A tough fixture and Lance Franklin's departure had many pundits questioning pre-season whether the Hawks could keep their challengers at bay– but even bigger hurdles were to come. A shocking injury toll to key players mid-year and Alastair Clarkson's illness threatened to derail the Hawks' bid for back-to-back flags. Despite it all, Hawthorn never dropped outside the top-four after round two. The Hawks saved some of their best football for September and topped it off with a stunning Grand Final demolition of the Sydney Swans to stake their claim as the greatest team of the past decade.
It's difficult to imagine a more satisfying season for Clarkson. Somehow he engineered a third flag in 10 years despite the loss of Franklin, a shocking injury toll and his own illness battle. He took immense pride from the way Hawthorn barely skipped a beat during his five-week stint on the sidelines. His decision to gamble on Cyril Rioli in the Grand Final was vindicated and he now sits comfortably alongside Hawthorn's coaching greats John Kennedy Snr and Allan Jeans.
Hawthorn's rehab programs After long injury lay-offs, Josh Gibson and Sam Mitchell hit the ground running when they returned. Brian Lake and Rioli had recurring issues but were there when it counted. Big ticks to the medical and conditioning staff.
Forward setup Hawthorn suspected Franklin was on the way out and planned accordingly well in advance, but the Hawks' spread of goalkickers was a huge success. Jack Gunston blossomed as a bigger focal point.
The next generation The Hawks' hand was sometimes forced but they blooded seven debutants and gave many developing youngsters a taste of the big time. Will Langford, Jonathon Ceglar, Alex Woodward, Angus Litherland and Billy Hartung were particularly impressive.
Dayle Garlett Recruiting Garlett with a second-round pick was always a risk and it fell flat when the talented but troubled West Australian returned home in March.
MVP: Jordan Lewis
Lewis' career-best season drove the Hawks towards back-to-back flags. With experienced teammates dropping like flies around him, the vice-captain maintained outstanding consistency. He played every game except one and averaged nearly 28 touches and a goal a game. Lewis racked-up a club record 37 touches in the Grand Final and only missed out on the Norm Smith Medal by one vote. Grew as a leader in 2014 and firmed as the Hawks' next captain.
Surprise packet: Jonathon Ceglar
Unfortunately for Ceglar, his breakout season ended in disappointment when he was dropped for the Grand Final. The 23-year-old ruckman should be immensely proud of his contribution to the premiership, though. He wasn't expected to challenge David Hale and recruit Ben McEvoy for a spot, but played 15 matches – including the qualifying and preliminary finals.
Best rookie/first-year player: Angus Litherland
In his fourth season at Waverley, the speedster took his opportunities in a depleted backline and played 13 games. The highlight came in round 17 when he blanketed Adelaide small forward Eddie Betts and kept him goalless in his 200th game. The next week, the versatile defender was halving one-on-one battles against Franklin. Was rewarded with a two-year contract extension in August.
Disappointment: Ryan Schoenmakers
Most of Hawthorn's disappointments were injury-related, although Ryan Schoenmakers must feel he's blown a golden chance to become a premiership player. In fairness, Schoenmakers was returning from a knee reconstruction, but he couldn't take his ample opportunities to oust Matt Spangher for the fourth tall defender/swingman role.
Best win: 63-point Grand Final victory over the Sydney Swans
The surprisingly one-sided Grand Final was compelling viewing for the way the underdog Hawks completely dismantled the Swans. Everything clicked for the Hawks, who didn't have a bad player on the day. The Swans could barely find a winner amid the carnage of Hawthorn's fanatical pressure. After all the obstacles thrown at the Hawks, the 2014 flag will be remembered as one of the club's best.
Low point: 20-point loss to North Melbourne, round 16, Etihad Stadium
Hawthorn's low point was also its turning point. A startling lack of discipline during the third quarter cost Brian Lake four weeks' suspension for his 'choke hold' on Drew Petrie and the Hawks the game. It certainly wasn't how Clarkson would have envisaged his comeback match from illness unfolding. Suggestions of Hawthorn's demise were soon made a mockery of, though, with the Hawks winning nine of their next 10 on the way to the flag.
What needs to improve?
The Hawks were tested in every way imaginable this season, so it's difficult to pinpoint a particular weakness. If anything, there needs to be less reliance on the club's older brigade – although most still have a few good seasons left at the top level. The spate of mid-season injuries might become a regular occurrence given their ageing list, so the Hawks' fringe players need to take the next step.
Retirements: (possible) Brad Sewell
Sewell is weighing-up his future after a series of hamstring problems and Langford's emergence cost him his spot in the Hawks' best 22.
Delistings: (possible) Kaiden Brand, Jordan Kelly, Derick Wanganeen, Ben Ross
Brand and Kelly have been on the list for two and three years respectively and could be axed, while Wanganeen has played only one game in four seasons. Ross played four games this year but has fallen behind others in the line for a midfield spot.
Trades/free agents: (possible) Luke Lowden, Sam Grimley, Kyle Cheney
After waiting six seasons, ruckman Lowden showed he was up to AFL standard with a three-goal display on debut against West Coast in round 12. He was dropped the next week and didn't play again, so it might be time to look elsewhere. Grimley was the VFL's leading goalkicker in 2014 and after only three games in five seasons he could seek other opportunities. Cheney was a handy back-up this year but his chances remain limited at Hawthorn.
What they need
Replacements for their ageing champions, some of whom will likely bow out in the next two to three years. A key defender to take over from Lake is the most pressing need – James Frawley, anyone? Another A-grade midfielder and back-up for Jarryd Roughead wouldn't go astray, either.