With fewer than three weeks to go until the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, it is not too soon to ponder what life in the NHL will be like for teams after the Olympic break. Who benefits? Who gets hurt? And most importantly, will the NHL have another crazy playoff reminiscent of how things unfolded in 2006, the last time the players travelled to Europe to compete in an Olympic Games?
The question is worth asking in the context of the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks who have had a wholly admirable start to the NHL season and just had 72 hours to remember.
Every year, in the NHL’s post-dynasty era, the defending Stanley Cup champions are obliged to answer questions about a Stanley Cup hangover because it has been a tangible, identifiable fact of life for going on 15 years now.
As recently as the 2010-11 season, it was a major plot line after the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup and then sputtered their way through the next season, barely qualifying for the playoffs by getting the eighth spot in the Western Conference standings and then losing out to the Vancouver Canucks in the opening round.
There was ample reason to fear that something similar might occur this time around. The Blackhawks didn’t seal their Stanley Cup victory until June 24 of last year, thanks to the NHL lockout, one of the latest finishes in NHL history. Training camps then opened earlier than usual to accommodate the 18-day Olympic break. Opening night was Oct. 1. For comparative purposes, consider that the 2012-13 season was scheduled to open Oct. 11, had there been no lockout.
Accordingly, it was a short summer at both ends of the spectrum for the Blackhawks, so their ability to sail through the first 48 games of the season without missing too many beats is actually quite extraordinary. The reality is, there has been no real reason to talk about a Stanley Cup hangover. The Blackhawks were 30-8-10 through the first 48 games this season, not far off the record pace they established last year when they went 36-7-5 in the shortened 48-game season, which also included 24 games to start the season without recording a regulation loss.
But the problem with having such a strong team is that most of the difference makers on the Blackhawks are all going to Sochi, including their top five scorers (Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Marian Hossa). So the question they will need to pose internally is, how to manage their ice time down the stretch so that when the playoffs finally begin in mid-April, there is still enough gas left in the tank for another two-month push?
Because apart from the random injury factor, which no team can protect against, the Blackhawks look strong enough on paper to win it all again, which would make them the first team since the 1997 and 1998 Detroit Red Wings to manage the trick.
Chicago had a nice weekend, knocking off the Anaheim Ducks at home to begin things Friday night in a meeting of the West’s top two teams, and then the Boston Bruins in a Sunday matinee that was also a rematch of last year’s Stanley Cup final. In the West, the Blackhawks and Ducks ran 1-2 during last year’s regular season and if Anaheim hadn’t been upset in the opening round by the Red Wings, they might have given Chicago a legitimate run, given how they dominated the season series a year ago.
So for that reason, it was important for the Blackhawks to establish a tone in case the two teams meet again in this year’s playoff. The Ducks have a lot of Olympians as well, as do the St. Louis Blues, who are giving the Blackhawks a run for their money atop the Central Division. St. Louis has had a pretty good year against Chicago and may have the greatest depth of any of the legitimate Western Conference contenders to deal with the fatigue and the injury factor.
For anyone who’s forgotten, 2006 – the year of the Turin Olympics – provided one of the craziest postseasons in NHL history, where each of the top four teams in the Western Conference was upset in the opening playoff run. In the end, it was the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers that came out of the West and faced the Carolina Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup final. Both teams turned out to be one-hit wonders.
The Oilers haven’t made the playoffs since and the Hurricanes have only made them once in the last seven years.
But it illustrates how an Olympics involving extensive travel, jet lag and the possibility of injuries to star players can wreak havoc with any organization’s best-laid plans. On paper, the Blackhawks look as if they have no weakness. The only real question they need to answer – and they won’t know definitively until all is said and done – is how much energy does an Olympics take out a player and what will be the effect of that come crunch time?
CAPTAIN CROSBY: To the surprise of absolutely no one, Hockey Canada named Sidney Crosby captain of the 2014 men’s Olympic hockey team, replacing Scott Niedermayer, who did the job so admirably during the gold-medal run in 2010. Crosby was a 22-year-old first-time Olympian in Vancouver and though his name had been mentioned as possible captain material even back then, Hockey Canada made an intelligent choice to give the ’C’ to Niedermayer, on the grounds that Crosby would have enough pressure to deal with just in terms of playing the games, without trying to take on the captaincy as well. Niedermayer and his fellow veteran Chris Pronger did most of the heavy lifting – which in a short tournament involves mostly keeping the lines of communication open between the players and the coaching staff – and ensuring the players would buy in to the program the coaches were selling. Canada had a few stumbles early in the preliminary round in Vancouver as they tried to sort through line combinations, but compared to other Olympics, where the chemistry never came around, the leadership group in Vancouver did an excellent job of acting as facilitators and blocking out the constant noise that surrounded the team.
Now, four years later, it is fair to say that this is Crosby’s team; and it is Crosby’s time. He is naturally the spokesman for what is a younger group overall – and he will be ably assisted by Chicago Blackhawks’ captain Jonathan Toews, aka Captain Serious, who is considered one of the best young leaders in the game. The Nashville Predators’ Shea Weber is the other assistant captain, chosen over two more experienced defencemen (Duncan Keith and Jay Bouwmeester). About the only other player who might have been given some consideration for a letter was Ducks centre Ryan Getzlaf, who has emerged as an excellent leader on the NHL’s No. 1 team. Looking through the list of Canadian players makes you realize that the current edition of the squad is composed of a lot of quiet, low-key personalities. Apart from PK Subban of the Montreal Canadiens and perhaps Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings, it is not a gabby group. Leadership may come less through words and more by deeds and will be distributed through the dressing room, a point coach Mike Babcock made in a statement through Hockey Canada. “Sidney, Jonathan and Shea have been leaders on the international stage in the past, as well as with their NHL teams,” said Babcock. “These three players will be at the forefront of our efforts in Sochi, but we are confident we have 25 players on our roster that will lead in their own way and allow our team to be successful.”
THIS AND THAT: History of a kind was made in Saturday’s wild game between the San Jose Sharks and the Tampa Bay Lightning, when first Martin St. Louis and then Joe Pavelski each scored a natural hat trick (three consecutive goals) in what finished as a 5-4 Sharks’ victory. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that had only happened three previous times in NHL history – once back in 2006 (Ryan Smyth of Edmonton; Jonathan Cheechoo of San Jose), the other two times almost a century ago (Jack Darragh of Ottawa and Didier Pitre of Montreal on Jan. 16, 1919 and Frank Nighbor and Cy Denneny, both of Ottawa, on Mar. 6, 1918. St. Louis has been on a scoring tear of late since he was overlooked for Canada’s 2014 men’s Olympic team. He is up to 10th in the overall scoring race and tied for third in goals at 25 ... Speaking of Cheechoo, who won the 2006 Rocket Richard award for the NHL’s top scorer, he is now playing in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League and seemingly thriving, having qualified for the league’s annual all-star game, which occurred last weekend in Bratislava, Slovakia. Also involved in that game: Former NHL coach Mike Keenan, who replaced Paul Maurice as the head coach of Evgeni Malkin’s former team, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, this season ... The Columbus Blue Jackets came up one spot short of the playoffs last season, thanks to a fabulous second-half finish and they’re seemingly at it again now that goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is back healthy and playing well again. The Blue Jackets tied a club record by winning their sixth game in a row Saturday night. In the crowded Eastern Conference standings, they are one of three teams tied for the final playoff berth with 52 points ... Ryan Clowe, the former Sharks top-six winger, had a miserable, injury-filled first half with his new team, the New Jersey Devils, but he has provided a scoring spark since his return to the lineup and through Sunday, had recorded three multi-point games in his last four outings (2-4-6). The Devils need someone to take the pressure off Jaromir Jagr, who is closing in on 700 career goals. This week, he’s up to 696.
AND FINALLY: For the first time in a long time, goaltending doesn’t appear to be an issue for the Philadelphia Flyers, who locked up Steve Mason for three years on a $12.3-million extension this past week. The Flyers were understandably unwilling to commit to Mason on a longer term because he has only just got his game back on the rails this year, after three underachieving years with the Columbus Blue Jackets. The fact that he is playing so well in a city known as a goalie graveyard is worth applauding (and maybe helped along by goalie whisperer Jeff Reese). Mason is currently playing on a one-year, $1.5-million deal he signed with the Flyers to prove that he belonged in the NHL. The new contract bumps him to $4.1-million per season and he will be 29 and an unrestricted free agent when it expires in 2017.
Follow me on Twitter: @eduhatschek