Ahh, another weekday, and another set of rambling thoughts from everyone's favorite tribunal of numbskulls. First, I would like to apologize for this post coming so late in the day, but at the risk of being called a sellout by both Sam and Matt, I'm actually now gainfully employed, and today was my first day. Probably not a good idea to be blogging while filling out W-4s, but I'm sure stranger things have happened.
Alright, enough of my bullshit, let's make with the hockey. Last year's Hawks team featured a few players with breakout years, and some others who stumbled after high off season hopes. Kris Versteeg and Dave Bolland fit into the former category, and Dustin Byfuglien the latter (at least the regular season incarnation of Buff). So who are the surprises going to be this year, of both the good and bad variety?
So, let's start with the negative stuff, because, well, that's more fun for me. While I realize that I just mentioned Kris Versteeg as one of the pleasant surprises of last season, coming from nowhere to become a Calder trophy finalist, his play down the stretch and into the playoffs when teams were keying on him left a lot to be desired. And this isn't necessarily from a point production-standpoint. His continued refusal to dump the puck when the neutral zone was a constant frustration for this observer, and Versteeg exhibited a fair amount of immaturity with a few selfish penalties, particularly in Game 4 against Scum. With fresh paper this summer, and teams now having a season's worth of game film on him, Versteeg seems poised for a down year akin to Byfuglien's last year. I hope my feelings are misguided, but all the warning signs are there.
A case could also be made for Patrick Kane to have a down year after all the off-season controversy, but I think that the little shit is simply too talented and will have too many weapons around him for him to significantly fall off from his first two year's numbers.
On the positive side of the ledger there are few Hawks that seem like they could begin to make a name for themselves in the league this year. Coming off a strong late-season and playoff push as Brian Campbell's even strength partner, Niklas Hjalmarsson, appears ready for prime-time as a top 4 defenseman. During the tail end of the season, Hammer seemed to finally figure things out from both a speed and positioning standpoint, as well as exhibit quite a bit of hockey smarts. If paired with the free-wheeling Soupy for the majority of the time, his actual scoring numbers may not reflect his maturation, but his hockey sabermetric and +/- numbers should. If he can stay healthy and add a modicum of physicality to his excellent positioning, the Hawks could very well end up boasting one of, if not the best defensive corps in the league.
Similarly, a player whose breakout may not be reflected in the traditional stats is Andrew Ladd. If, as is expected by many, Ladd is regularly playing with John Madden, both at even strength and in shorthanded situations, he could prove to be a bigger, stronger Jay Pandolfo, and possibly a Selke finalist. With a +26 and 49 points last year while facing the best competition the other team had to offer, and now being paired with one of the best shutdown forwards of the last decade, Ladd's arrow seems pointed in the right direction. Going into a restricted free-agent contract year may prove to be extra motivation for Ladd as well.
So who do you, our adoring public think will be 2009-2010's breakout player and/or horrendous bust?