It’s almost game day!!!! And no I’m not talking college football. A much more important game will be taking place at 7:30pm tomorrow night as the Chicago Blackhawks come to L.A. to take on the Kings. Last season, the 2009-2010 Stanley Cup Champions swept the Kings in all four games they played against each other. This will be the first matchup of the season for the two teams, but they are pretty even in the standings as of right now, with Chicago ahead by 3 points. The amount of talent on the Blackhawks is certainly not a secret. The Kings however, are slowly but surely creeping their way up the Western Conference ladder and finally being recognized as a quality team in the NHL (deservedly so). I interviewed a very knowledgeable Blackhawks blogger, Sean Keenan, to find out more about how the Hawks have been doing this season and how he thinks they will match up against the new and improved L.A. Kings. Pretty funny stuff here, be sure to check out the links:

Question: Since winning the cup in 09-10, the Hawks had to get rid of some big players to be under the salary cap. The new Hawks team wasn’t able to advance out of the first round of the playoffs. If you had the ability to create your own trade, which player (if any) would you take back and who would you get rid of in their place?

Answer: This is a question that I didn’t even have to think about before the answer sprung to mind, oddly enough. After wining the Cup the ‘Hawks basically lost half of their roster. Everyday players in Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, Antti Niemi, Andrew Ladd, Adam Burish, Brent Sopel, Colin Fraser, Ben Eager and John Madden were either traded away or let walk as free agents. The three most polarizing figures of the lost players were Dustin “The Luongo Slayer” Byfuglien, Kris “Sir Sucks at Rapping” Versteeg, and Adam “Chris Pronger is an idiot” Burish. Buffs loss in particular sent the meatheads in Chicago off the deep end. With that said, if I could make a dream trade I would trade John Scott for Andrew Ladd. Laddy was a huge part of a Blackhawks penalty kill that was integral in the Cup run. He was a veteran voice in the locker room and a great leader, as evidenced by the fact that he became the Atlantapegg ThrashJets captain literally the day he walked through the door. As for why I would trade John Scott? Watch some ‘Hawks hockey with Scott in the game. The dude is a joke on skates. He averaged 6:15 seconds of TOI per game last year. Is that a sick joke Coach Quenneville played on Duncan Keith last year? This trade, if completed, would be the most lopsided trade in history, but that’s why they call it dream trade right?

Question: Which current Blackhawks player has shocked you the most in this early portion of the season? Why?

Answer: There are a couple of shockers on this team. The first are the kids: Nick Leddy and Marcus Kruger. Kruger was God awful in training camp. Chicago fans had hoped he was ready to step up and play 2C this year and it was obvious from the get go that he just isn’t ready. He started the year on the ‘Hawks AHL team but was recalled shortly thereafter. Since his return he has been improving every game. He still get thrown around like a rag doll every now and again but he seems to have no fear of going hard to the net or staying with the play even in the face of an oncoming bulldozer and things like that will endear him to fans and team mates alike. Nick Leddy is another young’n who has been playing really well. When he was acquired in the Cam Barker deal (lol #bowman’d) 2 years ago, the hope was that he would eventually replace Brian Campbell. After Campbell’s trade this off-season the kid was asked to fill some pretty big shoes pretty quickly. He’s still prone to some rookie mistakes, but he’s obviously a quick learner.

The second big surprise is how good Patrick Kane has been at center. I’m simply amazed by this guy. He had off-season wrist surgery, missed half the preseason, and was thrown in at center on a whim. It doesn’t seem to matter who he is paired up with or playing against, the man just has something magic in his stick. Perhaps the only better passer in the league is the Sedin twin that passes, and he has the luxury of telepathy with his freak brother. Kane had some off the ice issues this last year adding to the laundry list of rumored misdoings. He is 22, rich, and likes to party. What would you do? Kane seems to have a different gear when he is faced with adversity and this year I think he’s in Kaner Smash mode. When the kid has something to prove he is as dominant as they get.

The last and most disappointing surprise is Duncan Keith. Duncan Keith is George Owell’s Boxer (the horse from Animal Farm) in real life. He logs more minutes than anyone, and this includes Luongo when he plays Big Buff. Keith hasn’t been the same since we won that Cup thingy you Kings fans know nothing about. The hope was that with the early playoff exit, Keith would have some rest and return to form. He is still a top 2 defenseman on literally every team in the NHL, but his play lately isn’t what we are used to from him here in Chicago. Fair Warning: I might be biased because I’m writing this after Duncs was -4 on back-to-back nights, but something is off here. He just isn’t the Norris Trophy Winner anymore.

Question: What do you think are the top three key factors in getting the Hawks back in contention for the cup this season? 

Answer: Can I answer health for all three?

In all seriousness though, I love this team. The ‘Hawks are really good early and with some more time playing together could be destined for greatness. While the roster turnover is not as drastic as it was at the end of the Cup run, the ‘Hawks still replace the bottom D pairing, the entire 4th line, as well as the LW positions on the first and second lines. The ability of all those new pieces to gel together will only happy if the team can remain healthy. They tried to throw in spare parts last season and it just didn’t work out. Players got hurt and the “core” ended up burnt out. That cant happen this year. Maybe 1 or 2 other teams in the entire NHL can match the top tier talent on this team. If the “core” can stay relatively healthy the “character guys” will benefit greatly. Injuries can be overcome, but doing so is much easier if everyone on the roster knows their line mates and where they will be on the ice at all time.

Rocky Wirtz is committed to winning. He proved that by hiring the right guys and recently eating the bad contracts on his roster. When Dale Tallon, the previous GM built the Cup team he did it by stocking the ‘Hawks’ farm and a couple mega deals. Christobal Huet and his 5.1 million dollar cap hit were supposed to be the goalie that brought the Cup to Chicago. He ended up not being that guy, and while he is still a serviceable backup you can’t have that kind of a cap hit from your backup goalie. Rocky ate his fat contract and buried him in Sweden or wherever. Brian Campbell had a similarly huge cap hit. He was far from useless and I would gladly take him back, but the cap relief from trading him was epic. We ended up with the terrible contract of Rostislav Olesz (3 years and 3.1 cap hit per) in return for Campbell. Rocky just ate his contract last week as Rusty was just awful all year and a healthy scratch for 20 or so games. His waiving gives the Blackhawks have enough cap space (6.1 million) to add a top line winger (paging Jarome Iginla).

The final thing the ‘Hawks need to have for a magical season is a little luck. All magical seasons are based on hard work, dedication, good game plan, and a little luck. The Blackhawks are in complete control or all of the above except luck.

Question: Right now, Jonathan Toews is on pace for a 40+ goal season, do you think he will reach it? If not him, who do you think will come closest to/achieve the 40-goal number?

Answer: Oh that magical 40-goal number; that elusive temptress. The Blackhawks haven’t had a 40 goal scorer since tony Amonte did it in ’98-’99. I’ve got to say I don’t see any single Hawk getting 40 this season. Toews is a slow starter historically, and the fact that he’s on this pace a quarter+ into the season gives me hope that he might do it. The person with the best chance to pot 40 however is whoever is playing with Marian Hossa for the longest. He’s Marian Hossa and you are not. It’s his puck and he will be taking it from you….now. Hossa had played more hockey than anyone in the world the last 3 seasons. Back-to-Back-to-Back Stanley Cup finals with an Olympic medal thrown in there. He’s the most healthy he’s been as a ‘Hawks, and with his tested legs he’s become the ‘Hawks best player of the first quarter. The funny part is that the race wasn’t even close. At the beginning of the year he and Kane were working black magic on opposing teams. Then he bumps up to the Toews line, where Toews and Vicktor Stalberg proceed to freak the hell out and go crazy on stat sheets. Mark my words the highest goal scorer on the 2011-12 Chicago Blackhawks will be whoever plays the most games on the same line as Marian Hossa.

Question: Who wins this game? Hawks or Kings? Score?

Answer: 4-1 Hawks.

4-1 Hawks, huh? We’ll see about that. I answered some similar questions for Sean in his article “Blackhawks @ Kings. Katey Berman’s Interview/Prediction.” Be sure to check it out. Oh, and GO KINGS!

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