Chicago Blackhawks Deserve ‘Dynasty’ Tag

Their achievement of three Stanley Cup titles may not match up to the achievements of the Edmonton Oilers or New York Islanders in the 1980s, or the Montreal Canadiens in the 1970s, or even the 1960s Toronto Maple Leafs (sorry to remind you Leafs fans). However, the Chicago Blackhawks deserve to be considered among all of the NHL’s greatest historic dynasties as the first true dynasty of the salary cap era.
It’ll always be difficult to compare teams from different eras; it’s difficult enough to compare the 2010, 2013 and 2015 champion Blackhawks. However, winning three championships in six years (they might not be done yet) in an era where parity has broadly been successfully enforced.
It has been a period, where superstar players Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin have claimed just one Stanley Cup between them. The New York Rangers, San Jose Sharks and Philadelphia Flyers have just not quite been able to get over the edge in spite of spending big money and making big trades. Meanwhile, teams like the Boston Bruins and Anaheim Ducks have come close to doubling their Cup titles since the 2004-05 lockout. Even teams that were perennially consistent in the 90s and early 2000s like the Detroit Red Wings and New Jersey Devils just haven’t been able to maintain that success, they appeared in a combined three Cup finals in the salary cap era, but have just one title to show for it between them.
It’s harder to enjoy consistent success. Teams like Chicago cannot exploit their market advantage and sign up their core for the long-term like they might have done once.
Indeed, the turnover in Chicago’s roster between their first championship and their third is extraordinary. There are just eight players who played on both the 2010 winning team and the 2015 winning team. Of those, Kris Versteeg wasn’t on the roster in 2013.
The identities of the other seven players provide a pretty good first indication for the source of Chicago’s success. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjmarlsson, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp. That’s a terrific foundation for any forward group and blue-line.
The second key has been the ability of first Dave Tallon and then Stan Bowman to consistently re-tool this roster around those core players. Most Stanley Cup winning teams are built at least in part around a group of young players on entry-level contracts that provide ‘value for money’ on the cap restricted roster.
Somehow, Chicago has managed to keep changing the roster. The 2014-15 version of the Blackhawks epitomizes the combination of effective drafting and savvy free agent moves that have helped this team enjoy such consistent success.
Veterans Brad Richards and Kimmo Timonen played critical roles, while Antoine Vermette was an expensive, but vital trade deadline acquisition. However, second round pick Brandon Saad and late first round selection Teuvo Teravainen played critical roles in the long postseason run. Both were selected in drafts after Chicago’s initial 2010 championship success.
The art of quality drafting is difficult to quantify. There’s clearly an element of fortune involved and an effective professional set-up is also critical to developing young talent. Chicago’s greatest success has been in identifying their ‘type’ of players. Very few teams have been as good at picking up young, skilled players as Chicago. Even fourth liners Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger are pretty good players with the puck on their sticks.
Even after the 2011 and 2012 playoffs when Chicago lost in the first round on each occasion, there was still an organisational commitment to a philosophy of having a line-up built around speed and skill.
A big part of that consistency is rooted in Toews. The captain gets more credit than any other player for Chicago’s success and it’s deserved. His will, determination and leadership make him the vital driving force for this franchise.
Another part of the equation who perhaps doesn’t get the credit that he deserves is head coach Joel Quenneville. It is somehow assumed that anyone could lead Toews, Kane, Keith and Seabrook to three championships. The reality is very different. Quenneville has consistently adapted Chicago’s special teams and their set up at both ends of the ice to keep the Blackhawks relevant. You do not make three long postseason runs without elite coaching.
Chicago’s dynastic era could still be extended. Toews is just 27 and Keith is the oldest of the team’s core at just 31. One more championship during their prime years would surely elevate this team’s success to being in contention with some of the true great teams, like the 80s Islanders and Oilers.

Ahead of Bowman, Quenneville and this Blackhawks is another roster re-shape that will probably see Sharp depart among some other significant pieces. Still, it would be a dangerous game to sleep on the Blackhawks even in the 2015-16 season.

What Direction Will Babcock’s Maple Leafs Take?

The Toronto Maple Leafs have not won a Stanley Cup since 1967. They’ve made the playoffs just once in the last 10 years and over the last few seasons they’ve been through several coaches and a couple of General Managers. It’s hard to imagine a team that has hit more of a rock bottom after another 30-44-8 season.
They did manage to get their man plucking Mike Babcock as head coach from the Detroit Red Wings for a reported $50 million over the next eight seasons. They do have a respected hockey man in Brendan Shanahan as the franchise’s President.
However, they are also without a GM and trade rumors are swirling around several of Toronto’s key players including Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf, Tyler Bozak and Joffrey Lupul. There’s a general concern that some of the roster’s talented young player have stagnated in their development, notably forward Nazeem Kadri and defenseman Jake Gardiner.
In reality, the Maple Leafs suffered from roster mismanagement, partially encouraged by making the playoffs and taking the Boston Bruins to a Game 7 in 2012-13. They’ve suffered from all too often having coaches and GMs working from different scripts and they’ve struggled to establish clear on-ice leadership.
Shanahan’s number one priority must be to get the right man in place as GM and there’s every possibility that that could mean serving as interim GM himself for a period of time. Babcock’s hiring gives the veteran head coach a lot of power and he’ll clearly have plenty of say in the roster’s direction.
Perhaps that is deserved considering his history of success with the Detroit Red Wings and Anaheim Ducks. However, there’s also no question that returning this roster to competitiveness will be a greater challenge than either of those stops. Neither Ron Wilson nor Randy Carlyle could turn Toronto’s post 2004-05 lockout fortunes around, both well-established NHL head coaches with impressive records.
Every time a team misses the playoffs, they need to “re-“ something – either re-build or re-tool. The course that Toronto chooses may very well depend upon Babcock’s opinion Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf.
After signing a large, eight-year contract extension, Kessel experienced his poorest goal-scoring output since 2007-08, which was just his second NHL campaign. Widely regarded as a little media unfriendly and known for having some so-so relationships with coaches, Kessel had an especially combative spell in 2014-15. He was almost constantly in local media coverage sparring with one reporter or another and there have been multiple reports suggesting that his relationship with the team isn’t much better.
However, Kessel is a superb skater and pure goal-scorer who has nearly 250 regular season tallies to his name and five 30+ goal campaigns in the last seven seasons. His success is even more impressive considering that for the most part Tyler Bozak, a solid, but unspectacular offensive player, has been the man centering him.
Meanwhile, Phaneuf is the explosive, physical and offensive-minded defenseman that many teams dream of having to light up games. The problem is, that he is now 30, it has been a while since he was at his explosive best or most offensively productive, but he still makes the same defensive gaffes that have always plagued his game.
Babcock dealt with adversity during his time with the Red Wings. His last two seasons coaching a young roster are evidence of that. However, he was always able to build around a group of well-rounded players, who also possessed terrific intangibles, see Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Lidstrom and Niklas Kronwall.
Kessel and Phaneuf are ultimately one-dimensional and they’ve struggled to establish themselves as leaders on this team. On the flip side, their skill sets are not that easy to replace.
Indeed, Babcock might look at this roster and think that he is spoilt for young talent including Kessel, Phanuef, James van Riemsdyk, Lupul, Kadri, Morgan Rielly, Jake Gardiner, Tim Erixon, James Reimer and Jonathan Bernier. You can throw in the 2015 fourth overall pick from the NHL draft as well.
It’s not that bad of a starting point and perhaps a re-tool and change of approach is more necessary than the complete overhaul – again dependent on the veteran head coach’s perception of Kessel and Phaneuf.
Advanced statistics like Corsi generally suggest that Gardiner and Rielly in particular have a bright future in the NHL and you can bet that Babcock will like their puck movement. He’ll also surely be able to implement systems that have an immediate impact on the special teams units, which both ranked in the bottom eight in the league percentage wise last season.
He’ll want to carry over some of the puck control and puck possession element from Detroit and whoever takes the GM position will surely need to address the team’s challenges at the center position, which have been a reality for several seasons now.
Kadri may one day be that top option, Bozak and Holland are both useful utility options, but this team is thin down the middle of the ice and that’s a challenge for any coaching system.
There’s a fine line between success and failure in the NHL, especially in the salary cap era. One piece added or one piece missing can seriously change the look and feel of a roster. For the Maple Leafs, it might be a center, it might be a more secure defensive set-up in front of Bernier and Reimer. It might be Babcock.

For Babcock, he has chosen a tough situation. Enjoy success in Toronto, and his legacy will be sealed. Fail, and he joins Carlyle and Wilson in the line of coaches that just couldn’t make it work with this group for some reason.

Whichever of those it ends up being, one thing is for certain – the Maple Leafs will be an interesting team to follow and watch this offseason heading into 2015-16. Those that love and hate the Leafs, and there are plenty that hate them, will want to see at least something a little more interesting happening In Toronto this coming season. It’s an Original Six franchise and huge fan base after all.

Stanley Cup 2016 Contenders

The Chicago Blackhawks have been crowned as the 2015 Stanley Cup champions, it’s their third championship in six years and the Jonathan Toews led dynasty was confirmed. It’s way too early to start speculating about the next Stanley Cup, but that won’t stop us. Here’s our way too early list of the 2016 Stanley Cup contenders.
1. Chicago Blackhawks
They are Vegas’ early favorites and who can blame anyone for picking them? They’ll still be led by a core that has now won three championships in Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, debates will probably continue about Corey Crawford’s quality in net, but he’s been a crucial part of two championship runs now.
Of course, keeping the other parts of this Stanley Cup winning together won’t be easy. Start with Brandon Saad, who will surely be looking for a significant pay rise playing an important role in the regular season and playoff run.
2. Los Angeles Kings
Darryl Sutter is still there, the core of that dominant defensive team with all that postseason experience is also still there. They are probably never going to be the sort of team that charges in the playoffs, but once they qualify, they are an extremely tough out.
They’ve not got a huge amount of cap space, but GM Dean Lombardi has had more time to play with his team this season. The question for LA will always be whether they have enough goals in their line-up to win the games that they need to win.
3. Minnesota Wild
They’re definitely a dark horse selection, but the Wild have recent postseason experience, a couple of quality players in Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, and a cluster of young players that are building up the sort of big game experience that will benefit them down the line.
The Wild have been thrashed in the playoffs by Chicago in three straight seasons and there may be some thinking to do for the organization if they hope to take the next step.
4. Montreal Canadiens
Carey Price has gradually established himself as one of the NHL’s premier netminders and he looks set to just keep getting better. Meanwhile, PK Subban is one of the most electrifying defensemen and all-round players in the league. The Canadiens have speed, balance and depth, and Marc Bergevin still has some room to make some more moves.
The Canadiens were surprised by their playoff eliminations in each of the last two seasons. This team might just be running out of time to get ‘over the hump’ before the salary cap catches up to them.
5. Tampa Bay Lightning
Speaking about salary cap catching up, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s young roster will be threatened by that same phenomena as entry level contracts expire. The Lightning have improved in each of the last two seasons, but they still need to improve their performance by one series victory.
General Manager Steve Yzerman has one more season of relative cap security, but he will know that the margins between success and failure are slim.
It’s arguably more difficult to pull together a bounce back season after losing in the Stanley Cup final than it is to repeat as champions. Very few teams do it.
Still, the Lightning are stacked with talent including Steve Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Jonathan Drouin, Nikita Kucherov and Cedric Paquette. They got the skill, depth and the playing style to enjoy another strong NHL season and to be one of those rare teams that bounces back immediately.
6. New York Islanders
Our Eastern conference dark horse team is the New York Islanders. It’s a long shot, but they are the team with serious potential. They took a step forward this season, but ultimately lost in the first round.
John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Ryan Strome, Travis Hamonic, Calvin De Haan and a host of other players lead a core with the potential to be one of the most explosive in franchise history.

Of course, it’s a big step to expect this young Islanders team to take that step, but Stanley Cup winning teams can just as easily come out of nowhere. 

Can Connor McDavid Be The Difference Maker For The Edmonton Oilers?

It felt like aninjustice when the Edmonton Oilers lucked out in the NHL’s Draft Lottery winning the first overall pick despite having a better record than both the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes. That means that this June, the Oilers will get their fourth 1st overall pick in the last six years. They haven’t got a huge amount to show for it coming off a season where they won just 24 games and failed to score 200 goals while conceding nearly 300.
It appears that Connor McDavid will be the latest player to be given the task of trying to ‘save’ an Oilers’ team that has been mired in a spell of mediocrity unfitting for a franchise with such a tremendous history and championship pedigree.  
Almost every season there is a forward in the draft who is predicted to be the league’s next superstar. These same Oilers grabbed three of the most recent examples all first overall – meet Taylor Hall (2010), Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (2011) and Nail Yakupov (2012). You can throw in Jordan Eberle as another top 10 potential superstar forward as well.
None of those four players have been able to establish themselves in the way that they were expected. Hall’s talent and ability is unquestionable, but injuries have been a factor throughout his NHL career and he managed just 38 points in 53 games in 2014-15 after a career best 80 points last year.
After a promising rookie campaign, Nugent-Hopkins has struggled to ‘break out’ scoring only 56 points in each of his last two seasons. Eberle has arguably been the most successful with consecutive 60+ point seasons, but there’s still the feeling that he has a little more to give. Yakupov has been the most disappointing of all struggling to play well enough to even secure a regular shift on the team’s top two lines.
McDavid is being highlighted as something quite different. Wayne Gretzky has made comparisons to himself and Mario Lemieux, many have suggested that McDavid is one step ahead of Sidney Crosby at a comparable stage of development.
There’s no questioning the fact that McDavid has elite offensive skills, but then again, the same could be said for Hall, Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle and Yakupov. Of course, few players are highlighted as strongly as unanimously as McDavid was at the age of 15.
McDavid’s hype is even greater and living up to those expectations will not be easy. There are a couple of problems with the comparisons between McDavid and the likes of Crosby.
The first is one of the state of play in the NHL. It took Steven Stamkos and John Tavares a couple of seasons to truly establish themselves as elite players and that’s in part because the nature of the NHL has changed since Crosby and Alex Ovechkin entered the league in 2005-06. It has tightened up again, teams play better defense and there’s a respect and attention paid to young skillful players that perhaps wasn’t applied in 2005-06 (or was officiated against). It has even arguably impacted Crosby and Ovechkin’s numbers. The method is simple, be physical, put a body on players and use an effective system and positioning to slow teams down. The defensive adaptations have reduced scoring since the first two or three post-lockout seasons.
The second problem is the failure for analysts and writers to appreciate the development step that Crosby took once he entered the NHL. His personality, style of play and leadership abilities all developed at a remarkable pace in those first couple of NHL seasons. The raw offensive talent was always there, but the Stanley Cup winning captain was made in the NHL. There are undoubtedly plenty of players and coaching staff members who deserve credit for that transformation.
It’s difficult to predict how McDavid’s development will play out. There’s no shame in not being the next Crosby. If it takes two or three seasons to reach ‘superstar’ status as it did for Tavares, then there’s no shame in that either.
The Tavares example is also relevant from the perspective of the importance of being put in a position to succeed. The New York Islanders have built their roster around their young forward and the benefits of that have begun to pay off, most notably in 2014-15 when the team from Long Island returned to the postseason and took the Washington Capitals to a Game 7 in the first round.
The future looks bright for the Islanders and Tavares is at the core of that. However, the work of GM Garth Snow and head coach Jack Capuano to build an effective group around him has been just as crucial.
Creating balance and depth has been a problem for Edmonton during their period of mediocrity. They’ve not drafted well outside of the first round, they haven’t built an effective bottom six, the team’s blue line has been weak and they haven’t found a good solution in net. A lot of those issues are interlinked creating a self-fulfilling cycle.
It’ll be the first task for new GM and head coach tandem Peter Chiarelli and Todd McLellan. It’s an experienced NHL tandem, each having established franchises that enjoyed success for sustained period.
Chiarelli will know that McDavid isn’t a quick fix. McLellan’s experience with San Jose also serves as an example of where having a leading cast of superstar players doesn’t guarantee Stanley Cup success – though Edmonton would happily swap their recent history with that of the Sharks.
Reversing the recent period of Oilers’ failure is probably just as much about re-configuring a roster built around the current crop of star forwards, as it is about hoping that McDavid will step in and be an immediate impact player.

Chiarelli’s challenge isn’t an easy one. He will almost certainly need to trade one of Yakupov, Nugent-Hopkins, Eberle or Hall. All four have the potential to turn into elite offensive players and trading any one of them could have the potential to look like a poor deal in the future. Chiarelli already has some recent history with that when he traded Tyler Seguin to Dallas two years ago.
McDavid could have ended up in far worse situations. He is in a true hockey town, he is on a roster that has plenty of talent and he is joining a franchise that has the opportunity to turn a corner.

For the Oilers, selecting McDavid will be the easy part of the difficult offseason that lies ahead for Chiarelli, McLellan and their new team.