They. Will. Not. Lose.
For Chicago Blackhawks fans, the NHL lockout was well worth it…sort of. Despite a lengthy dispute between the players and owners of the NHL, league play eventually resumed, and the fans flocked to arenas all across the US and Canada.
Once the puck dropped between the Blackhawks and defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings to start the 2013 NHL season, all was well in hockey land. But even after a dominating 5-2 Blackhawks win, I doubt even the most gullible Blackhawks fan could have predicted what would ensue.
Last night, the Blackhawks beat the San Jose Sharks 2-1 at the United Center. In doing so, they set an NHL record by registering at least a point in their first 17 regular season games. With all sorts of positive momentum, lines 1-4 producing in a way that reminds some of the 2010 Cup squad, and a solid special teams unit, there’s no telling how far this team can go. Backup goaltender Ray Emery is doing work right now. So is right winger Patrick Kane, who is leading the team in points scored with 23 and may have received an advantage by playing in Switzerland during the lockout. Kane, averaging well over a point a game, is just part of a Blackhawks offensive unit that is third in the NHL in goals faced. Behind Kane on the team in points scored is a predictable trio: Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook lead a defense along with the goaltenders (injured starter Corey Crawford has been great in goal, too) that has allowed the third-fewest goals in the league. The power play unit is in the middle of the pack, but penalty-killing has been a strength to this point, helping the Hawks become a top-five team in that category.
It’s good to know that despite such a hot start, the Blackhawks remained focus. Just as easily as they went unbeaten in regulation through 17 games, the tables can turn and they can find themselves winless in their next 17. In a shortened and condensed regular season, health matters most. Playing 82 games, missing a few weeks won’t hurt as much as it would when the season is only 48 games long. Equally important as health would be sustained positive or negative results. The Blackhawks are over one-third through the regular season and already in great position to at least make the playoffs. There are little things that need to be cleaned up, and the power play is one example, as there are still a number of fans who are disenchanted with that area of play. Occasionally, there are defensive lapses and sometimes the forwards decide they’d rather lose pretty than win ugly. I haven’t watched many other teams regularly to have an informed opinion, but I feel it’s safe to say that the Blackhawks are the best, if not one of the best teams in the NHL right now.
The Chicago Cubs began their 2013 spring training in Mesa today, against the Los Angeles Angels. It will be the Cubs’ 35th consecutive spring training at HoHoKam Park. Coming off of 101 losses in 2012, things can only get better for the Cubs in 2013. Right?
Right-hander Edwin Jackson was the big free agent signing for the Cubs this winter. Overpaid, yes. Good signing, yes. I almost expect left fielder Alfonso Soriano and right-hander Matt Garza to be gone by the deadline. It’s not a stretch to believe that Theoyer wouldn’t mind jettisoning closer Carlos Marmol, too. Sure, Ian Stewart should be a better play this year. The key word is “should.” Shortstop Starlin Castro regressed a bit at the plate in 2012, but made improvements in the field. Still about 3-4 years away from his prime, will he make a jump in ’13? That’s the $60 million question, kind of. First baseman Anthony Rizzo and second baseman Darwin Barney make up a solid right side of the infield. Defensively, at least, the right side could be very good for the next 5 years. David DeJesus is decent. Brett Jackson strikes out too damn much. Go Wellington, go. Schier-something and either Stephen or Billy Hairston were signed to be key reserves, I guess.
Let us all hope that Shark‘s 2012 was more trend than blip. A healthy Samardzija, Garza and Jackson give the Cubs a sneaky good top 3, but after that, there are some question marks. At the moment, righty Scott Feldman is the fourth starter, so the Cubs’ bats had better be alive when he’s going. Lefty Travis Wood is in contention for the fifth spot with righties Carlos Villanueva and former Minnesota Twin Scott Baker, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery. The best pitcher of that trio is probably Baker, and he hasn’t thrown a pitch since September 23, 2011. James Russell, a homegrown southpaw, could be even better than he was in 2012 and right-hander Jaye Chapman could pan out if he gets his K/BB ratio above 1.2:1. While those two relievers show promise, other spots need to be filled, and I’m not sure there are enough good arms to fill them. New reliever Kyuji Fujikawa is currently the setup man and has looked good, albeit early, but who is even close to a replacement for the hopefully-soon-to-be-departed Marmol? No to Rafael Dolis.
So far, I like Dale Sveum. I’m especially fond of all of those newfangled defensive positioning schemes that he and his staff so often employed in 2012. Sori got some consideration for a Gold Glove, and I think Sveum’s defensive plan was the chief reason. The Jackson signing caught some off guard, but it shouldn’t have, considering Theoyer reached an initial 5-year, $75 million agreement with Detroit Tigers right-hander Anibal Sanchez not long before. Sanchez eventually re-signed with the Tigers for $5 million more, but it was clear that the front office had decided that adding a quality (and not necessarily frontline) arm was a huge priority. Renovations to Wrigley? Yes, please. Rock concerts at Wrigley? About that…
It’s probably the Theo Effect starting to reach the masses, but it’s not uncommon to read or hear that if nothing went to hell and players remain healthy, the Cubs could compete in 2013. Being in the NL Central certainly helps, for sure. I’m not counting on a serious contender until 2015, but at the major league level, the cupboard is not bare. The lower levels of the farm system give many Cubs fans like myself reason to be excited for the future, too. With optimism being the theme of the Cubs’ fanbase, I’m sure that most in the group expect the 2013 Cubs to be better than the 2012 gang. Some will scoff, but that’s not far-fetched. This group probably won’t contend, but I’ll still watch. Spring training is here, people. Get into it.