Patrick Kane is off to the best start of his career, and the Blackhawks haven’t lost a regulation game in a record 19 games this season. The two facts are hardly independent, of course, because without Kane there’s no chance Chicago would have opened the season with a 16-0-3 record.
Kane has 10 goals and 14 assists to lead the ‘Hawks in scoring. The South Buffalo winger says he’s committed to reaching his potential. The people around him suggest that he’s more mature at age 25 and in top physical condition. Kane has even embraced backchecking, once a foreign concept.
In fact, it’s all of the above.
The Blackhawks are unbeaten in regulation this season, but they’re squeezing everything they can from a roster loaded with talent. They have won 10 games by one goal, including five straight. Their streak might have started with Kane this season, but their success begins and ends with General Manager and Canisius High school graduate Stan Bowman.
Bowman, three years after Kane scored the Stanley Cup winner, was forced to make changes to stay under the salary cap. It meant making bold decisions about several popular players who helped carry them to their first title in 49 years. The reconstruction complete, Chicago is expected to challenge for another.
The meat of the order — Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook — is still there. They help, obviously, but only nine players remain from the 2009-10 roster. It includes forward Bryan Bickell, whose name wasn’t inscribed on the Cup because he didn’t appear in enough games.
Both goaltenders are gone along with defenseman Brian Campbell. Kane and Hossa are the only two wingers from that team who have remained. Buffalo, which was second last in the NHL going into Tuesday night, had 10 players on the roster who appeared in at least 10 games during 2009-10 season.
Bowman has found the right role players and created the right chemistry and the right atmosphere at the right place. You don’t hear as much about Andrew Shaw, Marcus Kruger, Brandon Saad or Michael Frolik, but they’re the kind of effective forwards who allowed Bowman to stretch his payroll.
Ray Emery had one foot out of the league when Bowman signed him last season. He took a gamble on Emery’s personality when other GMs passed. Emery made $600,000 last season and signed another one-year deal this year.
The price: $673,000 for a 48-game season. The payoff: 8-0 record with a 2.08 GAA and .927 save percentage.
Defenseman Johnny Oduya arrived from Winnipeg in exchange for second- and third-round picks in the upcoming draft. Bowman took a chance on him when many others thought he was nearing the end of his career. The deal was made a year ago today.
The price: $2.3 million this year, $3.3 million next year and $2.85 million in 2014-15. The payoff: The Blackhawks are 27-2-7 since he arrived.
Chicago is spending a measly $2.2 million more than the Sabres on payroll but clearly is getting far more bang for its buck. It’s not a coincidence, either.
Gonzaga in line for top seed
Gonzaga for years was the lovable NCAA Tournament underdog with its 7,500 students in Spokane, Wash., and stuffed in the corner of the Lower 48. John Stockton leads the list of prominent players because, well, most fans can’t name another one. Longtime hoop junkies believe their nickname is the Zags.
It’s the Bulldogs, like another mid-major power that has enjoyed recent extended runs in the NCAA’s: Butler. Gonzaga plays in the West Coast Conference, which will never be confused with the Atlantic Coast Conference. But with the No. 2 ranking in the Top 25, it could land a No. 1 seed in the tournament.
“The polls mean a lot more this time of year than they do in November and December, even January, so all of us are being judged on the true body of work. It’s definitely rewarding,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said on the team’s website. “It establishes us as a national program which I feel we have been for the last 10 years. This group has done a great job of competing at that level; winning games at the highest level.”
Gonzaga has never been a top seed. It had the No. 2 seed 2004, when it was blown out by Nevada in the second round. It grabbed the third seed in 2005 and again in 2006, when it came within a whisker of knocking off UCLA in the Sweet 16. Their current ranking is the highest in school history. Butler beat them this year, along with Illinois.
They did have considerable help in climbing to No. 2. The Zags were ranked fifth two weeks ago before Duke and Michigan lost. They were third last week before Miami lost. Gonzaga climbed into the second spot this week despite losing one first-place vote.
You’ll learn plenty about Kelly Olnyk, the long-haired 7-footer who is leading them in scoring (17.7) and blocked shots (32). Only three players average in double-figures in scoring and only one, Kevin Pangos, has started all 29 games this season.
Name that athlete
Quick, name the athlete who released the following statement shortly after the Ravens beat the 49ers in the Super Bowl:
“I am absolutely shocked that deer-antler spray may contain a banned substance and am angry that I have put myself in this position. I have been in contact with the [governing body] and am cooperating fully with their review of this matter. I will not be commenting further at this time.”
Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis? Good heavens, no. He doesn’t admit anything.
Why it was Vijay Singh, who was waiting to hear what, if any, punishment would be handed down after he admitted using the substance. PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem said over the weekend he was reviewing the situation and would make an announcement regarding Singh’s future. It’s expected sometime this week.
Odds stacked against Sabres
As if you weren’t depressed enough about the Sabres, there’s more bad news. One team that was outside the top eight in either conference with 28 games remaining last year was able to make the playoffs. It has happened only twice in the Eastern Conference in the last two years.
Washington was in ninth place, one point behind Toronto, with 28 games left and clinched a playoff spot with a three-game winning streak to finish the season. The Leafs had a monumental collapse, going 7-17-4 over their final 28 games, and finished well off the pace.
In 2010-11, the Sabres were the only team outside of top eight to sneak into the playoffs in the Eastern Conference with 28 games left. Buffalo was in 10th place, four points behind Carolina with three games in hand, at the time. The Sabres were 26-22-6 before finishing with a 17-7-4 tear to slide into seventh.
It’s much more difficult for the Sabres to recover this year, largely because there are so many games between teams ahead of them. Buffalo needed a 19-6-4 finish, starting with Tuesday’s game against Tampa Bay, to reach 55 points or the projected finish of the eighth-place team.
Te’o raises another red flag
It’s starting to look like former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o and his phony dead girlfriend had something in common after all: Both were myths.
Te’o’s stock was falling by the tenth of a second after he ran the 40-yard dash in a disappointing 4.8 seconds at the NFL Combine. It’s too slow for NFL linebackers, especially prospects hoping to get selected in the first round. He was looking for a 4.7 in the 40 or faster.
Scouts would have an easier time overlooking the time, rationalizing he had a bad day that wasn’t reflective of his football speed, if not for the girlfriend controversy. Instead, he gave teams another reason not to take him in the first round. When it’s all added up, he’s not worth the money and aggravation.
The hype-value quotient is bringing back memories of Brian Bosworth. Te’o may turn out to be a terrific player, but many teams now see him as a risk. Once viewed as a top 10 pick, he shouldn’t be surprised if he lasts until the second round, or later.
1 – Win for the Cavaliers, in nine games against the Heat, after LeBron James left Cleveland for Miami.
15 – National ranking of Wisconsin men’s hockey team before upstart Penn State, behind the financial backing of Terry Pegula, earned a 3-2 overtime decision Monday night.
5 – Laps in which Danica Patrick led the Daytona 500, making her the first woman driver in history to win the pole and lead for one lap.
• Eagles fans are calling for the team to change back to Kelly green, coinciding with the arrival of new coach Chip Kelly. By Tuesday morning, nearly 11,500 fans signed an on-line petition requesting they return to the shade for the first time since 1995. It’s unlikely. It means enduring the long process for simple changes in the NFL.
• Dennis Rodman has been called many things over the years, but ambassador to North Korea is not one of them. Rodman is visiting the communist country with a handful of players to conduct basketball clinics and play a few exhibition games. Apparently, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was a Bulls fan circa 1990s. Who knew?
• Tom Brady deserves praise for taking a pay cut late in his career and allowing the Patriots to save money against the cap, but let’s not get carried away over his decision. He can afford to take less money because he made so much earlier in his career. The decision to accept less now will lengthen his career, allowing him to make more money overall.