A month ago the Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks were leading their division. As they reach the quarter season mark, that picture has dimmed: the Hawks’ winning percentage is one of the worst in the NHL and they are firmly, some say floundering, in the middle of the pack. If the expectations were high, the trepidation level went through the roof. But is it any surprise? And have similar situations happened to Cup Champs, some of whom, by the way, bounce back as the season goes on? To paraphrase the NHL’s current ad campaign, “Questions Will Be Asked”.
Logically, the questions begin with the play of the Blackhawks’ elite.
Duncan Keith not only has a new ‘lifetime’ contract, the most lucrative ever given a Blackhawk, a shiny Cup ring, a Norris Trophy, new teeth and a new love, he also has the hottest spotlight on him.
NHL Network TV analyst and former NHL GM Craig Button made an observation recently that fans may want to consider. “People have been talking about the mistakes Duncan Keith has been making. And Keith’s going to make mistakes, because he has the puck so much. But you want him to have the puck because he does so many good things for you.”
My Hockey Independent colleague Al Cimaglia asked the question in one of his columns this past month, ‘Which player, could the Hawks least afford to lose?’ My answer, and I suspect the answer many would give, is Duncan Keith.
As is the fashion and fickleness that goes with sports talk, yesterday’s hero is today’s goat, and there are those who are ready to proclaim that Mr. Keith is suffering a major drop-off. Never mind that he leads the team in assists with 12 (all quality assists), part of being the 4th leading shooter on the team (and with many attempts blocked), as well leading in average time on ice by a wide margin. At 28:30, he plays three minutes more than Brent Seabrook, which translates into four more forty-five second shifts, though one imagines Keith probably plays longer shifts than anyone. That his plus-minus is a ‘shocking’ -6 , his giveaways have been glaring at times, and that Coach Joel Quenneville benched him for several minutes during a game, would all appear to support the ‘drop-off’ theory.
There is, however, another view. Hockey players being what they are, when a superior teammate is on the ice, there is a tendency for the less diligent to say, ‘Oh, he’ll take care of it.’ Just as this is true in the neighborhood shinny game, it’s even more the truth, on the NHL ice surface. After all, human nature is what it is. You let the guy with more talent and making more money shoulder the load.
When forwards don’t provide adequate puck support or back checking, and the opposition knows that the talented Mr. Keith is likely to end up with the puck, they will key on him relentlessly, and will anticipate what plays he might make.
Opposing coaches, who study game video, will instruct their forecheckers to cut Keith off at the pass. So the pressure is turned up, and turnovers increase.
When Hawk GM Stan Bowman took a pair of garden shears to his roster in order to get under the salary cap, he slashed away at the fat contracts his predecessor Dale Tallon handed out to Brent Sopel, Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg and Cristobal Huet, ranging from 2 million to 5.625 per year. Chop, chop, chop and off they went to Atlanta, Toronto and Fribourg, Switzerland. More chopping followed, as FAs Andrew Ladd, John Madden, Colin Fraser, Ben Eager and Adam Burish all found new homes. Even Antti Niemi, ex-Zamboni driver turned titan tending the twine, became history.
Imagine coming to work the morning after your summer vacation and finding half the people in your office have been replaced. That’s what happened to the Hawks.
Whatever their flaws, the players jettisoned all had character, and while one can replace productivity, the character that certain people bring to an organization cannot. At least, not overnight.
The stars are expected to do their bit, game in, game out, but what helps them deliver is the ability of the supporting cast to take the pressure off them.
Players like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith, as well as Brian Campbell, will always get the attention of the opposition’s most tenacious and punishing checkers. What most of the departed Hawks did, among other things, was to provide relief and to similarly harass the opposition. This is something that does not show up on a scoresheet.
Hockey is as much a mental game, and a game of physical punishment, as it is a game of skill. Like the school yard fight, it is merciless, and disrespectful. Hockey players may talk about ‘respect’, but watching these guys try to take each others’ heads off (Corus Sports reports the frequency of concussions remains alarming), respect is nothing more than a word. The players, especially Andrew Ladd, (though a case can be made for, and against, each of the others) who brought mental and physical toughness to the Blackhawks, gave way, for budget reasons, to new players who have yet to make their mark.
This puts an added burden on five specific members of the Cup-winning team. Tomas Kopecky and Troy Brouwer are thrust into Top 6 forward roles; Brian Bickell, a late season call-up who had flashes of productivity in the playoffs; Nik Hjalmarsson, whose offer sheet from the Sharks landed him a huge raise and resulting responsibility; and Nick Boynton, a depth defenseman who now takes a turn with Duncan Keith.
Of these five, it can be said that only Boynton has exceeded expectations. A reliable 5/6 man, he has been asked to do much more, and has improved in areas like shot blocking. No one questions Nick’s willingness to defend his mates in a scrap.
But Hawk fans were spoiled by Brent Sopel, who was actually a Top 4 d-man, at least in principle, relegated to 5/6 status. Sopel’s salary was as much as that of Boynton, and the other three reserve defensemen (Cullimore, Scott, and Hendry) put together.
Brouwer’s glaring lack of scoring (after a 20-plus goal season) and net presence; and Kopecky’s dearth of offense, propensity to make lazy passes and take bad late game penalties, have made them more of a liability than an asset for the Blackhawks. “One Goal” may be the Hawks’ marketing slogan, but being million-dollar men, more than a single goal so far won’t cut it for these two. After a hot start, Brian Bickell reverted to aimless hitting and a tendency to forget to back check, which got him benched. With prospects like Jeremy Morin and Ben Smith, and the specter of the already controversial Kyle Beach hovering, job security is not a given.
Last year, with their unparalleled depth, the Hawks could make up for these gaps. This year, they need all hands on deck, every game, every shift. Especially when Marian Hossa and Dave Bolland are less than one hundred per cent due to injury, which is currently the case. It is suspected Hossa’s repaired shoulder is hurting; Bolland’s ribs and back are apparently, the source of his woes.
Toews, Kane and Sharp have to deliver, but again, they will be keyed on at all times.
The new guys up front, Stalberg, Dowell, Skille, Pisani, are all fitting in. Stalberg is on pace for 20-25 goals; Leaf GM Brian Burke is ruing the day he made the trade that made the big Swede a Hawk . Dowell is the bull terrier that was hoped for; Jack Skille’s hard work finally paid off with his first two goals of the year; and Fernando Pisani has settled in as a shutdown man.
Nik Hjalmarsson may be overpaid at 3.5 million, and having to pick up the slack during Brian Campbell’s absence didn’t help his cause.
In goal, not only are Marty Turco and Corey Crawford playing well, despite their teammates’ gaffes, they appear to be the solid tandem the Hawks will need if they expect to defend their Championship. Turco is entertaining to watch, if sometimes nerve-wracking with his puck movement; but he is a battler and holds the Hawks in games in which they might otherwise have been embarrassed. At the time of this writing, Crawford actually has the better GAA and appears to have matured into a steady netminder. His performance Sunday (as seen in the photo above) , November 14th against an Anaheim club, who saw their six-game win streak halted by the Hawks, was truly impressive.
When all is said and done, the Hawks’ .500 record is about what one could expect from them at this point. And as has been pointed out by ‘Third Man In’ Hawks blogger Chris Block in his excellent article “Comparing the Hawks to recent Cup Winners’: “four Stanley Cup winners in the past ten seasons have started their following season with similar records as this year’s Hawks, all went on to win their division, or exceed 100 points. And all earned a spot in the postseason.”
The NHL season is, as we are so often reminded, a marathon, not a sprint. Whatever happens in the regular standings, it’s a whole new series of cage matches for those who strut or scratch their way into a playoff berth.
The Blackhawks may not be swaggering their way so far through the 2010-11 campaign, but their play since finally getting a full line-up on the ice was encouraging.
Coach Quenneville, who measures his words, was uncharacteristically effusive: “I thought that was arguably as good a game as we played all year as far as consistency in the game, offensive-zone time, good habits, changes, things that lead you to win good power play and penalty-kill.” In Q-Speak, he was pleased.
So what’s next? Now comes the famous ‘Circus Trip’, the extended series of away contests due to the presence of the Barnum & Bailey Circus at the United Center. After his OT game-winner on Sunday, Viktor Stalberg said it well: “It can be a really good chance for us to bond as a team.”
With the Oilers, Flames, Canucks, Sharks, Ducks and Kings all waiting to tear a strip off the Champs, this is ‘put up or shut up’ time. Play .682, (their percentage last year) and come back with eight of twelve points, and the Hawkey world is a better place.
Not impossible, if every man pulls his weight. The Hawks current 4-2-2 road record suggests it is realistic.
Those who falter may not be Blackhawks much longer, as Stan Bowman is probably preparing his Plan B.
The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche will not be found in many hockey books, but his maxim, “What does not kill me, makes me stronger” can be applied to this year’s edition of the Chicago Blackhawks.
If the Hawks can find strength in their recent adversity, and come back from their road trip with a solid harvest of points, December will look a whole lot better.
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.