The Chicago Blackhawks' season officially came to an end today. (Well, technically, they just played their final game today; their season effectively ended late last week when they were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention.) It was a 4-1 loss to divisional and Original Six rival the Detroit Red Wings, and the score doesn't really reflect the way the Hawks played. For that matter, neither does the season result.
There was a lot of buzz around the Hawks at the start of the year, thanks to a phenomenal crop of young players that held out the first promise in quite a long time that the Blackhawks might play deeper into the year than early April. They started out well, going .500 in the first month of the season, and finished strongly, winning six of their last 10 games. At one point last week they were only three points out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Considering that the Hawks finished 10 games under .500 last season, and 17 games under the mediocre mark the year before, winding up in ninth place and just out of playoff contention, but seven games above .500, is not a bad way to end the year. Not the ending that the team and its fans would have liked, to be sure: but certainly a good effort and a positive sign for what may happen next season.
Among the positive signs for the future would have to be the performance of rookies Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane--both of whom are deservedly in the running for the Calder Trophy, given each year to the best rookie player in the NHL. The consensus of opinion seems to be that Kane has the better chance of winning it than Toews, but the more important fact is that the Hawks, who have languished at or near the bottom of the league for most of the last decade, have two contenders for the honor on their roster. All things considered, I might consider awarding it to the two of them jointly. Kane has the edge in points, 72 to 54 (which, incidentally, gives him a 10-point edge over Patrick Sharp for the team's points leader). Factor in the fact that Kane played in all 82 games this season, while Toews missed 19 with injuries, and that difference gets at least a little smaller. Toews has a much better plus/minus record than Kane, though the meaning of that stat is ultimately up for grabs. Kane also has the highest point total of all this year's rookies, but Toews is third in that category--and leads all rookies in the number of goals scored, with 24. Toews also scored a point in each of his first ten NHL games (the second-longest rookie scoring streak in NHL history), and scored the game-winning goal four times in this year's campaign (a performance Kane also matched). But the biggest statistic, and the one that should garner the team MVP nod for Toews, is the way the Blackhawks performed when he was out of the lineup for those 19 games. When Toews was on the ice, the Hawks went 34-30. When he was off it, they went 6-12. When Toews sprained his knee in a game New Year's Day against Los Angeles, the Hawks lost that game (Toews left the ice in the first period, having played only three minutes and change), and the six that followed. Granted, since Kaner played every game this year it's not possible to do a similar comparison for how the team fared when he wasn't around. But I still think it speaks volumes about the contribution that Toews made that while the Hawks were middling when he was available, they were terrible when he wasn't.
The combination of Kane and Toews will be just one of the factors to watch in how the Hawks perform next year. The team has six players on the roster now that are 21 years old or younger, and 19 that are under 30 (including all but two of their defense corps. Patrick Sharp had a career year with 36 goals and 61 points, both nearly double his production in his second-best year (which was last year with the Hawks). That suggests this may be the sign of a younger player (Sharp is 26) hitting his stride in the NHL. Sharpie also tied Ottawa Senators' legend Daniel Alfredsson for shorthanded scoring this year, with seven shorthanded goals and two shorthanded assists. In third place behind those two? Rene Bourque, another 26-year-old just completing his third year with the Hawks.
Another factor to take into consideration is the fan base. It has been depressing as hell to watch this proud franchise, one of the Original Six in the NHL, sliding into irrelevance on the Chicago sports scene over the 40-plus years since the team last won the Stanley Cup in 1961--most of that time under the less-than-universally praised, let us say, leadership of William "Dollar Bill" Wirtz, who died last September at the age of 77. It is perhaps an indication of what his leadership meant to the Hawks that fans booed vociferously (YouTube video clip) during the tribute presented in his honor at their home opener on October 8. ESPN named the Blackhawks the worst franchise in sports in 2004, and Bill Wirtz the third greediest owner in all of sports.
Since taking over from his father, current team president Rocky Wirtz has done yeoman's work to overcome the animosity generated by four decades of his father's leadership. Past Blackhawks legends like Stan Mikita, Bobby Orr, and Tony Esposito have been brought back into the Hawks' fold as ambassadors. There have been advertisements on television, in print, and on billboards around the Chicagoland area for the team and many of its young stars. Pat Kane's jersey is one of the top sellers (if not the top seller) at the NHL's store. There were 12 sellouts (counted as attendance at a home game anywhere in excess of the stated capacity of the United Center, which is 20,500) and one near-sellout (counted as any home game with a stated attendance of more than 20,000, but less than 20,500) this year--which may equal or better the number of sold-out games in the United Center for the previous decade. Seven of those sellouts came within the last month, as people began to get excited about the possibility that the Hawks might make the playoffs for only the second time this century. I was at that near-sellout game against Edmonton on December 23, and they weren't bullshitting with the attendance numbers--there weren't many empty seats in the house (granted, it was a weekend game just before Christmas, and the team had recently announced a ticket discount for the final home games of the year, but still).
Perhaps most important of all, it was announced on April 1 that all Blackhawks games will be televised next year. Under "Dollar Bill," only a handful of Hawks games were broadcast because (a) he refused to allow home games to be televised unless they were picked up by the national broadcasters--which almost never happened except when the Hawks made the playoffs or when they were playing someone in contention for a playoff spot--and (b) the team stank on ice for most of the last decade. But it's hard to build a fan base if nobody sees you play. Given that for years there were more empty seats at the United Center than filled ones and an anemic broadcast schedule, is it any wonder that hockey gave way in importance to football, basketball, and baseball in this town? I'm old enough to remember when we could watch Blackhawks games on TV on a fairly regular basis--but that was a generation ago and meanwhile, the hockey fan base in this Original Six town had shrunk to the point that when the Chicago newspapers covered hockey at all, it was as an afterthought--or when there was a change in coaching, a major trade (almost always involving a marquee player being sent away to another team and hardly ever the reverse), or some particularly egregious blunder on or off the ice by one of the players.
At long last, I think the Blackhawks are headed in the right direction. The coaching is good, the management is good, the roster is bursting with talent, and fans are coming back to see them play on a regular basis. It's about time.