Lost in the recent gush of love and goodwill for new Hawks owner Rocky Wirtz and team president John McDonough is an undeniable, hard fact:
If the Blackhawks fail to win a Stanley Cup in the next five years, a lot of people are going to be very disappointed.
With the Bulls stuck below .500 and baby-sitting Joakim Noah, the Blackhawk franchise has the opportunity to do something very few people thought would ever be possible: reclaim pre-eminence in the Chicago sports scene from October to June.
But remember, the Bill Wirtz (no less) Blackhawks of the early 90's iced some great teams. A team that went to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1992. A team that made numerous consecutive playoff appearances. A team that played to packed houses.
And then look what happened.
Granted, there are many Blackhawk fans who yearn desperately for a playoff spot this year, assuming that guarantees deeper runs in subsequent years (which it doesn't). The truth is, the Blackhawks are a team that can seriously challenge for the Stanley Cup in the 2009-2010 season. And all focus, resources, planning and personnel moves should be on that year and beyond.
That said, I, HB28, humbly offer my roadmap to win the Cup.
First, recent and long-term history proves it is very hard, if not impossible, to win the Cup without a top flight goaltender. There are many offensively-powerful teams that go nowhere in the playoffs because of suspect goaltending, defense or physicality (or combinations thereof).
So with all that in mind, the question must be asked. Will Nikolai Khabibulin be good enough at age 37 (in 2009-2010) to carry the Hawks to the Cup? I think the answer has to be: not bloody likely. He isn't at 35. He wasn't at 34. He has to be the oldest looking 35 year-old I've ever seen. He is a superb athlete; but it really seems his skills are deteriorating.
Therefore, the Hawks must acquire one of the top 10-15 goalies in hockey within the next two years. They can wait until Khabibulin's contract expires in June 2009, and pay obscene money to acquire the best free agent on the market (then again, they're already paying #39 obscene money anyway), or make a deal between now and then. Or, hope that Corey Crawford emerges as a big-time netminder between now and then. I'd put long odds on that.
So put "address goalie situation" down as the top priority; if not the first thing to do, then the most important to do.
Next the defense.
We're watching these kids grow every night. Seabrook, Keith and Wisniewski (if he can stay healthy) form a nice core of youth. Sopel's a solid vet presence. But they desperately need a big, rugged guy (preferably who can also run a power play— really set it up, then settle it down) in their top 4, if not their top 2. They thought that player was going to be Cam Barker. Again, it bears saying: based on what we've seen over the last two seasons, it's hard to believe Barker can make the strides necessary to become that kind of player. Some think it's Dustin Byfuglien. He might have what the position takes offensively, but he can't stop the other teams top forwards. It's evident, he's much better suited to wing and point duty only on the power play. Niklas Hjalmarsson will be in th eHawks line-up by then, but he does not appear to be a power play QB. More of a solid two-way guy who will provide a physical presence.
So, the aforementioned defensive stud needs to be acquired.
You can safely assume the top line (and a great top line) is going to be Jonathan Toews, Pat Kane and take your pick from Tuomo Ruutu, Patrick Sharp or perhaps Martin Havlat, or even a prospect like Bill Sweatt or Igor Makarov. Robert Lang will most likely be gone as his contract expires in 2009.
Havlat has to be a huge question-mark, not just his health, but his contract status after 2009 as well as allegedly strained relations with some teammates.
Question 3 becomes, do you re-sign Havlat in July 2009 (or extend him before)? If not, you need to acquire a first-line left wing (and not miss). I would urge Dale Tallon to analyze the dressing room situation (if it actually exists). If you can reasonably make it work with Havlat in Chicago, extend him early next season. One problem solved.
On to the second line. Say, for now, Ruutu is the left wing. Fine. Who's the center? Is it Dave Bolland, who most Hawk fans seem ready to hand the job to? Or Petri Kontiola? Or a free agent?
Quality second line centers run about $5 million a year (and up) in free agency. I tend to believe, based on their skills and development, that Kontiola and Bolland can be the 2nd and 3rd line centers. And I lean toward them in that order. Both play well at both ends of the ice, but I believe Kontiola has better offensive skills, while Bolland is perhaps better defensively.
On right wing, it could be any of a number of players: Sharp, Kris Versteeg, Troy Brouwer, Dustin Byfuglien, Jack Skille, Akim Aliu or Sweatt.
To me, the top two candidates are Versteeg and Byfuglien. And it could go either way. I'm going to say it's most likely Sharp, assuming he doesn't leave as a free agent, or Versteeg continues to develop and his scoring complements Kontiola and Ruutu nicely.
Byfuglien is my third line right wing, playing with Dave Bolland. Remember, this line is going to be sent out against other teams' top lines many nights to shut them down. At the same time, a Stanley Cup winning team must be able to roll three lines that can score. At left wing, the Hawks want a strong 2-way forward. Maybe Kevyn Adams comes back and bumps Bolland over to wing. But I'd want more offense. So unless Rene Bourque really solidifies, or Bryan Bickell steps up, I believe 3rd line lefft wing goes on the shopping list after #1 goalie and top defenseman. Because I don't believe Skille, Brouwer, Aliu or Sweatt fills this role in 2009. Aliu and Sweatt are probably at Rockford then.
On the fourth line, I think Mike Blunden makes a fine right wing. He hits everything in sight and he can skate. Adam Burish is my center. Jake Dowell or Ben Eager is my left wing.
If you've done the math, it would appear Skille, Brouwer, Barker and Corey Crawford are the odd men out. maybe Crawford supplants Lalime as backup. Fine.
But I would argue Barker, Skille and Brouwer are the two prospects who could be dealt, either individually or packaged, to help fill the other holes. Skille and Brouwer, to me, are one-dimensionsal players with holes in their games. All of them could flourish, however, in other systems.
NCAA players who could very well figure into the Hawks mix in the next two seasons: C Nathan Davis, G Joe Palmer or G Joe Fallon.
So there it is, Dale. Your work is cut out for you. Let me know how I can help!