Kane is in camp, hasn't been charged with anything, and may not be at all. It has been a distraction, though, and that won't change. It won't be the defining aspect of this season, but when added to everything else the team is up against it sure doesn't help.
Chicago Blackhawks Offseason Moves
Let's be clear from the outset - this team is not as good as they were last year. We knew they wouldn't be. They were in very rough salary cap shape and were forced into making some big moves to get back on track. I'll also say this, though - given what they were up against, they did a pretty good job of managing things.
Free agency first. They took some hits. Brad Richards, who was a surprisingly valuable part of the Cup run last year, is in Detroit. Antoine Vermette went to the hockey sinkhole of Arizona. Johnny Oduya is with Dallas now. Add in the retirement of Daniel Carcillo and Kimmo Timonen, and that is five guys who played a role last year that are gone with no return. They didn't add any high-profile free agents - they couldn't. They did make two interesting gambles, though. Viktor Tikhonov was a first-round pick of Phoenix in 2008. He didn't work out there, but he has been a solid performer in the KHL the last four years. He came very cheap on a one-year contract and will be given an opportunity to contribute. They also added Artemi Panarin, Tikhonov's KHL teammate who had 62 points in 54 games last year. He is only 23 and was undrafted, so he also came cheap. The role the players will fill is unclear, but they have impressed together in camp so far.
Now the trades. This could take a while. Brandon Saad needed a new contract, and it wasn't going to be cheap. He had to go. They shipped him to Columbus in a seven-player deal. In return they got two guys of particular note. Artem Anisimov can step in and hopefully fill a role on the second line. Marko Dano is a 20 year old who was a first-round pick in 2013. He has 21 points in 35 NHL games last year, and he has real potential. Good return overall, though they would rather not have lost Saad. Next up was Patrick Sharp. Same story - good player, key contributor, not affordable. He's in Dallas now. In return they got two players. Trevor Daley is a veteran depth defenseman with solid offensive production. He'll be called on to replace Oduya. Ryan Garbutt is a veteran depth forward. The return isn't nearly as impressive as it was for Saad, but Sharp is a decade older. A final big trade in September was purely cap driven. They shipped Kris Versteeg and young forward Joakim Nordstrom to Carolina for two prospects and a pick. Finally, the team shipped two depth goalies out in smaller deals.
Add it all up and you have a team that did a pretty good job of doing what they were forced to do.
Chicago Blackhawks NHL Outlook
Offensive production depends on whether Kane is available all season due to legal issues. We'll assume he will be. If so, then it comes down to whether some youngsters can carry a heavy burden. Teuvo Teravainen, Dano, and Panarin are all young and very talented. Those three, along with Tikhonov, are going to be relied on to fill the gap left by the departures of Richards, Sharp, Saad and Vermette. They are up to the challenge, but nothing is guaranteed. The floor for this team offensively is still high because of the talent they have, but this is the most uncertainty this team has had up front in a long time.
Defensively they are as elite as ever. Daley is a different player than Oduya, but he can fill the role fine. They still have Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. They'll be just fine. They are also fine in net - Corey Crawford was excellent last year, and Scott Darling is a strong backup who was also very good last year.
Chicago Blackhawks Schedule
The team certainly doesn't get to ease into the season. They open at home with the Rangers then play a home-and-home on consecutive nights with the Islanders. Ouch. We'll see in a hurry if the new cast is up to the challenge. They also face Washington and Anaheim and have a Cup rematch with the Lightning in their first nine games.
Chicago Blackhawks NHL Futures Odds (from Bovada)
The Blackhawks are the favorites across the board. They are +650 to win the Stanley Cup, +325 to win the Western Conference, and +240 to win the Central Division.
2015-16 Chicago Blackhawks Predictions
Respect. No shortage of it from me for this team. I wouldn't dream of betting on them this year, though - not at these prices. I'd be skeptical even in normal circumstances - that was a very tough run to the Cup that took a lot out of them, and the West is just brutally tough this year. This was far from an ordinary offseason, though. With this many changes, and the Kane drama, there is a lot for this team to adapt to and overcome. Easily a playoff team. Definitely elite. I just think it's far more likely that they fall short this year as they adjust and reload.
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