Right Wing Conspiracy is a weekly column about hockey, with the odd hockey-related conspiracy theory thrown in for good measure.
First, a mea culpa: A few weeks ago, I decided to launch a weekly hockey column here on The OGA Blogs. After some thought (though not quite enough, as it turned out), I decided to call it Three Periods, and divide the column into three segments. In those segments, I would cover topics concerning hockey’s past, present and future. Truly, it was a great idea…a little too great. I launched the column February 11. After two more weekly installments, I was horrified to discover a weekly column called Three Periods already exists, written by a bright young scribe named Nicholas J. Cotsonika. My embarassment was only compounded by the fact that I follow Mr. Cotsonika on Twitter. And read his stuff regularly (though never on Thursdays, apparently).
So, with apologies to Mr. Cotsonika, I shall quit my squatter’s rights claim to the Three Periods name. Henceforth, this column shall be Right Wing Conspiracy, which is a name I’ve used for fantasy hockey teams off and on for over a decade. Also, I Googled it and didn’t find anyone else using the name for a hockey column, so I hereby call dibs. And with that, let us move on to today’s column:
Why are the Blackhawks off to such a great start?
As I type this, the Chicago Blackhawks sit atop the Western Conference (and let’s face it, the Known Universe) with a record of 19-0-3. Almost halfway through the lockout-truncated 2013 season, Chicago has yet to drink the bitter beer that is a regulation or overtime loss; all three losses have come in the post-OT skills competition. The ‘Hawks have now earned at least a point in the most consecutive games from the start of the season in NHL history. Truly, it’s a very impressive streak.
Because I’m apparently a three-year-old at heart, my immediate thought was “Why?” Why is Chicago off to such a great start? The answer I arrived at after a close look was that three key factors are involved:
1. The Lockout. This single factor magnifies the others. The delayed start to the season threw all thirty NHL teams off. Training camps were reduced to one week and no preseason games were played. Some players had been playing in Europe or in the North American minor leagues, while some had not. Varying levels of conditioning, combined with varying levels of hockey readiness, created chaos on the ice through the first six weeks of the NHL season. The teams enjoying the greatest success during this period have two key elements working in their favor. In Chicago, those elements are working overtime.
2. Continuity. Continuity is always a critical element of team chemistry. Teams with significant player turnover from last season to this (such as the Rangers, who acquired Rick Nash but said goodbye to key role-players Dubinsky, Anisimov, Prust and Mitchell) were particularly disadvantaged by the abbreviated training camp and lack of a preseason. The Blackhawks entered this season minus seven players who appeared in more than 20 games in 2011-12, the most significant of which was forward Andrew Brunette. Other than Brunette and Jimmy Hayes (31GP, 5-4-9, -3), the rest of the missing are defensemen: Steve Montador (on IR), Sean O’Donnell, Sami Lepisto, John Scott and Dylan Olsen. None of these players could be considered “the final puzzle piece” for a Stanley Cup team. And speaking of The Cup, the core of Chicago’s 2010 championship team remains intact.
Continuity of coaching is important, too. Teams with new coaches, trying to install new systems on the fly during the regular season (see Capitals, Washington) simply have no chance. The Blackhawks benefit from having Joel Quenneville behind the bench since October ’08.
3. Health. This season is both shortened and condensed, meaning teams are playing more games each week. More games in less time = greater wear and tear on bodies, which = more injuries. Though this is a 48-game season, injuries such as Carolina goalie Cam Ward’s MCL sprain take just as long to heal (6-8 weeks) as in an 82-game campaign. In other words, the impact of injuries on a team is magnified by the shortened season. 22 games into the schedule, the Chicago Blackhawks have 13 players who have appeared in every game and two more who have missed just one game each.
In short, the Blackhawks are on this record-shattering point streak because going into this lockout-shortened season, they had very few personnel changes (and no changes to key personnel), a coach who has been using essentially the same system for five years, and a very healthy club, compared to the rest of the NHL. And no, it doesn’t hurt that they’re also a very talented team. Could Chicago (or any other team, for that matter) put together a streak like this at the beginning of a normal season? Theoretically, yes…but I wouldn’t bet on it.