The circus is back in town. But enough about the Bears.
The local football team returns to Soldier Field on Sunday after a bye and a two-week slog of injuries, drug suspensions and losses, meaning this is the time to be thankful for the good things we have, namely the Blackhawks. They can be the bridge that gets us past the NFL season and into the baseball season. Until the White Sox start showing a pulse, the baseball season means the defending World Series champion Cubs. The Bulls? Too much of a mystery right now.
The Hawks have the best record in the Western Conference, and even though it’s early in the season, that’s nice for no other reason than we don’t have to talk about the ravages of the salary cap, which is like talking about the tax code. If you want to stand alone in a corner at a party, bring up the salary cap, any salary cap. If you still find yourself with companions, you’re at the wrong party.
The Hawks are good even without Andrew Shaw, who has a game built for dirty work and a face that proves it. They had to trade him in the offseason because they couldn’t pay him. It happens in sports. How you deal with it is the important thing.
The Hawks have done a fine job of staying near or at the top of the NHL in the cap era. That’s probably not good enough for the fans who think the franchise should have won seven Stanley Cups the past seven seasons, instead of the measly three it eked out. Those people would complain about dangerous UV rays in paradise. But the fact that the Hawks are in a familiar spot in the Western Conference, young as the season might be, means they’re trending in the right direction, as coach Joel Quenneville might say.
The Hawks’ three titles produced three different Conn Smythe Trophy winners – Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith. Three different playoff most valuable players still tells the best story of why the Hawks remain the envy of the rest of the league. The core might be getting older, but it’s still very, very good – Toews, Kane, Keith, Marian Hossa, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford.
Dave Bolland, who scored the Game 6 goal that won the 2013 Cup, gave way to Shaw as the Hawks’ on-ice irritant. I think the baton that was passed was a glove rubbed in an opponent’s face. Anyway, a seamless transition is how you do it, and general manager Stan Bowman deserves all the credit he has gotten for finding pieces to fit around the stars. He found Shaw in the fifth round of the 2011 draft. Ryan Hartman is the Hawks’ Shaw-in-training. He was their first-round pick in 2013.
Losing Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager, Teuvo Teravainen, Johnny Oduya, Brandon Saad, Kris Versteeg, Nick Leddy, Patrick Sharp, Michael Frolik, Tomas Kopecky and Troy Brouwer, as the Hawks have, should be a killer. That should send you directly into mediocrity.
But no. You take advantage of all avenues to add Richard Panik, Artem Anisimov, Michal Kempny, Vinnie Hinostroza and Hartman. Artemi Panarin, a Russian whom the Hawks found in the Kontinental Hockey League, has 96 points in 101 NHL games. That’s how you do it. And you take the draft picks you received from all the salary cap trades, and you make yourself whole again.
But never lose sight of who got the Hawks where they still are. That would be Toews, Kane and the rest of the core.
That’s what Oilers coach Todd McLellan pointed out the other day: “They’re driven by players that are wearing three Stanley Cup rings. That’s what drives their team, including the coaching staff. The game is built around what they believe in, and if you’re a young player coming in there, you adjust to their game plan and you play the game. But they’re driven by their core on a nightly basis.”
It’s late November, so let’s not get too carried away. The same advice is offered to those of you worried about a recent lack of scoring from Toews and Kane. It’s hockey, and that will happen. But so too will the goals, inevitably. In the meantime, Hinostroza and Hartman have helped pick up the slack.
The Hawks won’t be back at the United Center until Tuesday. All the circus performers will be gone and so too will whatever the animals left behind. The same can’t be said of Bear droppings at Soldier Field.