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The Blackhawks Have Gone the Opposite Direction

By Jeff Ponder

Sunday was a day that Blackhawks fans will remember for a very long time. The Hawks swept the San Jose Sharks in game four of the Western Conference Final series in their hometown. The Chicago team has accomplished a lot over the past two seasons, reaching the Western Conference Finals twice. Coming from the league cellar just a few years ago, one has to wonder when the Blues might reach this level of play.

2005-06 was a season that Blues fans would rather forget. Finishing last in the league with 21 wins and just 57 points, the Blues had taken a nosedive after the NHL lockout and seemed to find everyway to keep fans out of the team’s arena. Facing a troubling ownership issue, the team was finally sold to SCP Worldwide CEO Dave Checketts, who instantly breathed hope into Blues fans with his strong public speeches and cries of change. He even switched up the front office of the organization, hiring long-time broadcaster John Davidson as the team’s new President. Things were looking up for the organization as the Blues kept improving every season, collecting more wins from 2006-07 and on. With a steady amount of first-round draft selections and a few players being acquired via free-agency and trades, the Blues have made the playoffs once since their atrocious season and currently look like a team that will be battling for a playoff spot every year from here on out.

The Blackhawks are a different story. Finishing just above the Blues with 65 points in 2005-06, the team continued with their losing ways; something that Blackhawks fans have had to deal with since the early 1990s. The Hawks also lost their long-time owner Bill Wirtz in a battle with cancer in 2007. But the Hawks management went through many changes including bringing in Scotty Bowman’s son, Stan, as the team general manager in 2009. The Hawks have made key off-season signings since Wirtz’s death, including defenseman Brian Campbell and goaltender Antti Niemi, that have surged them to the top of the Western Conference and into the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals.

So how has Chicago taken that much of a bigger step than St. Louis? It’s not a shock when you compare the draft histories and acquisitions from both franchises.

Let’s take a look at the first-round draft history for both franchises since 2005-06:

2006: Blues select Erik Johnson with their #1 selection; Blackhawks select Jonathan Toews with their #3 selection.

2007: Blackhawks select Patrick Kane with their #1 selection; Blues select Lars Eller with their #13 selection, Ian Cole with their #18 selection and David Perron with their #26 selection.

2008: Blues select Alex Pietrangelo with their #4 selection; Blackhawks select Kyle Beach with their #11 selection.

2009: Blues select David Rundblad with their #17 selection; Blackhawks select Dylan Olsen with their #28 selection.

While the draft seems to be pretty even (when the Blues have a higher pick they usually get the better player and vice-versa), the Blackhawks may have gotten bigger impact players. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane have created one of the best one-two punches in the game. The Blues are still very hopeful for their defensive selections though with Erik Johnson just now completing his second full NHL season and with Alex Pietrangelo a hopeful for next season’s roster. Kane and Toews seemed to have busted onto the scene a lot faster than their counterparts in St. Louis, but David Perron and Lars Eller hope to change that idea next season.

The big difference between the two teams is that the Blackhawks have sought out big-name free-agents to bolster their lineup. Players like Marian Hossa, Brian Campbell and Cristobal Huet have all signed long-term deals to call Chicago their home, but the Blues have kept away from this idea. The most notable free-agent signing has been Paul Kariya, who has been one of the biggest disasters in St. Louis since the Guns N Roses concert in 1991. His 36 goals in 168 games has been a huge disappointment to a club that was expecting goal-production from the seven-time thirty goal-scorer.

The two teams have also kept their numbers one and two defensemen on their roster since 2005-06. Eric Brewer and Barret Jackman have been a mainstay in St. Louis, both signing large deals, despite their combined -88 plus/minus since 2005-06. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook have been the flipside of that stat though; their combined 128 plus/minus has been the backbone of the Blackhawks’ resurgence, playing against the top lines in the league and shutting down anyone who challenges them. This is a huge factor in figuring out why the Blackhawks have been the more stellar team; they can shut down the big lines and can also add some offensive production from their blueline.

In the Blues’ favor, it does seem that the team is more focused on a balanced attack for a number of years rather than Chicago, who may have a drop-off in talent in the coming seasons. Due to Chicago’s desire to sign the big-name free-agents and maintain their star players, the team is straddling the salary cap limit, and has little room for resigning any other players for the next six years or so. 42% of the team’s salary is tied up in just five players (Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane, Brian Campbell and Cristobal Huet). The Blues will have a big off-season coming up in a few weeks as Paul Kariya, Alexander Steen, David Perron, Erik Johnson and Chris Mason will all be free-agents. The Blues will have to show whether they want to dedicate to a few of the younger players and sign long contracts or go short-term and pay them a little more.

It is hard to judge whether the Blues have gone the wrong direction or if Chicago just took the direction to win it all and sink back down in the standings. One thing is almost certain though; Blackhawks fans will be celebrating a Stanley Cup Championship much sooner than Blues fans will be.

Stay tuned in with Jeff Ponder's BluesNetMix blog by checking in every Tuesday at bluesnetmix.com.

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