In June of 2010, the Chicago Blackhawks won their first Stanley Cup in 49 years. Not even a week later, GM Stan Bowman hosted the first fire sale of his young career by trading away (and in Antti Niemi’s case, walking away from) a number of valuable championship pieces and role players, namely Kris Versteeg, Ben Eager, Brent Sopel, Andrew Ladd, and fan-favorite Dustin Byfuglien, in order to free up major salary cap space and maintain the core the future. It was a tough pill to swallow at first, but there was no way around it. Players of Byfuglien’s caliber deserve to be paid and, unfortunately, it was next to impossible for the Blackhawks to sign his next pay check. The NHL is a business; we get hurt, we pick ourselves up, and we move on. That’s the nature of all sports.
Just three years later, Bowman’s plan proved to pay off royally. The Blackhawks were crowned 2013 Stanley Cup Champions, but as evidenced by the aforementioned summer just three short years ago, Bowman wasted no time getting back to work and proved, yet again, that he simply does not dick around. Merely six days after winning the Cup, Bowman simultaneously shipped half of the “17 Second Duo”, Dave Bolland, to his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs for three future draft picks, and Michael Frolik to the Winnipeg Jets for two draft picks in Sunday night’s draft.
Bolland will be entering the final year of a five-year, $16.8 million contract that carries an annual average value of $3.3 million, while Frolik has one year and $1.9 million left on his contract. These two trades got the Blackhawks to just over $11.2 million under the salary cap, giving them more than enough cap leeway to bring back the other half of the “17 Second Duo” and postseason hero Bryan Bickell at a team-friendly four-year, $16 million contract. Fresh off his coming-of-age season, Bickell ranked second on the team (post-season) in goals (9) and points (17), first amongst forwards in +/- (+11), first in hits (85) and first in shot percentage (18.4%). The 27-year-old left wing was absolutely huge, literally and figuratively, down the stretch, and given the home town discount that he was willing to take, it’s impossible to find any glaring downsides associated with this contract. After losing that monstrous front-of-the-net presence in Dustin Byfuglien after the first Cup run, Bowman saw the true value in maintaining a brutally hard-hitting wing in Bickell and chose not to let him walk for nothing. A+ for him.
Bolland and Frolik will be missed, but they are certainly not irreplaceable. Bolland gave it a great 7+ year run in Chicago, having scored 70 goals and recording 98 assists in 332 regular season games. He will forever be remembered and cherished by fans for his fantastic play throughout the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs (eight goals and eight assists, three of each coming in the Stanley Cup against Philadelphia) and for his Cup-clinching goal in Game 6 against Boston.
The timing to trade Bolland could not have been better, however, as the continuous injuries that have ailed him throughout his career (including throughout the postseason) may have been over-shadowed by the defining moment of his career last Monday night. Bolland is a good player, but those injuries have significantly prevented him from becoming great, as his average time on ice during the regular season decreased by well over a full minute since 2011 (17:39 to 16:20) and stood at a career low 13:30 during the 2013 postseason. He also proved to be one of, if not the, worst at winning faceoffs on the team (39.3% in 2010 playoffs, 42.5% in 2013 playoffs). Hockey enthusiasts will always appreciate the playoff memories he brought to fans around the country, but Stan Bowman made the right decision to move his expiring contract now and get assets in return. We can only wish him nothing but the best as he looks to improve an up-and-coming Maple Leafs team up north.
Frolik, whom Bowman acquired near the trade deadline back in February 2011, had a major impact on the Blackhawks’ success over the past two and a half seasons, specifically on the penalty kill and in this past playoff run. After a down year in 2011-12, the 25-year-old bounced back to identify himself as a central part of the third-ranked penalty kill in the league. Frolik helped that unit kill an incredible 62-of-70 power plays in 23 postseason games, good for 90.8%. On top of that, he recorded a very solid ten playoff points (three goals, seven assists), including the game winning goal on the road in Game 6 of the Western Conference Semis against Detroit to keep the Blackhawks’ playoff hopes alive, as well as four assists against Boston in the Cup. The positive impact Frolik had over the past couple of months cannot be understated; unfortunately, the young talent that the Blackhawks have in the pipeline has made Frolik expendable, as they are grooming some of that talent (and even Brandon Saad) to step in for him and take over on the PK as we speak. Winnipeg has picked up yet another great piece in Frolik from one of the two Blackhawk Stanley Cup teams (Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd) to add to their ever-improving squad and help improve their 24th ranked penalty-killing unit.
None of us can say right now what other moves Stan Bowman has left up his sleeve, but there are a plethora of decisions that have yet to be made. Michal Handzus and Michal Rozsival are amongst the unrestricted free agents who have expressed interest in staying in Chicago. Marcus Kruger and Nick Leddy are young, restricted free agents but coming off somewhat disappointing postseasons. UFA Viktor Stalberg, twice benched by Joel Quenneville during the post season, is eyeing major minutes with a chance to play as a top-six forward and will likely not be back. Ray Emery, despite his fantastic 17-1-0 season, will surely not be coming back either after the Hawks came to terms on a one-year deal with Finnish goaltender Antti Raanta, who led the Finnish league in goals-against average and save percentage this past season. Highly touted youngsters Jimmy Hayes, Brandon Pirri, Jeremy Morin and Ben Smith are all waiting in the wings and pushing for a spot in the lineup next season. Trading Bolland and Frolik in order to re-sign Bickell was the first of what should be many smart decisions to come, as Bowman has proven time and again that he knows what it takes to build a consistent winner in the NHL. Only time will tell whether those decisions will increase or decrease the Blackhawks’ chances of winning yet another Stanley Cup.
The Conn Smythe Trophy winner is one of the most forgotten about awards throughout the four major sports. In fact, many intelligent sports fans (outside of hockey diehards) don’t even know what the Conn Smythe Trophy is – I’ve heard it being mistaken as an alias for the Stanley Cup and the league’s best goaltender, amongst other dumb things – which is quite sad. What exactly is it, you ask? Why, it’s the MVP of the NHL Playoffs, hombre. Time to get yourself out from underneath that rock you’ve been living under pronto.
If some douche bag were to hold a gun to your head and force you to name the past three NBA Finals MVPs and Super Bowl MVPs, could name ‘em? You’re damn right you could (I hope). Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Lebron James, Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning, Joe Flacco. See how easy that was? You just saved your own life. But if that same douche bag were to hold a gun to your head and force you to name the past three Conn Smythe Trophy winners? Unless you’re able to spew out “Jonathan Toews, Tim Thomas, and Jonathan Quick” without hesitation, you’ve got a bullet through your skull before you even get a chance to ask “What’s a Conn Smythe?”
With that, it’s time to show a little appreciation for the most sought after award (in my humble opinion) outside of the Stanley Cup. Let’s break down the frontrunners, trailers and long shots, by team, for the 2013 Conn Smythe Trophy Award.
Frontrunner: Corey Crawford, G
Corey Crawford has been nothing short of sensational between the pipes this postseason. The man came into the Cup with a hot hand, and he kept that hand aflame after his performance in the triple overtime thriller against Boston on Wednesday night. After the 51 saves (in 54 chances), albeit in 112 minutes, that he recorded in Game 1, his playoff-leading goals against average (GAA) improved to an astonishing 1.73, and his save percentage (SV%) now stands at .936. This has been a coming-of-age season for Double C Cup (a nickname I totally just made up), and he contains all the makeup and talent necessary to become one of the best goaltenders in all of hockey. If Crawford continues to stonewall Boston the way he did in those three overtimes and leads Chicago to its second Cup in four years, the 2013 Conn Smythe will be his for the rest of eternity.
Trailer: Marian Hossa, RW
As expected, 34-year-old Marian Hossa has been a model of consistency for this young Blackhawks team. His presence alone has made him as valuable as any over the past four years, and without his four combined points in elimination Games 5-7 against Detroit in the Western Conference semifinals, who really knows where this team would be? Quietly, behind all the Kane/Toews/Bickell talk, Hossa currently leads the team with 15 points (7 goals, 8 assists) this postseason, leads all Chicago forwards and centers with a +8 +/- rating, ranks second on the team in shot percentage (.121) for anyone with over 40 shots on goal, and ranks first on the team in game winning goals (tied with three others) with two. Interestingly enough, the Hawks are 11-1 thus far when Hossa records a point and 2-4 when he fails to do so. That’s how valuable he has been. If the Hawks win the Cup behind an unexpected pedestrian performance from Crawford, the Conn Smythe crown should be Hossa’s to claim.
Longshot: Bryan Bickell, LW
Late-bloomer Bryan Bickell has taken over Dustin Byfuglien’s role as the enforcer of the Hawks offense throughout this playoff run. After spending his first few seasons as a benchwarmer, Bickell finally came into his own as a legitimate left wing in this league. During the 2010 Stanley Cup run, he played four games total; during this one, he hasn’t missed a game, leading the team with 64 hits and a .222 shooting percentage (only 36 shots on goal, but still). He has been extremely physical and enormously clutch, scoring game winning goals in Game 1 against Minnesota, Game 2 against Los Angeles, as well as goal in Games 5 and 6 against Detroit and Game 4 against Los Angeles again. It seems that every season, one player from the Stanley Cup winning team comes out from the mediocrity closet and busts right onto the scene when the playoffs begin. Bickell has been that guy this year, and he’s earned himself the generous pay day that will surely come to him. Unfortunately, his chances of winning the Conn Smythe are remote, but you can never say never, I guess.
Frontrunner: Tuuka Rask, G
Tuuka Rask, like Crawford, came into the Cup scorching hot – so hot that it was almost frightening to think about. The Hawks got to Rask late in Game 1, but he still managed to save 59 out of 63 shots from going into his net. The four goals he gave up, though, are twice the amount he gave up against Pittsburgh during their four-game sweep. Outside of a few other four goal games earlier against Toronto and New York, Rask has been an absolute wall while recording a 1.78 GAA and .942 SV%. Tim Thomas posted a 1.98 GAA and .940 SV% en route to his MVP award in 2011; Jonathan Quick posted a 1.41 GAA and .946 SV% en route to his MVP award in 2012. If Rask continues at this pace, and the Bruins win the Cup, he should win the award when it’s all said and done.
Trailer: David Krejci, C
David Krejci continues to be one of the best players for the Boston Bruins, and one of the most underrated players in the league. A true winner, Krejci tends to save his best for big moments, as evidenced by his hat tricks in Game 6 against Tampa Bay in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals and Game 4 against Toronto in the opening round this season. As he did in the 2011 playoffs, Krejci leads the Bruins with 23 points (including a team-leading nine goals and 14 assists), and he ranks second in +/- (+15) and shooting percentage (.191). He has two game-winning goals thus far and has proven to be Boston’s most valuable offensive player at this moment in time. The race to win the Conn Smythe should be neck and neck between Rask and Krejci for the rest of the way.
Longshot: Nathan Horton, RW
This spot is a complete toss-up between Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic, not because the former had to leave Game 1 with a reported “chronic left shoulder subluxation,” but because they both bring very positive characteristics to the table in different ways. Lucic is much more physical (72 hits to Horton’s 22), but Horton gets the edge because he leads the team, by a wide margin, with a +22 +/- rating, ranks second in points (18) and goals (7), and has been the most accurate shooter on the team (.221). There’s a very slim chance, if any, that Horton wins this award, especially if he has to miss any time with that banged up shoulder, but that’s more of a testament to Rask and Krejci than anything else.
I picked the Hawks in 6 and I’m sticking with that, so I’ll take Corey Crawford in this little race for the MVP prize.
Two Original Six teams. Two of the four biggest sports markets in America. Two of the deepest teams in the NHL with two of the hottest goaltenders to date. The 2013 Stanley Cup finals has all the makings of something truly historical, containing two teams who know a thing or two about winning a championship. This will be the first playoff meeting between the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins since 1978 and the first time they even share the ice together since October 2011. The roller coaster ride to get to this point has been a hell of a lot bumpier than your typical fan would prefer. There have been flashes of dominance: Boston’s shocking sweep of The Golden Boy and his Penguins, Chicago’s comfortable 4-1 series win over the former champs; there have been flashes of desperation: Boston’s unforgettable come-from-behind Game 7 win to stun the Toronto Maple Leafs after suffering a 4-1 deficit in the third period, Chicago’s ability to win three straight elimination games over the Detroit Red Wings. But in another 35 years, most hockey fans will look back on the 2013 season and only remember the best-of-seven ride that lies ahead – a ride that will inevitably end in thrill for one team and nausea for the other.
Nearly every major contributor on this Bruins team was a part of their 2011 Stanley Cup run. David Krejci, Milan Lucic, and Nathan Horton make up one of the, if not the, strongest first line in all of hockey. Krejci recorded 23 points 12 goals, 11 assists) en rout to the Cup two years ago; he already has 21 points (9 goals, 12 assists) this postseason. Him, Lucic and Horton lead all playoff qualifiers with a +/- of +14, +13 and +21, respectively. The chemistry between those three is as good as chemistry can possibly get (somewhere Carmelo Anthony is shrugging upon hearing such a word), so one can only hope that the Blackhawk defense can find a way to slow the trio down. Patrice Bergeron (two game-winning goals in OT) and his little bitch side kick, Brad Marchand, the 5’9 pest who opposing players and fans looove to hate, round out a very formidable and threatening offfense. 87-year-old Jaromir Jagr is playing in his first Stanley Cup since 1992 but has probably had somewhat of an affect on Boston’s improvement from 2.65 GF/G during the regular season (13th) to 3.13 GF/G during the postseason (2nd).
As for the Hawks, we all know the story by now: incredible depth and star power. Patrick Kane, whose head was being called for by many irrational fans for not scoring a goal in seven consecutive playoff games, came through in a monstrous way with a goal in Game 4 against LA and a hat trick in Game 5 to punch Chicago’s ticket to the Cup. But while Jonathan Toews has struggled mightily and has yet to score his second playoff goal, it’s been the play of unsung heroes that can’t be overshadowed. Bryan Bickell has officially earned himself a massive pay day come July with his unpredicatble eight playoff goals; veteran center Michal Handzus has chipped in nine points in 17 playoff games; and lightning rod Andrew Shaw has provided an emotional and physical spark that this team has seemed to lack at various points throughout the postseason. Overall, 12 different Blackhawks have scored goals during this playoff run. Hopefully, those very unsung heroes can rise to the occasion for one last series.
The Bruin defense is headlined by the three-headed monster of Zdeno Chara, Johnny Boychuk and Adam McQuaid. Chara, who stands at a relatively large 6’9 255 pounds, is a straight-up behemoth. He is literally 7’0 tall on skates, which would make shit seep through the pants and leak down the inner thigh of most normal people were he to ever come at anyone at full speed on ice. There’s no doubt in my mind that I would drop dead immediately after receiving a forecheck from a man of that size – I would probably suffer a heart attack just from the sight of his approach – which makes me think that breaking an opponent’s bone or two from a simple check into the boards isn’t all that uncommon for Chara.
All joking aside, given his size, Chara is as good a defenseman as there is in this league. As expected, he leads all Bruin defensemen with 53 hits to go along with 11 points and a +/- rating of +12. He makes a huge impact on the power play as well with his deadly slap shot, his knack for effectively screening the opposing goaltender with his girthy frame, and his ability to successfully move the puck from the point.
Boychuk comes into the Cup with a league-leading 55 blocked shots (it’s not even close), and his 48 hits ranks him third amongst defensemen (behind Seabrook and Chara). 6’5 Adam McQuaid, fresh off his game-winning goal in Boston’s Game 4 shutout of Pittsburgh, has been solid as well with 36 hits and 27 blocked shots.
The Niklas Hjalmarsson/Johnny Oduya blue-line combo has been arguably as good as, if not better than, the more popular Duncan Keith/Brent Seabrook combo. The former two quietly lead the team in both +/- rating at +10 and +9, respectively, and blocked shots with 32 apiece. Keith is undoubtedly the best defenseman on the roster, and the fact that Chicago was able to steal Game 4 in LA without him will forever be beyond my comprehension. But given the second line’s current level of play, I shouldn’t have been as worried heading into that game. Hjalmarsson and Oduya may not be as big and physical as the Boston blue-liners (leave that to Seabrook and his 58 hits), but their under-appreciated chemistry and finesse have made them as valuable as a second defensive line can be. The extreme difference in style of play between these two opposing defenses is one of the more intriguing story lines out there.
Two summers ago, it was difficult to imagine a goaltender performing at a higher level than the one that Tim Thomas displayed for Boston during their Stanley Cup run. Thomas recorded an astounding 1.98 goals against average (GAA) and .940 save percentage (SV%) and earned himself the Conn Smythe Trophy award. Outside of the shockingly mortal Jonathan Quick (who blew those numbers away last year), no net-minder in recent memory has risen to that level… until Tuuka Rask came along this spring. Behind his 1.75 GAA and .943 SV%, Rask is coming off a series in which he completely stonewalled the Beasts of the East, allowing just two goals in four games and turning in an outrageous 53 saves in Boston’s thrilling double overtime win in Game 3. He’s got the hot hand, and it’s downright scary.
Corey Crawford, however, comes in with a hot hand of his own. After a couple of fairly mediocre postseasons between the pipes (2.21 GAA, .927 SV% against Vancouver in ’11; 2.58 GAA, .893 SV% against Phoenix in ’12), he leads all playoff goaltenders with a 1.74 GAA and ranks second behind Rask with a .935 SV%. The former second-round draft pick has come into his own and become the man we all hoped to see him become – a man we can finally feel comfortable riding for many springs to come – and has yet to ride even a sliver of pine (save for empty net situations) throughout this entire postseason run. If Crawford can improve upon his weakness of occasionally allowing a soft goal slip through the pipes and figure out a way to corral more pucks to avoid second-chance opportunities for the opponent, he will surely come to be known as one of best goalies in the league. Period.
At this juncture of the season, all hope for Chicago’s power play is pretty much lost. After a 1-for-14 showing against LA, the Hawks are now chillin’ at a 13.7% conversion rate on the PP. Boston’s penalty killing unit, on the other hand, has gone from middle of the pack amongst playoff teams to more lethal than one could’ve imagined, holding Pittsburgh and their godly PP unit (28.3% before the series) scoreless (yes – scoreless) in 15 tries during their four-game sweep. Boston and its PK unit are playing some inspired hockey at the most opportune time. Needless to say, this clash does not bode well for Chicago.
The good news, though? Boston’s power play is nearly just as bad, having gone 7-for-45 (15.6%) in one-man advantages thus far. Chicago may have given up two surprising power play goals in the conference finals, but their PK unit, as always, remains deadlier than “The Night Stalker” (too soon?) with a league-leading 94.8% PK%. In a series where both teams simply refuse to give in during shorthanded situations, one measly power play goal could be the overriding difference in a game which, in turn, could end up being the difference in the series as a whole. Let’s just hope that one measly puck finds a way to scoot past Tuuka Rask’s crease and not that of Corey Crawford.
I picked the Hawks in five over Detroit; they won in seven. I picked the Hawks in seven over LA; they won in five. What’s the median between the two? Six.
Your 2013 Stanley Cup Champion? The Chicago Blackhawks. In 6.