Hawks and Pens Rebuild And Reload While Wings Recoil

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Welcome to a new weekly column by Kyle Bauer on various happenings in national and local sports. This column will run every Sunday. Agree or disagree with the author? Please comment below or let him know your thoughts by email, [email protected] or twitter, @kyle_bauer

 

On Friday night, the Chicago Blackhawks consecutive-game point streak ended at 24 in gross fashion at the hands of the Colorado Avalanche. Playing the powerful Hawks back-to-back games seem to provide the opportunity to study, strategize to gain an advantage no other team could seek, despite the Avs being one of the lamest teams in the league. While the Hawks impressive streak ended in flat fashion, they remain scary strong.

In comparison, the Eastern Conference holds a team equally as fearsome; the Pittsburgh Penguins are quietly and methodically working through their opponents and sit at the top of the Atlantic division like a throne. They fought through Sidney Crosby’s on-going post-concussion issues, a knee injury plus post-concussion problems for Evengi Malkin, and despite the adversity, they’ve only produced new stars in trading for forward James Neal and developing speedy defenseman Kris LeTang.

The Blackhawks and Penguins have more in common than simply their recent Stanley Cups and current seats atop the standings–they’re both building potential dynasties; skill continues to evolve at the pace the Pens and Hawks dictate. They may have already reached the ultimate goal; Pittsburgh in 2009 and Chicago in 2010, but this is conceivably just the beginning for both franchises.

What the Penguins and Blackhawks did was astonishing. They won Stanley Cups before their prime.

The Penguins took the Red Wings to a game-7 in 2009 and were able to stun Detroit and the hockey world by taking the game convincingly in Joe Louis Arena, winning 2-1 behind two goals from the since departed Maxime Talbot. It was a game that Crosby only played half of, leaving early in the second period after a knee injury.

Crosby the captain took the Penguins to back-to-back finals against the Wings at the incredibly young ages of 20 and 21. Malkin, the defending Hart Trophy winner for league MVP, was only 22 when he won the ’09 Conn Smythe for playoff MVP. This incomprehensible duo seemingly turned the clock forward five years–taking their very young team with an average age of 23 in 2009, past a veteran Red Wings team loaded with Zetterberg, Datsyuk, (former teammate) Hossa, Franzen, Osgood and the legendary Lidstrom.

In 2009, the Wings had a glimpse of the NHL’s new landscape, facing a not-ready-for-primetime Hawks team in the Western Conference finals. I remember not being threatened at all by the upstart Blackhawks thinking they were years away from being true final-four contenders. Detroit had just gotten through one of the hardest fought series I’ve ever seen in my 20 years of coherently watching hockey–the Anaheim Ducks took them to seven bruising games, series ended by a late third period chip-in goal by Dan Cleary. I didn’t view the series against the Hawks as the conference final, I viewed the Ducks series as the true conference final.

This show of disrespect came from conventional wisdom; ignore what the Penguins are doing as a young team in the East– the Hawks, just as young, could not be nearly this competent. It was a five game series, but no-where near the walk-through I was expecting. The Wings needed three overtime games, including the clinching game-5 to trudge through a very excitable Blackhawks team.

In 2010, the Blackhawks marched to a Cup behind some veteran savvy from Patrick Sharp and (again) Hossa, but at the core were three players seemingly too young to do what they were doing. Jonathan Toews, then 21, Patrick Kane, 22, and Duncan Keith, 26, used their youth to blow through teams, beating the 2011 finalist Vancouver Canucks in six games then sweeping the sleepy San Jose Sharks.

That same Sharks team had defeated the Wings in five games the previous series. In such a way, the Sharks did the Hawks work, deposing of a rapidly aging and injury-riddled squad that still had just a bit of bite left.

In 2009, the Pens surpassed the Wings, in 2010, the Hawks did with help from the Sharks. It was indirectly in succession. As a Wings fan, I can’t help but feel this being the main reason why the future looks so bleak. You can cry “SALARY CAP!!!!” for the Wings, but the Penguins and Blackhawks have both won since 2008, maneuvered their way around the cap to either rebuild like the Hawks or reload like the Pens. Their respective cores remain in tact and entering their prime and they’re both heading back to the ring with title belts already on their shoulders.

This reason is why I view the Blackhawks (and son of legendary coach Scotty) Stan Bowman and the Penguins Ray Shero as the best two GMs in the league.

Since 2010, Chicago had to cut important pieces like Dustin Byfuglien, a rugged forward who scored 11 playoff goals and manhandled Flyers hall of fame defenseman Chris Pronger in the finals. Adding to the list of post-title departures in Chicago is Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg, Brian Campbell and goaltender Antti Niemi. In their place, the Hawks drafted Brandon Saad, Nick Leddy, Bryan Bickell and Corey Crawford then traded for the likes of Viktor Stalberg and Johnny Oduya.

The Penguins stayed strong through injuries to Crosby and Malkin by making savvy trades for Paul Martin, Matt Niskanen, James Neal and Brandon Sutter. Neal has especially shined, tied with teammate Chris Kunitz for the league lead in power play goals (8), parking in front of the net while Crosby and Malkin do the dirty work.

Meanwhile the Wings have meek second and first round playoff exits, with Datysuk, Zetterberg and Kronwall all in their thirties and a history of nagging injuries. Yes, there is some hope in the development of Tomas Tatar, Joakim Andersson, Damien Brunner, Brenden Smith and Brian Lashoff, but I suppose the difference is the Blackhawks and Penguins were able to trade and draft in a rapid turnaround back to power, whereas the marinade seems long to set in for Detroit.

The NHL was formerly a league of rotating dynasties. The Candiens gave way to the Flyers, back to the Canadiens to the Islanders to the Oilers to the (Lemuiex era) Penguins and then a cluster of cups between the Devils, Avalanche and Wings. Beginning with the Penguins in 1990, championship teams were built by importing star-power, making aggressive trades and free-agent signings for proven-superstar talent. In the salary cap era, we will never see imported “super-teams” like the 1991-92 Penguins and 2001-02 Red Wings. If super-teams beget dynasties, the Blackhawks and Crosby-led-Penguins will light the way with drafted talent and shrewd transactions.

It’s painful to see the Wings two biggest recent rivals display such dominance, seemingly leaving us in the previous decade. Unfortunately for us but fortunately for the NHL, the Penguins and Blackhawks look to be battling for supremacy for years to come.

 

Kyle Bauer is an award winning college sports broadcaster and former Sports Director of WXOU 88.3fm, freelance journalist and radio producer who has been published in The Macomb Daily, mlive.com, Oakland Post and MIPREPZONE.com, follow him on Twitter @kyle_bauer