Simmons: Are Blackhawks greatest team in past 25 years?
The great New York Islanders team of the 1980s did something that will never be matched again: Not only did they win four consecutive Stanley Cups — no team has done that since — but they won 19 playoff series in a row.
The superb freewheeling Edmonton Oilers team that knocked out the Islanders in 1984 with Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier won four Cups in five seasons — and after Gretzky was traded won another startling one to make it five in seven seasons.
All that came before salary caps, before advanced free agency, before analytics, before there was a 30-team National Hockey League. Impressive and amazing, yes.
But as the Chicago Blackhawks gear towards a fourth Stanley Cup in eight years — with six staple players who have been through all of it — you’re left to wonder: If they win this year, are they more accomplished than the five-time champion Oilers and four-time champion Islanders?
Is this the greatest team of the past 25 years? And as the playoffs are about to begin, another question about the Blackhawks: Can anyone beat them?
The Western Conference isn’t as structured or deep as it has been in recent years.
The Los Angeles Kings didn’t make the playoffs. The Anaheim Ducks don’t scare people the way they used to. Last year’s finalists, the San Jose Sharks, have looked done most of the past 20 games. The Edmonton Oilers are playoff newbies, even with sure-thing Hart Trophy and Art Ross winner Connor McDavid leading them. Who knows how ready they’re going to be? The St. Louis Blues have a thinned out roster from other seasons. The Minnesota Wild, deep as they be, struggled in the second half. And really, can anyone see Nashville or Calgary beating the Hawks?
They are that strong, that deep, that well coached, that organized and that well run. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane have been there for all three Cups to date, as has Marian Hossa up front. On the backend, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Nik Hjalmarsson have combined to play 365 playoff games and been there for all the Cups. Corey Crawford, with two Cups, may be hockey’s most under-appreciated big game goaltender.
And that’s just the start of the Hawks roster. This could be the deepest and strongest contender yet from Chicago. If there’s one thing that is absolutely consistent with coach Joel Quenneville, it’s trust. If he trusts you, if he believes in you, you become a prominent player in his rotation.
He has the three stalwarts on defence — and he won at least one Cup basically playing four defencemen — but he has added familiar parts this year, with general manager Stan Bowman bringing back veterans Brian Campbell and Johnny Oduya, both ex-Blackhawks coming home, combined with 205 playoff games of experience.
Imagine a Western Conference Final between the Blackhawks and the Oilers? Chicago with well over 1,200 games of playoff experience on their roster, most of it coming from their best players. The best Oilers? McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, goalie Cam Talbot, are basically playoff neophytes. Milan Lucic, who sometimes looks important, has played more than 100 games post season. The rest of the team: barely 200 games combined and mostly in places where they were after-thought players.
The Blackhawks seem to have everything. Terrific leadership from Toews and Seabrook. Explosive offence from Kane and Artemi Panarin. The great minutes muncher, Keith, on defence. And something they haven’t had in their three previous Stanley Cup seasons: quality kids to complete the roster.
With the last pick in the first round of the 2013 draft, the Blackhawks chose Ryan Hartman, who scored 22 goals in his first NHL season. With their first pick in 2014, they took speedy Nick Schmaltz, who ended up with 28 points in 61 games. The Blackhawks bely history by succeeding with late choices — and not necessarily waiting years for those players to develop.
In the past year they also added Richard Panik, whom the Maple Leafs and other teams had no use for, who turned into a 22 goal scorer in Chicago.
They didn’t have this combination of power, strength, experience and depth up front — especially with this many kids — in other Stanley Cup runs. After winning in 2010, they won again in 2013 and 2015. This is 2017: Can anybody in the West knock them out?
And what about the East?
This should be the year for the Washington Capitals, after so many this-should-be-the-year seasons. The defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, with injuries to too many people, are playing on fumes. Montreal, the Rangers and Columbus have goaltenders, Ottawa has a superb defenceman, Toronto has the rookies of the year, Boston is slow.
Could the Capitals beat the Blackhawks? Maybe. But I’d bet it the other way.
This is a team that understands winning and has a chance to make more history this playoff season. Win the Cup and you put this team alongside the Oilers and the Islanders. The greatest teams of our lives.