10 observations: Hawks face daunting challenge of repeating in 2015-16

SHARE 10 observations: Hawks face daunting challenge of repeating in 2015-16

It’s a rite of any championship celebration:

“Maybe the only way it does get better is if we win four,” Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said in closing the Hawks’ rally at Soldier Field on Thursday to celebrate their third Stanley Cup in six seasons.

To do that in 2015-16 might be the ultimate challenge for a team that stands alone as the premier franchise in the NHL’s salary-cap era. No team has repeated as Stanley Cup champion since the Detroit Red Wings in 1996-97 and 1997-98 — well before the advent of the salary cap that followed the Cup-less 2004-05 season.

Of the nine defending champions in the cap era, only the 2008-09 Red Wings even reached the Stanley Cup Final. Only three defending champions have reached the conference final, including the 2013-14 Hawks, who lost in seven games to the Kings.

The salary cap that forces teams to lose valuable assets — as the Hawks did in 2010 and 2013 — is one factor. But the short summer and celebration after a long Cup-winning grind can’t be discounted as another. When the Kings won in 2012, they had a longer offseason because of the 2012-13 lockout and reached the Western Conference final the following year (losing to the Hawks in five games). After they won in 2014 with a regular “short summer” they failed to make the playoffs in 2014-15.

“There’s nothing you can do about it,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “You want to enjoy it. It’s a fun summer. This one [was] a grind. There’s a lot going on in the summer. Next thing you know you’ve got to plan a party; gotta do this; gotta do that; But at the same time you get to play hockey in the fall and get excited again.

“Our team, they’re a very proud group. They like to play well. They want to make each other better. They want to win. That’ll be our challenge come training camp.”

Cognizant of history, Quenneville notably set the bar low when asked about the difficulty in repeating as champion. The Kings — arguably the only team in the NHL on the Hawks’ level when it comes to the resilience, moxie and perseverance to will itself to a Cup championship — would have been a contender this season if they could only have made the playoffs. Don’t be surprised if the Hawks’ tread that fine line in 2015-16.

“I think the toughest thing is how hard it is to make the playoffs,” Quenneville said. “That’s going to be the challenge in our mind.”

The Kings, for instance —still a contender with Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Marian Gaborik and Jonathan Quick (but with their own free-agent quandaries, plus the Slava Voynov case still up in the air) — already are nine weeks into their offseason as the Hawks are starting theirs. It can make a difference.

“Especially these days,” Marian Hossa said. “Everybody prepares so well [going into] training camps. Everybody’s fresh.”

And there’s also the bigger-than-ever target on the Hawks’ back.

“Every team is going to measure themselves against us,” Hossa said. “For us every game next season is going to be so hard, because nobody’s going to play easily. It’s definitely going to drain your battery and you have to do the best job you an in the summer to recharge as much as you can.”

2. If there’s a secret to the Hawks, success, though, it’s their ability to keep themselves at peak physical condition. The Hawks’ trainers — whoever they are —deserve a lot of credit for that. The Hawks are 7-1 in multiple-overtime games over the past three seasons. They won games that lasted 116:12, 101:00, 87:49 and 85:37 in this year’s playoffs.

“I didn’t know how well they take care of themselves and how professional they are off the ice,” center Brad Richards said when asked what he learned about the Hawks that he didn’t know about them from outside the organization.

“I’ve never seen a group of guys so committed —nutrition and recovery, all the different ways … everything’s cutting edge. They try to find every advantage they can that way. It was a great experience to see just the preparation and how these guys do that. I learned a lot this year.”

3. Is the Blackhawks’ vaunted core still getting better with age? The seven players who have won three Stanley Cups — Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson — combined to score 41 of the Hawks’ 69 postseason goals (59.4 percent); 114 of their 189 points (60.3 percent).Last year the Hawks’ core scored 53.4 percent of the goals and 56.2 percent of the points.

Perhaps even more telling: The core players were a combined plus-50 in the playoffs. The rest of the team was a combined plus-1.

4. Marian Hossa might not be getting better with age, but he’s impressively maintaining his world-class ability. Hossa scored three goals in this year’s postseason after scoring two last year. But he finished much stronger overall this year. He had four assists and was a plus-2 in the Stanley Cup Final. Last year Hossa had one assist and was a minus-4 in the final six games against the Kings.

At 36, Hossa played in every game this season (105-of-105) for the first time in his six seasons with the Hawks. He’s planning on a light summer.

“I’m just going to home and see my family,” Hossa said. “It’s going to be a short summer. Maybe vacation somewhere, but mostly just stay home.”

5. Kudos to Hawks-rally master of ceremonies Pat Foley for including Mike Spellman of the Daily Herald among those associated with the Blackhawks who passed away this season.

Spellman, who replaced the late, great Tim Sassone on the Hawks beat late last year, died unexpectedly at 50 in January. An all-time nice guy, Spellman was missed greatly on the Hawks beat — and everywhere, actually — this season.

6. Defenseman Michal Rozsival, who suffered a horrific broken ankle in Game 4 against the Wild in the second-round, finally was able to raise the Cup when he returned to the United Center on Wednesday. He made the most of a difficult episode.

“It was a tough end to my season,” Rozsival said. “It’s an unbelievable end to the team’s season. I couldn’t be happier for this team to end the season with a championship.

Rozsival, who will turn 37 in September, is hoping to play in the NHL next season.

“All the indications are that I’ll be able to heal and recover 100 percent. That’s what I’m kind of banking [on],” he said. “Of course, I hope it can be here. I don’t know if it’s going to happen. Definitely hoping. This is definitely the play to play.”

7. Among first-year Hawks, Andrew Desjardins is likely to return in 2015-16, Brad Richards possible and Antoine Vermette doubtful. Stan Bowman gave Desjardins a well-deserved hearty endorsement Wednesday. After being scratched in the first two playoff games, Desjardins scored a goal in his first game against Nashville and kept improving. A bit player through most of his five-year NHL career, Desjardins played his best in the Stanley Cup Final —particularly impressive for a complementary piece.

7a. The entire fourth line of Desjardins, Marcus Kruger and Andrew Shaw was the unsung hero of the Final for the Hawks. They averaged 13:47 of even-strength ice time in Game 6. That was more than the third line of Antoine Vermette (12:11), Teuvo Teravainen (9:23) and Kris Versteeg (10:41). For what it’s worth, the fourth line played just 13:04 of even-ice time in the Game 7 overtime loss to the Kings last year — Kris Versteeg (3:44) Brandon Bollig (2:28) and Michal Handzus (6:52). That’s partially because of match-ups, but also an indication that the Hawks weren’t nearly as deep in 2014 as they were in 2015.

8. The definitive stat that explains the Hawks’ success in the Joel Quenneville era: they are 30-30 (.500) in Games 1-3 of a playoff series since 2009, but 43-14 (.754) in Games 4-7. The Jordan-era Bulls also had a reputation for turning it on when they needed it. But even they weren’t quite like the Hawks. In a similar phase (1988-93, 1995-98), the Bulls were 38-18 in Games 4-7 of a seven-game playoff series. But they were even better —47-19 (.712) — in Games 1-3.

9. Despite not scoring through the first five games of the Stanley Cup Final, Patrick Kane still managed to live up to his reputation as a big-game player when he had a goal and assist in the Game 6 clincher against the Lightning.

In 11 elimination games in the past two seasons — when either the Hawks or their opponent has a chance to clinch a playoff series —Kane has 23 points (seven goals, 16 assists) and is a plus-13.

10. The Hawks are still reaping the benefits of cap-circumventing contracts to Marian Hossa (12 years, $83 million) and Duncan Keith (13 years, $72 million) that would no longer fly under the new collective bargaining agreement. It’s one reason they’ve been able to keep the core group together. But far from the only one.

“I don’t think they’ve done anything ,” Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said. “They were able to take advantage of some of those contracts in the old CBA —good for them.Stan [Bowman] has had to make some hard decisions the last few years. I think they’ve done a phenomenal job in remaining an elite team and staying under the cap and bringing in some good young players.

“Every year they’ve been some really astute trades and moving out some guys that helped them win and replacing them with younger guys. And they have prospects coming. It’s been a remarkable run and the reality is those guys — Jonathan [Toews] and Patrick [Kane]—are just getting into their prime now. And Duncan [Keith] and Brent [Seabrook], they’ve got tons of hockey left in them. So it looks like they’re going to be a force for awhile.”

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