All is well and looking up in Blackhawk Nation. Or is it?
Certainly, the ascension of Rocky Wirtz, the hiring of John McDonough and the better than expected performances of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Dustin Byfuglien and Patrick Sharp have given new life to this long-dormant (some would say 'decaying') franchise. And it's relatively safe to predict the next 15 years will be better to the franchise than the last 15 have been.
That said, there seems to be a rift growing within the Blackhawk Universe, and perhaps even within the organization itself. Some, perhaps a majority of, Hawk fans are breathlessly awaiting the Hawks' first playoff appearance since 2002, a five-game first-round loss to St.Louis.
Others who follow the Hawks, this writer included, are urging caution.
Tonight, I'm going to attend my first Blackhawk home game in nearly 35 years. Yes, it's been that long. And I'm that old. And to all those, like Al Cimaglia, who have gone through the turnstiles at The Old Barn and the UC religiously game after game and year after year, I salute and applaud. I have lived away from Chicago for most of the last 30 years. But my hockey DNA was formed way up near the Rafters in the Chicago Stadium on frigidly cold winter nights in 1969, '70 and '71, watching Mikita, the Hulls, Jim Pappin, Pit Martin and the like quite literally go to war with Orr, Phil Esposito, Bucyk, MacKenzie and Sanderson.
There is a lot to be excited about today. But to me, that excitement should be about the potential to win a Stanley Cup in the next 5 years, not necessarily appearing the playoffs this year.
The truth is, the Hawks lack a lot of the critical pieces needed to win a Cup, or even make a deep playoff run. Not just one or two pieces, a lot of them. Specifically, this team does not have a #1 defenseman; and while some would argue that while Brent Seabrook has the potential to be a #2 defenseman, he has some kinks in his game that need ironing out. They struggle with a tight forechecking, physical opponent. Kane plays defense like a matador, and he and Toews (like a lot of very young players) have disappeared offensively for long stretches. Martin Havlat is injury prone. Nikolai Khabibulin, though he has played well lately, might never be the same goalie he was when he won a Cup with Tampa.
Today, the Hawks very young AHL team in Rockford leads their division. The Ice Hogs are getting balanced scoring from the likes of Jack Skille, Troy Brouwer, Bryan Bickell, Petri Kontiola and Mike Blunden. These are all the kind of big, skilled players other teams will want from the Hawks in exchange for the NHL players the team might want to acquire for a "playoff run." Or they might ask about Nathan Davis, a Hobey Baker finalist last year at Miami of Ohio. Or leading OHL goaltender Josh Unice. Or super-competitive Swedish defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson. Or Igor Makarov, a player some have compared to Martin Havlat.
Fact is, all, some, or perhaps none of these prospects will fill those holes on the Hawks. But the more legitimate prospects you have, the better your chances that a few of them will materialize into real NHL players.
My advice to the Hawks: do what I'm going to do tonight. Sit back, relax, enjoy the huge crowds at the UC, watch kids like Kane and Toews (and Byfuglien) mature into superstars. Keep loading the barrels for 2008 and beyond. If you make the playoffs with the cards you hold, great.
But resist the temptation to mortgage the future, or any part of it, for a brief playoff run this year. Because that might also limit the rise of good feeling to this year as well.