We're more than one third of the way through the NHL season and a record start's been established in Chicago. Based on the previous record starts, I suppose we should be expecting a second Blackhawks Stanley Cup parade in four months.
Okay. Count me in.
Right now, you have to dig pretty deep to find reasons not to believe that will happen, but there are still two months and 31 games before the real season begins. Let's take a look at how this current group -- which I have yet to see in person, aside from covering one practice -- compares to the team I was fortunate enough to be around three years ago.
The Blackhawks' main starts have remained the same. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith got the big bucks, and have all along been the six players the franchise has rebuilt around. Dave Bolland has been the other constant up front over the last four seasons.
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The belief here is that the championship depth at forward supplied a little more production and punch than the present group. But these guys certainly have the capability of being on a par with the Cup winners. They've gained coach Joel Quenneville's trust to keep rolling the four lines, game by game, and pay less attention to matching up with opponents. They're definitely good, but there's another level to reach in the faceoff-win and puck possession departments. Those things contributed heavily to the defense being as good as it was that season.
This group of Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw, Viktor Stalberg, Bryan Bickell, Marcus Kruger and Brandon Bollig is still awfully green, but their energy has been synching very well thus far with the likes of Michael Frolik, Jamal Mayers, and Daniel Carcillo. Their chemistry and confidence continues to grow, like it did for Troy Brouwer, Adam Burish, Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager, Colin Fraser, Tomas Kopecky, Andrew Ladd, John Madden, and Kris Versteeg.
Byfuglien went through a rather pedestrian regular season that year, but finally lived up to his potential as the solar eclipse in front of opposing goalies. But the departure of Ladd's leadership and consistent two-way game was, to me, the biggest loss the following off-season.
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As I wrote early last week, there's a similar amount of NHL experience between many of the depth guys then, and the majority of this group's members in their second and third seasons. Byfuglien's net-front presence -- which people forget only really occurred in the playoffs -- is missed, but Shaw and Stalberg are learning that role. Their efforts -- while not reaching Byfuglien levels -- have helped the power play improve so far.
On the blue line, I'll take this overall group so far over the 2009-10 edition.
The top pairing's the same, and while Brian Campbell was a talent that's not present in the second and third pairings here, there's a comparable effectiveness between Campbell and "that" Niklas Hjalmarsson, as well as Johnny Oduya and "this" Hjalmarsson. Campbell's speed and point work on the power play is missed, but Hjalmarsson and his current partner are getting the job done.
The third pairing is where there's a stark difference. Nick Leddy with Sheldon Brookbank or Michal Rozsival is a better tandem than Brent Sopel with Nick Boynton or Jordan Hendry. Sopel's shot-blocking was invaluable that post-season, but that dirty work has been picked up by committee this year, and it was an ingredient too often missing in the two seasons since. Having Leddy in the third pairing means there's a puck-mover in each defensive group to ignite the offense, and is more dangerous in the opponents' end than any of third-pair participants back then.
Which brings us to goaltending. What was your confidence factor in Antti Niemi and Cristobal Huet heading into that playoff run? It's where Niemi made his name -- and eventually earned his contract in San Jose -- but he came in with zero playoff experience.
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The blue paint seemed the biggest question heading into this season. Provided Corey Crawford finds his mojo where he left it off prior to his recent upper body injury, how much better do you feel about this tandem than that one? Crawford has one terrific playoff series under his belt, and a second in which he was good overall, only to be haunted by three overtime mistakes. He's experienced those ups and downs now.
Emery was in net for Ottawa's run to the finals in 2007 before he and the Senators lost to Anaheim. Yes, that's the same Ducks team who got off to what's now the second-best start to a season in NHL history.
These Hawks aren't there yet. They'll truly be judged by what happens after April 27th. But they've certainly returned out of the lockout to charge up a long Chicago winter that's dragged on without the Bears in the playoffs, the Bulls without Derrick Rose, and two baseball teams lacking in great expectations. They've raised our expectations of them in the process, to the point we're making comparisons like these.