The NFL will kickoff tonight and I'm guessing most of us will be spending most of our Sunday enjoying the great American tradition of drinking before noon and watching football all day... but try to keep it in the back of your mind that this Sunday is also the opening of training camp for these Hawks. And while I'm not sure we can even really call this a "format" either.. here we are on the third day meaning it must be my turn to pose a question and try to answer it. So I'm hoping we get a lot of discussion on this question:
Which Blackhawk has the most to prove this season?
Right away, a whole mess of names jump out at me.. So hit the jump and I'll try my best to compare the team or someone on it to the Flyers just to make it three days in a row..
After a fairly dismal showing in the Western Conference Finals, you can make the argument that damn near everyone on this roster has something to prove but there are a few names that stand out above the others. So we'll go in my own arbitrary order.
You wouldn't be alone this time last year if you didn't really know much about Kris Versteeg or Dave Bolland. Bolland had played only 39 games with 17 points in '07-08 and Versteeg had even fewer in both categories... Now #32 is better known as VERSTEEG! and Bolland is shutting down the top lines of some of the best teams in the league..
With the RFA snafu and Tallon's habit of paying for what a player could become rather than what a player currently is - both of these players became very rich men (in case you forgot - it's $16.8 Million over 5 years for Bolland and $9 Million for 3 years for Steeger). While Bolland's contract confused/shocked most people who didn't watch him every game last year, Versteeg's was thought to be a bit high for a largely untested player. We're not talking massive contracts like Hossa or Campbell here but both players need to step it up to show that they deserve these contracts. I'm guessing I'm not alone in thinking that Bolland has a much better show at living up to his expectations. Versteeg's absolute disgrace of a game in the fourth game of the WCF shows that while capable of stunning plays, he still needs to do a lot of growing up.
Going into last year - a lot of eyes were on defenseman turned power-forward, Dustin Byfuglien. With his size - Buff stands out on a relatively smaller Hawks squad and could be the perfect player to blot out the sun (or lights) in front of goalies while grabbing his fair share of rebound goals. Turns out, that wasn't really what Buff had in mind. If you go back and read comments or posts, there was plenty of vitriol thrown at the Minnesota native. Byfuglien occasionally led the race of most disappointing Hawk, a closely fought battle with Sopel and Walker..
Then the playoffs start and a light goes off in Buff's head - he suddenly starts doing everything we wanted of him all year. He's hitting, skating hard (relative) and most importantly of all - absolutely ruining Roberto Luongo's life, that is.. up until he signed his own 12-year deal, I'd imagine. Was it the coaching of Sammy Pahlsson, the realization that he really can use his size to change games or simply a fluke? If Byfuglien goes back to his loafing ways, expect plenty of curses thrown again and hopefully a trade.. If not - we could have a much needed big body to hit, screen and make life hell for the opposition.
The fact that we opened these previews by asking "Can the Hawks win the Cup with Cristobal Huet?" - should show that plenty of us aren't quite sold on the frog. If you want details of why Huet has something to prove, simply go read Sam's post. While putting up numbers that were respectable and not all that far from what Khabibulin was doing, few, if any, have confidence in him. He'll need to step up and show that not only is he capable of being a true #1 goalie but that we fans can really trust him between the pipes.
Now we start to get to some of the bigger guys. When the rumors started to circulate that the Hawks were close to signing Marian Hossa, I was sure it would be another 1-year deal. Instead we get the massive 12-year, $63 Million contract. Any time a player signs these lifetime deals - it adds more pressure to the player. Every missed pass, muffed shot or stupid penalty brings out the masses of morons asking "We pay this fuck how much to go out there and blow every game?". Chicago, just like Philly (I DID IT!), likes its players hard working but generally wants them underpaid. When a player signs for huge money he gets expectation that match the number of zeros.. even defencemen are expected to win the Vezina it seems. Add the fact that it seems Hossa ruined his shoulder while laughing and carrying his multiple bags of money to the bank and things get worse.
Hossa will need to come back from surgery and show that the Hawks didn't make a mistake in signing him. Every goal he scores or defender he leaves behind should do a good amount to appease those that already hate him, but it won't be an easy task. It doesn't help him either that he's the replacement for Martin Havlat who became a fan favorite in his final year, despite the fact that he was largely despised for his huge contract and glass shoulder/groin/knee/everything. Not that we played into the over-hyping of Havlat or anything - but Hossa has a big role to fill on this team. Put me in the camp that thinks he won't have much problem with that though..
Finally (if the picture didn't give it away), the player with the most to prove this year, has to be Patrick Kane. This will be the final year of Kane's entry level contract, meaning he's a restricted free-agent once the season is done. While Toews has already cemented his future on the team - Kane's got a lot of growing up to do. There's obviously the incident with the cabbie that has plenty of people calling for his head. His handling of the situation isn't winning many people over either.. Forgetting all that though - there's plenty more for Kane to improve upon. While he upped his goals for the year, Kane saw his point total drop two from his Calder Trophy campaign the year before. True, he played for who knows how long on an ankle that wasn't fully supporting him but people aren't interested in excuses.
Lets not forget how quickly the fans turned on Kane while the playoffs were still going on. He goes from the Hero of Game 6 against the Canucks to the goat during the series against the Wings because people suddenly realize he doesn't backcheck like Datsyuk (By the way "Backcheck like Datsyuk" is going to be the title my sequel to "Bend it like Beckham"). To be fair, yes, he maybe could have chased down the play during OT of game 2. That's not here nor there - Kane does need to show some interest in his own zone, if not to appease the masses then at least to maybe raise his contract number a bit.
What it all comes down to though is that Kane has likely used up any goodwill he has with his offseason of cabbie punching and the idiotic comments that followed. Kane can, and I believe will, step up his game (especially if he skates with Hossa) but if he struggles out of the gates expect to hear plenty of debates on if the Hawks should let him walk and focus on signing Toews and Keith.
Feels good to get another long article written - The first of many this year hopefully. So now what do you think - who has the most to prove? I miss anyone or anything?