Each Wednesday throughout the regular season Kevin Weekes will be offering his pluses and minuses for the teams competing in the NBCSN Wednesday Night Rivalry game in his Weekes on the Web blog. Weekes will also be assisting fans with three must-watch elements of the game.
The 2015-16 season is finally here, and what better way to begin than with an Original Six rivalry game at United Center between the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks and the New York Rangers?
The Blackhawks begin their quest to repeat as champions and win the Cup for a fourth time in seven seasons while the Rangers are looking to take the next step having reached the Eastern Conference Final in each of the past two seasons.
Here are my pluses and minuses for the Rangers and Blackhawks entering WNR this week, and three things you need to watch when you're tuned in to NBCSN at 8 p.m. ET Wednesday:
Pluses: The Blackhawks had their ring ceremony Sunday night. They are going to be at home, which is nice. Opening in front of the great fans where they just finished winning. What a spectacle that was. The atmosphere and how hyped it was, the first time in 77 years they won on their home ice. The Madhouse on Madison. No matter how long I've been fortunate and privileged to part of the NHL, every time I go there, I get goosebumps. It's certainly a big advantage to them, opening their season on their home ice in front of their great fans, especially when the banner is raised.
Another plus is that their team is healthy. They made it through another Cup run with everyone being primarily healthy, which says a lot since they have played a lot of hockey. There's a lot of mileage on those odometers, but it's not showing in terms of wear and tear.
To me, Jonathan Toews continues to be the best leader in sports, not just hockey right now. His ability to be clutch, and to raise his game and elevate his game and the games of people around him, is Jordan-esque. His will to win and his ability to deliver when it matters. With three Stanley Cups in six years, I don't know how you can argue that.
Minuses: Losing Johnny Oduya, who was a great piece and such a great fit. He's a world-class player. He and Niklas Hjalmarsson would have been a 1-2 pair on 21, 22 teams in the League. But they got Trevor Daley, who is very similar to Oduya.
Brad Richards is no longer there. He was a nice luxury to have. As the playoffs went along, he and Patrick Kane had great chemistry together as evidenced by that goal in the Stanley Cup Final clinching game. Richards over to Kane for an empty-netter. Not having him as your second- or third-line center is a big loss.
Pluses: Their core is back. They have all their pieces from last season. I think it's a plus they never traded defenseman Keith Yandle. It's a luxury to have Yandle, who is a more complete player than people give him credit for because they just look at his skating and his offense. He's on their third pair right now. To me, the Rangers have the best defensive corps in the League, but certainly in the East right now.
Another plus for the Rangers is the strides that Chris Kreider continues to make. He continues to get better and is nowhere near his ceiling yet, but he has become a really good player.
Mats Zuccarello is an X-factor for them. He is such a difference maker. When I speak to anyone on the Rangers, everybody raves about his role and what he means in the room and his versatility. He's a fixer. You can put him on any line that's struggling and he can fix it. Guys rave about playing with him.
And we can't forget about Henrik Lundqvist, who is back and ready to roll.
Minuses: Figuring out what they are going to do at center ice. After Derek Stepan, are they going to put Kevin Hayes back in the middle? Does Oscar Lindberg play center? Not that they don't have options, it's just a matter of who is it going to be and when and how it is going to come together.
Another minus is that their window isn't going to be open for that much longer. With Lundqvist and the guys that they have now, I really think that they have to win. They are not far away from winning. They've been to a Cup Final, they could have very well been to three in the past four seasons coming out of the East. But their window is not huge. However, I had them last year and I have them again this year coming out of the East.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. How the pregame ceremony affects either team
Will the banner-raising get the Blackhawks fired up or serve as motivation for the Rangers?
2. Pace of play
It will be interesting to see how each team plays in its first meaningful game in four months.
3. Blackhawks young stars
I'm intrigued to see Artemi Panarin from Chicago. I spoke to Blackhawks vice president and general manager Stan Bowman. He's excited about his skill set and his ability to make plays. Keep an eye on Teuvo Teravainen as well. He blossomed last year and the further they went in the playoffs, the better he got.