For two weeks now, SB Nation websites have been examining sports rivalries across every level of every sport.
In the first half of the last decade, it was easy to talk about the Blackhawks rivals, because postseason matchups — especially in the Stanley Cup Playoffs — are feeding grounds for bitter rivalries.
During the past two to three seasons for the Blackhawks, though, another lesson has emerged:
It’s hard to foster sports rivalries while residing at the bottom of league standings.
Lately, it seems like the Blackhawks biggest rivals have been establishing possession in the offensive zone during a power play and in-zone defensive coverage — and they’ve been getting blown out in both battles.
Yes, it’s been four months since we’ve an NHL game, but it still shouldn’t be this difficult to pinpoint which team draws the most ire from the Blackhawks.
Sure, the Blues remain atop the list of hated teams for Blackhawks fans, but it’s not as easy to muster disdain for their roster as it used to be, largely because the majority of the players who were easy to hate aren’t around anymore. David Backes’ cap hit is now Anaheim’s problem. Ryan Reaves is up to his usual tricks in Vegas. Barret Jackman is out of the league. Steve Ott is back to searching for pirate treasure. Alex Steen’s punchable face is still around, but he’s hardly worth the trouble anymore. And the Chicago/St. Louis rivalry has always seemed more intense in the crowd than it has on the ice — or on the baseball diamond, for that matter.
Elsewhere in the Central Division, what teams are left to despise? The Predators swept the Blackhawks in a postseason series that happened so quickly there wasn’t enough time for grievances to be established, let alone aired. And Nashville has spent the last three seasons talking about how great that was while accomplishing both jack and shit since. The Avalanche are the new kids on the block, but the only way to amass hatred against Colorado is to oppose it in a playoff series and become furious over what Nazem Kadri does to get suspended next. Hasn’t happened with Chicago yet. The Stars don’t have Antoine Roussel anymore. They do have former St. Louis agitator Roman Polak, but he’s opted out of the playoffs and hasn’t been taken seriously since this delightful moment. The Jets have too much inner turmoil to be a proper foil. The Wild have been relevant for roughly two days in the last decade, which — in true Wild fashion — came during the offseason in 2012.
Is it even worth discussing the Pacific Division? The Blackhawks/Canucks rivalry has been dead for years, even if the Canucks have Roussel, who's responsible for the only worthwhile moments of Zac Rinaldo's career. The Sharks and Ducks each had their postseason shots at the Blackhawks in the past decade, missed, and are now fading into hockey obscurity. The Kings were Chicago’s most equal rival in the 2010s and helped produce, probably, the best hockey series this millennium, but are now dealing with their own aging cast of former stars. The Coyotes, who will move to the Central in 2021, remain a nice backup plan for current Blackhawks seeking warmer climates while the Golden Knights are still too new to properly hate.
And that brings us to the Oilers.
For the first time in three years, the Blackhawks will have, at a minimum, three consecutive games against the same opponent should the league resume games as planned Aug. 1. Which could mean it’s time for the Blackhawks to foster a new rivalry with a team that’s only been good at winning draft lotteries and talking about how good it used to be.
The Edmonton roster offers plenty of targets for scorn. Most notably is Zack Kassian, a rejected circus animal who added to his rap sheet in despicable fashion in February. Then there’s James Neal, who is always eager for contact as soon as his opponent looks away. Don’t forget about goaltender Mike Smith, an old Blackhawks foe who remains master of the butt goal, stick-breaking tantrums and Oscar-worthy flops. No guarantee he sees the ice this series, though.
In the most bizarre of seasons, there’s something warm and comforting about the familiar feeling of hockey hate brewing in the days and weeks leading up to a qualifier series.
There’s a 50/50 chance the Stanley Cup gets lifted in Edmonton this fall, based on where the NHL elects to host the final rounds of the series. There’s a roughly zero percent chance (and I’m rounding up) that any of those players will be Oilers.