LAS VEGAS -- Denis Savard believes in his Chicago Blackhawks enough to call them a serious contender if they get into the playoffs.
The "if," of course, is the most essential part of the equation because entering the weekend the reigning Stanley Cup champs are 11th in the Western Conference with 60 points, three back of the eighth-place Flames with Minnesota and Los Angeles wedged in the middle.
"I'm going to tell you this," Savard told NHL.com. "I can tell you that any team that's also in there won't want to play them in the first round.
"Yeah, I do think they're a contender."
Savard pointed to the Blackhawks' penalty kill as one of the key reasons why they haven't established much consistency this season. The Hawks finished fourth on the kill last season, but are 26th this season.
"That's the difference to me," he said. "They haven't changed anything they did the year before; it's just that pucks are going in against their penalty kill."
Savard can't ignore the fact that the Blackhawks also lost nine players off their championship team and the guys that have replaced players like Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, Ben Eager and Adam Burish haven't been able to establish their own identities yet.
The general feeling throughout the hockey world is the Hawks are struggling because the core guys like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa are not getting enough support from the role players like Bryan Bickell, Jake Dowell, Viktor Stalberg and, until recently, Jack Skille, who was traded to Florida on Wednesday for Michael Frolik.
Savard is still willing to give them time, even though that seems to be running short on the Blackhawks this season.
"Guys like Byfuglien, Ladd and Versteeg were experienced guys in the League by last season and they knew what their identity is or what it will become," Savard said. "These kids don't know, so there is a transition time. I see them play some great games and some games where they're so-so or even worse than so-so. We have to give them the time, the transition to get their identity."
Savard added that identities can be created in the playoffs, but the Hawks are not a lock to get there.
If they do, their old coach and legendary player said everyone in the Western Conference had better watch out.
"Absolutely," Savard said emphatically. "How can they not be (a contender)? They still have the core guys like Kane, Toews, Hossa, Sharp, (Dave) Bolland, (Duncan) Keith, (Brent) Seabrook, (Brian) Campbell. I mean, that top eight there is pretty good. I can still see teams when we play them, they're on their heels. That tells me the respect is still there. You know if you have that, you can win a lot of games."
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