We continue our player preview with a look at someone who was only with us for 23 games, Brent Sopel.
Brent Sopel came into this season considered to be one of the veteran stalwarts on the NHL’s youngest team. During most of the 2007-08 campaign, Sopel was the most consistent defenseman on the Hawks. Steady and calm, he brought a soothing presence to the back line. You could even make the argument if it wasn’t for his broken finger and wrist injury, the Hawks would have qualified for the playoffs in the ’07-08 campaign.
In the first two games of this season, Sopel eclipsed the 20 minute mark in both games and was a collective -4. He then saw his minutes take a dip, staying at a steady 15 minute clip.
The low point of his season came on November 16th at the United Center against the San Jose Sharks. About halfway through the second period, he coughed the puck right in front of his net. Jeremy Roenick happily deposited the gift past Cristobal Huet and Sopel spent the rest of the game opening up the door for his teammates. He didn’t see a shift the rest of the game.
He missed the next two games with an undisclosed injury. He saw limited action in his return, only seeing more than 10 minutes of ice in three of his next 6 games. In his final five games, he averaged around 15 minutes of ice time and following a 3-1 win over Vancouver on December 20th, Sopel just disappeared from the line-up.
It wasn’t until ten days later that the Hawks announced Sopel had a elbow injury and he was out indefinitely.
There were rumors late in the season that Sopel was skating with the team and may see some action down the stretch. They were unfounded and he spent the rest of the season hanging out in the skybox with Nickelback.
Sopel’s 2009-2010 Season will be a success if…
He returns to Sopel Version 2007-08- It doesn’t take a whole lot for Brent Sopel to be a solid defenseman. As long as he stays well-positioned and plays his game, there’s no reason he can’t be a solid 4th to 6th defenseman on the Blackhawks. His days of crossing the 30 point threshold are long gone. However, if he can clear the front of the net, block some shots, and clear the defensive zone effectively, that’s three steps in the right direction.
He can convince the rest of the league that he’s still a useful player- As the Tampa Bay Lightning are proving this off-season, there is always going to be a team desperate for defensive help. Even with a 2.33 cap hit, a healthy and useful Sopel will be coveted by someone. That in lies the rub, however, because Sopel hasn’t played in more than 70 games since the 2003-2004 campaign. Even if he can make it through 60 games, one team will want to take a nibble on him next summer.
Sopel’s 2009-2010 Season will be a disappointment if….
His play is so poor, the Hawks are forced to buy him out– No, the Hawks won’t buy him out this summer, but if Sopel’s downward spiral continues this season, they won’t have any choice next summer but to swallow the last year of his contract. Since the Hawks are finally getting out of the Curtis Brown debacle, they probably aren’t in the mood to pay someone else for free. They may be left with no other option, though, if Sopel doesn’t attract any takers with his play.
He spends the majority of the year as a healthy scratch– It’s one thing to be a disappointing player on long term injured reserve, it’s quite another to be perfectly healthy and entertaining guests from the company skybox. Sopel’s 2.33 cap hit should force him into the line-up on a nightly basis. It didn’t seem, however, that Quenneville had all that much patience for Sopel when he first took over. He’s also the type of coach that will have no problem scratching him on a nightly basis. That won’t be good for anybody.
We don’t know when Sopel suffered his elbow injury, but it’s very likely he was playing hurt for some time before the Hawks put him on the shelf. If his injury is behind him, then he should go back to being a decent defenseman.
Unfortunately (or fortunately), it’s probably only a matter of time before another injury will sideline him. Sopel’s shot blocking ways doesn’t lend itself to NHL longevity (he blocked 45 shots in only 23 games last year). He is probably one of the premier shot blockers in the league but at his age, 33 in January, it is starting to become a detriment.
So the biggest hope for Brent Sopel ’09-10 campaign is for him to simply survive so he can be someone else’s problem in ’10-11.