As one of our beloved Chicago teams sees their season crumble to the ground this evening, I feel as though I have finally reached closure on our last sporting heartbreak.  Before we get too far along in taking a look at the season that was for the Chicago Blackhawks there are two important items that I’d suggest that you peruse as each says more than anything I can put into words:

http://espn.go.com/blog/chicago/blackhawks/post/_/id/4671078/does-hawks-dysfunction-start-at-the-top

and…

http://deadspin.com/5909246/reconstructing-patrick-kanes-drunken-weekend-in-madison

First of all – awesome right?  Each in their own right; I feel this is the best work Jesse Rogers has put together during his Hawks beat reporter tenure, and I’ve spent five Saturday’s of my life at the Mifflin St. Block Party in Madison and I’ve been in those same pictures that Patrick Kane finds himself in all over the internet today.

The reason I bring each of these items to light is to make my point; this Hawks team was good, potentially better than good, they could have been great.  Why would good or even great teams be at home for just shy of twenty days already with the second round of the NHL playoff coming to a close?  I think the answer is simple and it’s the root cause for more collapses, missed opportunities, and failures to meet one’s potential than any other reason in life… arrogance.

It was only two short years ago that the Blackhawks were on top of the hockey world.  They were a young team that had just won the Stanley Cup for the first time since my father was in short-pants.  The team was stacked with talent to the extent that six member of their twenty-three man squad played for their respective countries in the Olympics in Vancouver four months prior (and you could make a case Patrick Sharp could have made seven).  They had arguably the two best young forwards 21 and under in the league (one having won a Calder Trophy and the other a Conn Smythe), a Norris Trophy winner on the blue line, and talent to spare sprinkled throughout the rest of the lineup.  Heck, they called upon a rookie Finnish goalie mid-season to carry them to the promise land and they still won the last game of the year.

Coach Quenneville had been brought in the year prior to steer the ship and had produced a Western Conference Finalist in his first try and a Stanley Cup Champion in his second.  Stan Bowman took over the General Manager reigns from Dale Tallon and proved that there really is something in the water at the Bowman household that gives them some sort of magnetic pull to Lord Stanley’s grail.  Even team President John McDonaugh and new owner Rocky Wirtz had just come into their positions in the previous two years, meaning pretty much everyone involved had essentially made their first investment in Google’s IPO and have wondered why everyone else talks about how difficult playing the market is ever since.

Success is a good thing, no two ways about it, but it also has a tendency to make you soft, particularly in sports.  They say the only thing harder than winning a championship is to defend one.  The Hawks can tell you firsthand about that. 

In 2010-11 there’s no two ways about, the team had to cut salary and move a number of the role players that were key components the season before.  Rather than getting back players to fill those same roles via trade, Stan Bowman went after more speed and more talent under the assumption that a hockey team is more about who can collect the most talent rather than putting together a well-rounded, cohesive unit.  Players like Viktor Stalburg have speed to burn, but in his two years in Chicago he has proved that he can’t kill a penalty like Andrew Ladd could, nor can he win a crucial faceoff as John Madden did during the Cup run in 2010.  Hockey is about having guys who fill roles and for the past two years the team has had as much pure skill up and down the lineup as anyone but if you don’t win board battles, kill penalties, and win the faceoffs in your defensive zone, more often than not you’re going to be on the short side of the scoresheet, particularly when the game matter the most.

When you look at the teams that are still standing today you will find a common theme of their being bigger, more physical, and more dedicated in the defensive zone than the Hawks have been since the days of Byfuglien and Sopel.  I would argue that since the Flyers showed the world that the way to combat a skill team like the Hawks in the 2010 Cup Finals is to literally try to knock them off the tracks, teams are moving back to the more tried and true size, grit, and defense model in order to find success.  Last year’s Bruins were not as talented as the Hawks were the year before, and regardless of who is still standing after the Coyotes, Kings, Devils, and Rangers/Capitals sort things out in the next three weeks, that team will be less talented skill-wise than the Bruins were last year, however they all have size and a willingness to get “dirtier” than the Hawks have in some time. 

And for the record I don’t want to hear about how you need a great goalie to win the Cup either.  Dallas picked Marty Freaking Turco and Tampa Bay chose Dwayne Roloson over Mike Smith in the past three years.  Braden Holtby wasn’t even in the league two months ago and now he’s starting a game 7 in Madison Square Garden.  You need a hot goalie to win in the playoffs, not a great one.  There is a difference (however ideally they’re one and the same).

So where did things go wrong this year?  I think the blame can be spread pretty evenly across all levels of the organization.  The front office never added a true second line center (thinking Kane could fill the role is arrogance incarnate) nor a defenseman with size (Oduya proved to be Nick Leddy with a tan).  See my trade deadline reaction column for my suggestions at the time, but how much of a difference would a Jeff Carter, Antoine Vermette, or Hal Gill made this spring?  The world will never know…

Quenneville never did anything to address special teams units that have been atrocious for two straight years now.  I don’t pretend to know all the inter-workings of practice but it seems to me our powerplay and penalty kill were fine under Mike Haviland in 2010 and got worse when Mike Kitchen arrived in 2011.  Why Haviland is the one without a job at the moment is beyond me, but between fighting Barry Smith’s intervention for the final quarter of the season and firing a successful coach for a friend screams arrogance as well.   

As for the players I never saw the level of dedication out of the team that I see night in and night out on the NHL Network from those that are still playing.  I understand all the reasons why Patrick Kane is only 23 years old and wants to have a good time up in Madison, Wisconsin.  Again, I literally was that kid, but I also can’t help but notice that he’s not over in Finland playing for Team USA or doing anything more than having as much fun as a multi-millionaire 23 year old should have.  He has every right to do whatever he likes with his free time but my concern is that it’s going to take him five more years of playoff disappointment to realize that winning Cups doesn’t just happen every few years.  I don’t have that kind of time.  Just look at Shane Doan, a guy who by all accounts works his ass off and does all the little things and still has yet to be rewarded.  You hear his story and then you listen to Duncan Keith admit that he had trouble getting up for the 2010-11 season?  Come on…

As fun of a ride as it was in 2010 I fear that everything came a little too easily for everyone involved and we’re paying the price for it now.  All hope is not lost as I am a firm believer that the Hawks were the superior team in the Phoenix series and they ran into the definition of the hot playoff goalie.  Did you see the first two period of Game 6?  The shots were 28-8 in favor of the Hawks.  They were a whirling dirvish of four lines on constant attack… and then they lost 4-0.  Players like Andrew Shaw are surfacing within the system who can take those Andrew Ladd penalty kill shifts this time next year, and all 6’6″ of Jimmy Hayes can win those battles for the pucks in the corner (assuming his second testicle drops this summer). 

More so than anything the organization as a whole needs to break out the smelling salts and take a look around at the teams that are still playing hockey at this time of year.  Management needs to bring in size, coaching needs to provide the leadership, and the players need to supply the heart.  If they plan on lifting more banners, it will require dropping more egos.