Hawktoberfest: Chicago defends the Cup, Month One

Old Hawk, New Hawk: John Madden Vs Viktor Stalberg, October 30 in Minnesota. (Photo: NHL)

“Chicago Blackhawks, Stanley Cup Champions” being half a century in waiting, it’s easy to understand why Hawks fans might not know what to expect of their team now that they’ve earned the title. Defending it is quite another matter. One month in, the club has been dramatically overhauled, and while the expectations are high, the trepidation level is similar. So where are the Blackhawks after the first month? On top of their Division. At least, for now.

Seeing a Hawk lead the league so far in goals (in this case, Patrick Sharp with 10) is something many Hawks fans can’t remember. And while the club clearly has some adjustments to make regarding consistent two-way play, their 7-5-1 record so far compares favorably to last year’s 8-4-1 mark at the same point. Much as they did at the beginning of last year, the victories and losses have been mostly by narrow margins, except for the poor showing against a hungry Oilers team at the United Center Friday the 29th.

But then, there’s something about playing at home that seems to rattle the Hawks. How to explain a mere .500 performance, and so many points left on the table? It’s as if they want to give the customers a show, rather than just take care of business. On the road, however, the Blackhawks play a tighter, more focused game, as reflected in their 3-1-1 record. It may also be worth remembering the Hawks won their Cup away from home, both last year and their previous Championship in ’61. Maybe the hometown crowd needs to cut their heroes some slack and cheer a little louder.

Especially considering the Hawks are where they are, while missing three of their top stars in Brian Campbell, Marian Hossa and Dave Bolland.    

Speaking of the Hawkey heroes, how are the new and semi-new guys doing? Herewith, a few snapshots.

On the blue line: Nick Boynton qualifies as a new face because he joined so late last year, and only became a regular this season. Jassen Cullimore returns to Chicago after his exile in Florida. John Scott (who seems more effective as a 4th line forward) evokes memories of King Kong Korab. Jordan Hendry (a part-timer since he signed in ’06) has once again been plugged in to the rotation. Nick Leddy showed he is a future asset.

Boynton gets criticized by some for his ‘decision-making’, but he’s leading the team in blocked shots. Sounds like Brent Sopel. And he is 3rd among the Hawk d-men with 17 shots on goal. Cullimore doesn’t do anything fancy, but he’s tough, delivers an average of 15 minutes a game and is an even plus-minus. Hendry keeps showing why he’s good value $600K a year. Scott takes heat for his lack of foot speed, but used strategically up front, he can be an effective physical presence while crashing the opposition net.

So has the Hawks d-corps been significantly diminished by the exit of Sopel, Barker, Wisniewski and Walker over the past two seasons? Hawks fans can judge for themselves. And maybe Brian Campbell finally gets appreciated as a key component, his contract simply being what it is.

The new faces at forward have bigger skates to fill. Ladd, Byfuglien, Versteeg, Madden, Burish, Eager, Fraser were all what is known as ‘character players’, not necessarily leading in any particular area, but capable of making a difference when the cage matches got down and dirty last year. Bickell, Dowell, Skille, Stalberg, Pisani, and the Rockford call-ups like Smith, Pirri, Potulny and one expects, Jeremy Morin and perhaps Igor Makarov at some point, have to learn to fit in to the Bowman-Quenneville-And-Company Plan.  

As NHL Network analyst Craig Button pointed out last night on “NHL On The Fly”, Blackhawks hockey is about attacking in waves as five man units, along with the puck possession game they are now known for. This was consistently in evidence in the 3-1 victory against the Wild, probably for the first time this season.

Bickell has been tabbed to replace Big Buff and/or Ladd as the big man in the corners and front of the net; but he was scratched against the Wild. Bickell has the tools; he needs to show hunger, combativeness and in-game smarts to fill the void left by Ladd and Byfuglien.

Jake Dowell is showing why he was named captain of the Hawks’ AHL affiliate Rockford Ice Hogs: his determination and responsible play can pay dividends for the Hawks. In the late moments of Saturday’s game, Q put him and Pisani out to defend the one goal lead against the Wild’s six-man push, and Dowell got the insurance marker. He could pot 20 goals if he keeps up his current pace.

Jack Skille seems to finally be finding out what kind of hockey player he needs to be: fast and physical. He’s shooting the puck with regularity (31 SOGs so far, right behind Toews), and once he finds the range, he can add to the attack.      

Viktor Stalberg is another big, fast young forward who may be emerging. His three goals also put him on pace for 20. His scouting report underlines that improving his d-zone coverage is key.

Fernando Pisani has been recruited to replace John Madden, and so far is fulfilling a similar shutdown role, though he doesn’t have the bite that ‘Mad Dog’ Madden brought.

Jeremy Morin not only made Hawk fans forget about Kris Versteeg, he inspired favorable comparisons to another Jeremy, Roenick, in his brief initial stint.  As the season progresses, this young talent may get another turn. This year’s version of The Rockford Rotation has already shown that kids like Brandon Pirri, and Ben Smith can acquit themselves adequately. Utility forwards like Ryan Potulny (inserted Saturday) and Jeff Taffe may also see some Hawk ice.    

Finally, to the goaltending: one can compare Marty Turco and Corey Crawford’s numbers to Cristobal Huet’s and Antti Niemi’s in a few ways. The most important is the massive reduction in the cap hit.

The second factor is that Marty Turco has a mental toughness that Huet lost somewhere along the way. Watching Turco play may include some anxious moments as the spectacular saves mix with some frustrating flubs, but there’s no question Turco is a pit bull. And he has held the Hawks in some games they would have otherwise lost.

Corey Crawford appears to be progressing exactly as management would hope. He has played quite well in most of his contests, and should continue to get better under the mentoring of Turco and goalie coach Stephane Waite.

As Turco pointed out after the win against the Wild, the recent injury adversity can help the Hawks in their transition and integration of new personnel. “Sometimes it helps not having a full line-up in there, knowing you have to be more of a team. Everyone has an important role.”

Coach Joel Quenneville, who always stresses methodology and execution, also underlined his satisfaction with his team’s work in an interview with the Chicago Sun Times. “We checked well. We had a lot of puck-possession time in the offensive zone. There was a purpose when we did have the puck, and we supported the puck well. We had cleaner exits out of our own zone.”

WGN Radio Hawks analyst and former star Troy Murray concurred with that view in his recap. His philosophy, as described in his interview last year on Hockey Independent (“Like a Hawk”, HI April 16/2010), and one he preaches as a formula for success in his Hawk radiocasts, is all about attention to detail and relentless effort. He praised the Blackhawks’ work against the Wild as being emblematic of the type of team Chicago has to be this year. “They are a different team, so they have to make sure they take of the little things,” he added.

That may sum up where the Blackhawks are so far in 2010-11. No longer the so-called ‘stacked’ squad that was playing, as Patrick Kane conceded, and so many hockey writers trumpeted, a “Cup Or Bust” season, all the Hawks really need to do this year, is take care of business. The rest takes care of itself.

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About the Author: David Morris' hockey writing has been featured at KuklasKorner.com and Chicago Sports Then & Now. He is also the North American correspondent for leading Swiss hockey site, Planete Hockey.

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  1. Living the Cup says:

    Thanks Dave for the excellent re-cap thus far.

    One factor that doesn’t get mentioned is how the big new contracts for Toews, Kane, Keith and Hammer may be hindering their early play as they trty too hard perhaps to live up to all that money coming their way.

    We saqw Campbell struggle early on with his big contract, again trying to do too much. It’s a pattern that’s been played by many players.

    As the young Hawk stars get used to their changed lives and expectations from all that cash I think they’ll be better than ever.

  2. Al Cimaglia says:

    Dave,

    Very good summary…

    As you pointed out it is easier for this young group to play a ‘simple’ game away from home.

    Hopefully before too long they can play a solid brand of hockey in all three zones on home ice too.

    • Dave Morris says:

      Thanks Al…as a footnote, John Scott had some pertinent and funny comments in his intermission interview on Comcast. “I’m not going to be going around anybody soon, but hopefully I can be a physical presence around the net and help create some chances.” Scott has it right in that respect…ugly goals are beautiful.

  3. David Morris says:

    @LTC>you could be right about the additional pressure of the new contracts.

    My sense is that Hjalmarsson’s difficulties might also have been due to him being separated from Campbell. They compliment each other perfectly. In any case Nik had a much better game against the Wild.

    As Al has said in his previous column, the upcoming set of games starting in New York Monday night will show us if the Hawks are truly starting to pull things together team-wise.

    They also have to start winning against Division rivals. Dropping one-goal games to DET, NSH, CLB, STL as they did, makes a major difference; and with the Central being even tighter, those contests are mission-critical.

  4. Fro Dog says:

    Dave Morris, you are my hero.

    About time I see a new article from you! Lady Fro and I still plan on to see the Blackhawks take on the Maple Leafs in March in Toronto. We have been wanting to go there for a few years now.

  5. vito says:

    DAVE, great post. I hope they can have that hunger again because they have not shown it yet. Even Toews has not and he has played really good but, Not the usual relentless style that he has always been.

    • Dave Morris says:

      Vito, thanks…IMHO it’s not easy for a team coming out of a summer of celebrations and public appearances and then have a packed schedule for their first month (with little time to practice) after a short training camp and huge roster turnover. But that’s how it is.

      Hawks are Champions, and it’s a new challenge for all of them. November is a month where they must play disciplined, team hockey in order to keep pace in the Central.

      The Blues seem to have a lot of momentum with Halak in goal and their kids emerging…the players seem to have confidence in Payne’s coaching and their own skill. They may be the toughest rival in the Hawks’ own Division right now, though as we have seen, no one in the Central can be taken lightly.

      The four games through next weekend are all winnable. The Rangers are missing some key guys (Gaborik, Drury); the Devils (Volchenkov, Parise) as well; you know the Thrashers are going to be tough; and the Hawks must erase the embarassment next time the Oilers are in town Sunday.

      Six out of eight points (2-0-2)would be a good result, and what they probably need to stay with/ahead of the pack.

      Toews and Kane have looked better in the last few games, and hopefully they can continue that trend. Campbell coming back at some point would be a big plus.