Blackhawks 'pleased' with first half of season but aren't satisfied


Blackhawks 'pleased' with first half of season but aren't satisfied

The Blackhawks kicked off the 2015-16 campaign by going 7-6-1 in their first 14 games, which may not have been too surprising considering a shortened offseason coming off their third Stanley Cup since 2010.

Since then, they've been 18-7-3 and are clicking on all cylinders right now.

Corey Crawford is playing the best hockey of his career, leading the league in shutouts with six, and sneaking his way into the Vezina Trophy discussion as the NHL's top goaltender. Patrick Kane is on pace to win the Art Ross Trophy for most points during the regular season, running away with the league-lead at 60. Artemi Panarin, who has four goals in his last two games, leads all rookies in goals (15), assists (23) and points (38), by a landslide.

Following Wednesday's 3-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins at the United Center, the Blackhawks secured their fifth straight victory and have officially passed the halfway mark of a regular season they normally play on cruise control.
It's all coming together.
The challenge now is keeping it that way.
[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]
"It was good. Ups and downs, but, you know, short summer, you never really know what to expect," Kane said of the team's first half of the season. "I thought we put ourselves in a good position, we're not really behind the eight ball right now where we've got to play catch up the rest of the season, but we do want to improve every game and keep building towards becoming a better team when the playoffs roll around. It seems like things are headed in the right direction."
The Blackhawks are six points behind the Dallas Stars for first place in the Central Division, and are slowly separating themselves from St. Louis in second. It likely won't stay that way throughout the year, but gaining any sort of ground is crucial in the league's toughest division.
The Stars won't slip up any time soon. If they do, they've built a big enough cushion to correct it before anybody catches up. The Blues will hang in all season long, as will the Wild. The Predators, who acquired first-line centerman Ryan Johansen from the Blue Jackets for defenseman Seth Jones in a blockbuster trade on Wednesday, surely won't go away either. Even the Avalanche have crept back into the conversation.
The key for the Blackhawks has been responding as well as they could to an offseason that saw their roster turned over.
Patrick Sharp was dealt to Dallas, where Johnny Oduya followed. Brandon Saad was shipped to Columbus. There was no room for Brad Richards and Antoine Vermette to return, two players that played integral roles during last year's championship run.
Like it or not, the salary cap makes it difficult to keep the same roster year after year. 
But as guys leave one door, new ones come in another, such as Artem Anisimov and Artemi Panarin, both of whom have exceeded expectations in their first season with the Blackhawks so far.
[MORE: Blackhawks: Panarin scores two more in victory over Penguins]
"I think some young guys have come in and done a really nice job as far as playing hard and fitting into our team," Kane said. "We've made some good trades, picked up some good players. You look at the Anisimov factor, he's been maybe the X-factor of our team so far. Then Panarin's been awesome too, you pick him up as a free agent. And then the young guys coming in, you've got to be very happy with them. I think us so-called core guys want to keep pushing everyone and keep getting better ourselves too.
"By no means are we satisfied. We want to keep pushing and, like I said, keep getting better especially as the end of the season rolls around here."
Andrew Desjardins, who has four goals in his last five games, doesn't quite qualify as a young guy, but he may still fall under the "new guy" category as he's experiencing his first full season in Chicago after being acquired in March of 2015 and contributing to the team's Stanley Cup run.
Seeing the grind of an 82-game season first hand while having a target on their backs on a nightly basis, Desjardins knows the Blackhawks can't get complacent.
[RELATED: Toews joins Kane on All-Star team]
"We're trying to get better and better," he said. "Obviously we're on a good little stretch here. We're playing better in our own end, keeping pucks to the outside, defensive zone, puck management. I think we're pretty pleased right now."
Forty-two games down, 40 more to go. The dogs days of the season, which is even more difficult as reigning Stanley Cup champions, are quickly arriving, but the Blackhawks will take it one game at at time, like they always do, because that's all they really can do.
"Try not to worry about looking too far ahead," Kane said when asked what the Blackhawks must do to sustain their first half success. "Focus on, it's easy to say, one game at a time and focus on trying to get better as the season progresses kind of near the end of the season and into playoffs. I think we've done a good job of that.
"I think we've kind of been heading in the right direction since the start of the season, but we don't want to be satisfied with where we're at. We want to keep getting better."

Why Ryan Hartman is betting on himself going into another contract year with Predators


Why Ryan Hartman is betting on himself going into another contract year with Predators

Ryan Hartman has been through this before. Back in December of 2012, he sustained a torn labrum in his right shoulder but played through it because the Plymouth Whalers were in the middle of a playoff run. He waited until the offseason to have it surgically repaired and was cleared for contact just in time for him to attend his first training camp with the Blackhawks in September of 2013.

This time was a little different though.

Hartman had been acquired by the Nashville Predators at the trade deadline in exchange for prospect Victor Ejdsell and a 2018 first- and fourth-round pick — a hefty price to pay — in hopes of serving as an additional spark plug for a Predators team looking to load up for a second consecutive Stanley Cup run.

So when Hartman was brushed by Nathan MacKinnon along the boards, lost his footing and fell on his left shoulder late in Game 4 of the first round against Colorado, he immediately knew something was up.

"It didn't feel great at all," said Hartman, who went straight to the dressing room and had team doctors pop it back into place. "I finished the game and was able to finish playoffs in like a modified sling, which sucked to play with, but it's playoffs. It's one of those things where there are many guys playing through injuries and I was one of them."

Hartman, who's been rehabbing and training in Chicago, received the green light to fully participate in hockey-related drills last Monday but was advised to delay his Chicago Pro Hockey League debut for one more week just to err on the side of caution. On Wednesday, he got back into a game-type setting and "felt good" after 50 minutes of action going up against former teammates Alex DeBrincat and Patrick Kane.

Now he can fully focus on this upcoming season and amp up his on-ice training to a level he couldn't get to while recovering from shoulder surgery with training camp a month away.

Hartman was a restricted free agent this summer and recently re-signed with the Predators on a one-year deal worth $875,000. Clearly, he's betting on himself to bounce back to his rookie year form when he scored 19 goals and cash out on a larger paycheck down the line, even though he had multiple longer-term offers from the Predators.

"Yeah we talked, [GM David Poile] wants me to be there, I want to be there, we have a good relationship," Hartman said. "Obviously, he gave up a lot of stuff to take me and sees me in the future of the team and I see myself there too. There's a lot of little things that go into negotiations — if it's money wise or length — and there was a various amount [of offers] that was thrown out on both sides. With no [arbitration] rights, the best thing for me and my team was to bet on myself, take the year and go from there next year."

With that comes the pressure of having to earn another contract for the second straight year, which is also risky considering he's coming off an injury that sidelined him all summer. But that's just the way he wants it.

"Either way I want to play my best, if I have a contract or not for long-term," Hartman said. "There is the benefit of having security with long-term deals, but you see guys, in history, that sign these deals and maybe have a year or two of, not really being complacent, but just feeling satisfied. I don't like the feeling of being satisfied. I'm not saying that's why I took that contract over another contract, but it was a good month and a half of debating one of the other three [offers]. My family and my agent, we chose this was the best for me and the team as well."

It's easy to see why the Predators are happy with this deal, too. Hartman is better suited to play in a bottom-six role on a really good team but has the ability to play in the top-six if needed. A strong season out of him and they'll be happy to reward him with a longer-term offer next summer. It also means he'd be making an impact while making less than $1 million, and every contending team needs those contributions from their depth players.

Pull up the Predators' CapFriendly page and you'll notice generous contract after generous contract for a majority of their players, particularly their core group. Look no further than Ryan Ellis, who signed an eight-year extension on Tuesday that carries a cap hit of $6.25 million. He certainly left money on the table but elected to take less to follow the lead of everyone else in Nashville because the ultimate goal is to keep the band together.

"You look at Sidney Crosby, one of the best players in the league, isn't even making close to the most money in the league and that's a reason why they've won two Cups," Hartman said. "They have space, maybe not necessarily as much as the Preds do, but Poile's good at that, he's good at stressing winning, the importance of winning, and keeping a team together. Sometimes when you go year to year losing four or five players every summer, it takes a toll having to introduce yourself to new guys all the time. Keeping the same group is really beneficial."

The Predators won't have to do much introducing next month. They're essentially rolling back the same team that arguably would've reached the Stanley Cup Final if they had gotten past the Winnipeg Jets. Hartman will be an important part of that group, only this time he'll be there from the start.

"That's what I'm really excited for," he said. "It's tough coming in [halfway through the season], it kind of feels like ... it's your first time getting called up with the new team. You're adjusting, you're trying not to make a mistake, trying to earn a spot, per se, earn the respect of your peers, so having that and going through a playoff run and a Game 7, if you go through a Game 7 with anybody, it's a bond. The stuff you fight through and you play for each other, to be able to go through a training camp and the ups and downs throughout the whole season, it's going to be exciting. I fell in love with the group for the short time I was there and I'm excited to be there at the start of training camp."

Start of the Blackhawks Dynasty, Part 4: Roster overview

Start of the Blackhawks Dynasty, Part 4: Roster overview

In a 10-part series, we look back at the 10-year anniversary of the 2008-09 season, the start of the Blackhawks dynasty.

Starting a dynasty means you have to identify a group of core players to build your team around. Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Patrick Sharp and Jonathan Toews were those guys, along with Marian Hossa, who joined that mix later on.

You also need a mixture of young talent and strong veterans to fill out the depth to become successful. That's exactly what the Blackhawks had at the beginning of their dynasty and throughout.

On the first day of NHL free agency in 2008, the Blackhawks inked All-Star defenseman Brian Campbell to an eight-year deal, which solidified Chicago as a destination players wanted to commit to long term. That same year, Kris Versteeg emerged as the Blackhawks' third Calder Trophy candidate in two years, Martin Havlat and Andrew Ladd set a career high in points with 77 and 49, respectively, while youngsters Dave Bolland, Troy Brouwer and Dustin Byfuglien began to make a name for themselves as valuable pieces to the puzzle.

"Real good group of guys," Joel Quenneville said on Oct. 18, 2008. "I can say that it's the first time I walked in the room where, wow, I was impressed."

Six of the Blackhawks' Top 10 scorers in 2008-09 were aged 23 or younger. The average age for the other four? 27. The youth movement was real and they all contributed in a big way.