Once an Afterthought, Ray Emery Shining As Blackhawks Keep Winning

Coming into the 2011-12 season, the Chicago Blackhawks seemed like they finally had a guy they could count on in net. They inked Corey Crawford to a three-year extension over the off-season, and the only question was whether Ray Emery or Alexander Salak would back up the talented youngster. As has happened in previous years with Cristobal Huet, Nikolai Khabibulin, Antti Niemi, and Marty Turco, however, the Hawks’ crease was not as solidified as previously thought.

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Send in the Clowns: Blackhawks Circus Trip Preview

Even though the Bulls, the Chicago Blackhawks’ usual co-tenant of the United Center, are currently locked out as NBA owners and players haggle over who will get a bigger piece of the money pie, the Hawks will still be kicked out of the arena for the next several weeks as the circus comes to town. The annual circus trip has always been a make or break proposition for the Hawks, and this year’s western trip is no exception.

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2011-12 NHL Northwest Division Rankings and Fantansy Projections

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The 2011-12 NHL season is already under way, and the action on the ice is already heating up.  After a summer filled with lots of on and off ice movement, but also  much  tragedy, the hockey world looks towards a new quest toward Lord Stanley’s Cup.  How do the teams in each division compare to one another?  Who will be the big fantasy players this season?  We take a division by division look at the 2011-12 NHL season.   Let’s take a look at the Northwest Division after the jump.

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Mixed Reviews on Blackhawks Moves

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By Paul M. Banks

It’s the 4th of July, ready for some hockey? It’s time to celebrate America’s Birthday by vivisecting the roster decisions made by one of the premier franchises in Canada’s national game. On July 1st, “Canada Day” or their version of Independence Day the Hawks made the biggest headlines in the NHL as the league officially opened its free agency period. I wanted to see what they did the rest of the week before analyzing their personnel moves- because nothing in life happens in a vacuum.

The Losses:

Leaving the Chicago Blackawks were winger Martin Havlat, who collected a six-year, $30 million deal from the Minnesota Wild. Havlat, who led the Hawks in scoring last season with 29 goals and 48 assists and was one of the most crucial players in the long playoff run, left on (possibly) somewhat bitter terms, as evidenced by his tweets on Wednesday night:
“Excited to be in Minny where I was welcomed and appreciated by management,” Havlat

“The real story about what happened in Chicago [will] come out.”

“There’s something to be said for loyalty and honor.”

Stay tuned. Havlat has one of the best “following to followers ratio” I’ve ever seen: 12 to 7,832. Also among the departed were veteran goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin (Edmonton, four years and $15 million), center Sammy Pahlsson (Columbus, 3 years $7.95 million) and defenceman Matt Walker (Tampa Bay, 4 years $6.8 million).

The departing of the Bulin Wall was probably inevitable ever since the Cristobal Huet signing. However, Khabi played his best hockey by far this winter once he had somebody solid competing with him for playing time. ’08-’09 was his best season by far in a Hawks uniform, and despite the many outstanding performances he gave in the postseason this spring, he never really lived up to expectations in Chicago. He wasn’t bad, it’s just that he had the richest goalie contract in NHL history, therefore he had a lot to live up to. khabibulin2
Pahlsson is a decent role player who will be replaced through the farm system or perhaps a free agent signing. Matt Walker, no he’s not the drummer from Filter who later joined the Smashing Pumpkins, is a serviceable but not spectacular blue-liner who may find more minutes in Tampa.

The Additions:

The Hawks signed two-time Stanley Cup Champion and 10-year National Hockey League center John Madden to a one-year contract. No, this isn’t the fat, annoying, loud, still-wondering-why-he-has-a-job-on-television football broadcaster who loves Mexican food and only travels by bus.

Madden, 36, has spent his entire career with the New Jersey Devils, helping the organization reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs in each of the last nine seasons.  He has recorded 297 points (140G, 157A) in 712 career regular-season games and 41 points (20G, 21A) in 112 playoff contests which includes capturing the Stanley Cup in 2000 and 2003.

“John is a proven winner and one of the premier defensive forwards in the game who also has the talent to contribute with timely offense as well,” Blackhawks General Manager Dale Tallon said. “Adding his experience to our team is an important piece to the puzzle.” Madden holds New Jersey’s franchise record with 17 shorthanded goals.

The Barrie, Ontario native captured the Frank J. Selke Trophy in 2001, given annually to the National Hockey League’s best defensive forward, and was the runner-up for the award in 2003, 2004, and 2008.  At the University of Michigan, he won a National Championship in 1996

But the big prize was right wing Marian Hossa, even though I find the 12 year contract to be more than a bit extravagant. redwings2

“To add Marian, an elite and world-class player, and Tomas, a Stanley Cup Champion, to our exciting young core reinforces our commitment to try to win the Stanley Cup,” Blackhawks General Manager Dale Tallon said. Last season, Hossa, 30, led the Red Wings in goals (40) and finished third in points (71) during the regular season before chipping in 15 points (6G, 9A) while appearing in all 23 Stanley Cup Playoff games. Following the regular season, he was named to the 2008-09 NHL Second All-Star Team. The Trencin, Slovakia native is also a four-time NHL All-Star.

Hossa is (somewhat dubiously) known as the guy who played on the Stanley Cup runner-up team the past two seasons. This “feat” is newsworthy when you consider you had the same two teams (Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins) playing each other both years, and a different team one each time.

The Hawks also snatched away from Detroit center Tomas Kopecky (TAW-mahsh, koh-PEHTS-kee) He finished second on the team with 109 hits while posting career highs with six goals, 13 assists and 19 points in 79 regular season games.

I can’t approve of the 12 year deal for Hossa, even though it’s really cool that they signed the top scorer away from their hated rivals.  Like Jerry Seinfeld said “in sports, you’re rooting for clothes.” In the shell game and zero sum game that is the NHL roster under the salary cap I have a feeling that this deal could lead to the departure of someone in the young nucleus Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith down the line. That would be just plain awful. Still signing Hossa is “kind of a big deal.” Losing Havlat is too. As for Khabi, the question of whether or not it was right or not to let him go, can only be answered by one man- Cristobal Huet. And how he performs…well, it’s all in his head.

But I don’t think the Hawks are done dealing yet- And I have a feeling the next signing will be a defenseman. The same position they focused their draft on. So don’t judge the +/- of this offseason just yet.

The Shots are on Vancouver

By Paul M. Banks

In the Chicago Blackhawks-Vancouver Canucks Western Conference Semifinal series, most of the statistics are remarkably even. The one exception: shots on goal. The Hawks hold a decisive edge, accumulating a 31 shot advantage. Even though they’ve taken more shots than a college fraternity pledge during hazing week, the numbers of total goals scored in this series is a dead heat.  Many of the Chicago slap shots are coming from beyond optimal range and often after a pass or two too many. It’s a true testament to the Vancouver defensemen, who have done a great job limiting Chicago’s prime scoring opportunities.

It also reaffirms the hype surrounding Canucks’ goaltender Roberto Luongo, one of the best in the business. By stopping 107/115 shots he’s faced (.930 save percentage), he’s clearly outplaying his Blackhawks counterpart Nikolai Khabibulin. The “Bulin Wall” has saved 72 of the 82 shots (.878 save percentage) coming his way. The Hawks scored very late in regulation and then again in overtime of Game 4 to win 2-1 and even the series at two games a piece.

After the road loss, Luongo spoke about the defense in front of him. “It was a pretty close game and we took the lead and we were doing what we needed to do in protecting that lead as far paying the price of blocking shots and stuff like that,” Luongo said.

In order to take control of this series, Chicago must do a better job converting more of their scoring opportunities. The optimal plan might be following Coach Joel Quenneville’s mantra of keep getting pucks on the net and eventually good things will happen.

“I think against him, shots at the net, traffic, second and third opportunities, tip screens, deflections, that’s how you have to beat him. The more we do that, the better chance we’ll have to put the puck behind him,” Quenneville stated. And like the greatest hockey player of all, Wayne Gretzky famously said: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

Great Hawks Players You haven’t heard of

By Paul M. Banks

Now that being a Chicago Blackhawks fan is as trendy now as it was in the 60s during the franchise’s glory days, the team’s marquee players: Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and (to a lesser extent) Brian Campbell are all essentially local celebrities. But this team has some other All-Star level talent that you’ve never heard of. They’re currently fourth in the Western Conference despite having no one among the top 40 in the league in scoring- a testament to their depth. Beyond “Kaner,” “Taser,” and “Soupy,” (are you picking up the unofficial hockey player nickname generating formula yet?) these are the names you should know.

Patrick Sharp- “Sharpie,” the team’s leader in goals scored may be the most underrated player on the squad.

Duncan Keith- not to be confused with 90s one-hit wonder Duncan Sheik, he’s the Hawks other blue-liner with an All-Star appearance on his resume.

Kris Versteeg- Hawks bench boss Joel Quenneville described the NHL’s rookie scoring leader thusly: “He’s a competitive guy that doesn’t get distracted by any of the stuff that goes on during a game: got good quickness, good imagination without the puck.”

Martin Havlat- started slow, but came on in January, when the team badly needed an offensive lift and is now second on the team (behind Kane) in scoring.

Goalie tandem of Cristobal Huet and Nikolai Khabibulin- Although they tried to shop Khabibulin earlier in the season, the fact that he’s playing solid hockey here now is a warm, fuzzy feeling. When the playoffs come, having both the Bulin Wall and Huet, another goalie the Hawks acquired via a big money free-agent contract, sharing the net will be advantageous over other teams that lack fresh goaltending.

In addition to hosting the NHL’s marquee regular season game (Winter Classic), the Hawks have the premier position in three key off-the-ice criteria. The Indian head was voted the most recognized logo in NHL and the Hawks currently lead the league in attendance and merchandise sales. This shows how much they’ve built the brand. If they go far in the ’09 Stanley Cup playoffs, and later make an annual habit of doing so, the names I mentioned above will be instantly recognizable in this city.

See more of Paul M. Banks’ work at the Washington Times and The Sports Bank

Inaugural Blackhawks Exchange

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