The road to the Stanley Cup Final was never going to be easy for the Chicago Blackhawks this year, but it just got a bit bumpier Sunday morning as the first-place Nashville Predators acquired defenseman Cody Franson and forward Mike Santorelli from the Toronto Maple Leafs for forward Olli Jokinen, prospect Brendan Leipsic and a 2015 first-round pick.
The deal not only takes one of the top possible defensemen targets for the 'Hawks off the market, it adds to a Nashville team that was already among the most intimidating in the league. The Predators still don't have the offensive firepower of some other contenders, but that defense is going to be downright suffocating.
Franson, a talented right-handed defenseman, joins a blue line that, when healthy, features Shea Weber, Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi, Seth Jones and Mattias Ekholm. It's probably the best group of defensemen in the league, and I'm utterly envious staring at a Chicago depth chart including Michal Rozsival and Kyle Cumiskey.
If you were wondering just how badly the Predators wanted to win this year, well, you got your answer. They're going for the Cup. They're diving in. They realize they won't have Weber and Pekka Rinne in their primes for long, and need to strike now when the iron is hot. It's not like Nashville is a destination franchise that'll consistently command attention from top free agents. The team is taking advantage of one of its scarce opportunities to make a run. Who knows if they'll ultimately score enough, but the pieces seem to be in place.
My first reaction? That group is scary as hell. My second reaction? Bring 'em on, because the 'Hawks still have what it takes to beat any team in the league. They might need to make a deal to keep up with Nashville, though.