At the beginning of the season, there was a tremendous amount of talk regarding how good the Penguins and the Blackhawks would be. Many “experts” were picking these two teams to represent their respective conferences in next year’s Stanley Cup Finals. So far this season, neither has impressed. I realize it is early in the season, but there are reasons for concern about both teams.
Let’s start with the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks. Every time I read an article about them, I play the “How Many Times will the Word Core Appear in this Article” game. Yes, they have a tremendous group of high level players. Toews, Kane, and Hossa are three great forwards, Duncan Keith is the reigning Norris Trophy winner and young enough to add more of those to his collection, and Brent Seabrook is a terrific second fiddle to Keith. Dave Bolland is a very nice defensive minded forward, Patrick Sharp is a good all-around player and the team’s second pair defense is better than average with Hjalmarsson and Campbell (at $7.5 mil per season, he’s ridiculously overpriced, but that’s a different conversation).
It is the next group of players that has me concerned. It is no secret that Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, John Madden, and Antti Niemi all played key roles in the ‘Hawks Stanley Cup victory. To replace these players with the likes of Viktor Stahlberg, Fernando Pisani, Jake Dowell, Jack Skille, and Marty Turco, one would have to expect a decrease in overall performance. Byfuglien and Versteeg are top six caliber forwards, only Skille from this list has the potential to be that good this season. No one on that list can play defense, win face-offs, and provide the veteran leadership that left with Madden. And I have never seen Marty Turco play as well in the playoffs as Niemi did in the San Jose and Vancouver series. Now that Chicago has started the season 1-2-1 with uninspired play from Turco, and losing at home to the Predators (last season’s first round opponent) one cannot help questioning the legitimacy of their Cup contender status.
The Penguins are in a completely different situation and I have more faith that the early start is not necessarily indicative of overhyped expectations. However, there are some things about the first four games that are concerning.
First and foremost, this team misses Sergei Gonchar. Alex Goligoski has produced on the power play, but it just doesn’t feel as smooth and controlled as it has in the past with Gonchar in the lineup. The fact that there has been production is nice, and the season is young with time for everything to develop and settle down. But from what I have seen so far, there is reason to believe the Penguins’ power play may see a dip in effectiveness this season. The other big issue that has reared its ugly head in the early goings is the play of Marc-Andre Fluery. His performance against the Leafs was downright awful. There is no way a contending team should ever lose a game 4-3 when they only allow 14 shots on goal. The team did everything it could to win that game, but Fluery lost it for them. He now stands at 0-3 on the season with an .853 save percentage allowing 10 goals on only 68 shots faced. In no way do I think his numbers will be that low all season, but teams don’t win Cups with goaltenders that lose them games. His inconsistency has hurt them in the past in the playoffs and he needed a good start to the year to silence his critics. All he has done so far is turn up their volume.
Overall, the Penguins stand a much better chance at winning the Cup this season than the Blackhawks do. With Jordan Staal skating, Pittsburgh will see improved play from their forwards. If the power play can settle down and be effective the whole season, and Fluery can play in the playoffs the way he did two years ago, the Penguins could win it all. For the ‘Hawks, I just don’t see how you can lose that much talent and depth at forward and still win consistently. Other Western Conference teams have improved since last season and I don’t see Chicago having the depth to overcome the injuries and grind of the playoffs.