Blackhawks 2010-11: Questions At The Quarter Pole


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.

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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. Al Cimaglia says:

    A solid harverst of points for me would be 8 points on the upcoming trip.

    But if the boys come back with only half as many the natives will be more restless.

  2. Living the Cup says:

    Thanks for that well put together blog Dave.

    If Bolland and Hossa are still not 100% and may possibly not be for the rest of the year that’s big trouble.

    Particularly Bolland – if he can’t stay healthy you have to really wonder about his future. I’m pulling for him – when he is healthy and playing like he did in the playoffs he’s huge for the Hawks b/c he can add scoring along with his ‘Rat’ role but right now that’s not happening.

    If he can produce on this circus trip the Hawks may indeed take 7-8 points if not it may be more like 6 or worse. There are 4 very tough games at the end and this year’s Hawks have already shown a penchant for taking night’s off.

    This is a make or break trip I think. A good trip (8 pts.) and that sets the stage for a turnaround in their season, a bad trip (under .500) and I fear for their playoff lives.

    It starts with Edm. whom they have twice taken lightly – they had better get over that. They need this game to get the road trip started on the right foot. Anaheim was a good starting point but it’s only 1 game. They need to play 60 min. 6 games in a row for this trip to be successful and the way this year’s gone that is anything but a given.

  3. Dave Morris says:

    Al, LTC, thanks…agree 8 of 12 is what the Hawks need to bring home. A tall order, but one the boys need to aim for.

    The Oilers and Flames are in difficulty. If the Blackhawks can find some ‘killer instinct’ these first two games are the time to do it. Getting a split on the West Coast will be much tougher.

  4. vito says:

    Dave, I too thought that was the Hawks best game of the year but I hope the determination is there for the rest of the season. I also think Ben Smith and Jeremy Morin belong with the Hawks not Rockford.

  5. Al Cimaglia says:

    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.”

    Very interesting..But not sure how much faith can be put in that stats….The other four Cup winners did not immediately turn over 40% of their rosters.

    • Dave Morris says:

      Al, you are correct to underline that aspect…I cited Chris Block’s article because it is an example of how Cup winners can find their title defense a major challenge.

      It remains to be seen how the roster turnover affects the Hawks over the course of the entire season.

  6. ChicagoNativeSon says:

    Great writeup Dave. Not a single point I don’t agree with. A slow start from the Hawks was expected as they got to know each and the new guys found their niches on the team. But even though it was expected, the reality is often harder to swallow.

    I’ve seen much improvement over the past few games regardless of the scoreboard, and even glimpses of last year’s domination. I’m not worried about the core, they are elite players who will find equilibrium.

    I am very worried about Bolland and Hossa though and I don’t for second believe that we’ve seen the last of them on IR this season. Back and shoulder injuries need a lot of time to heal, if they ever do, and hockey is a punishing sport were you can’t hide ailments long term. We were very lucky last year that Campbell was able to “strategically” avoid re-injuring his shoulder when he returned. Maybe Bolland and Hossa need to eat some powdered cartilage?

    Since Brouwer and Kopecky have showed their limitations, what do you think of a 3rd line of Brouwer, Bolland/Pisani, and Kopecky?

  7. shruew says:

    I generally don’t like to try to read minds while watching the games, but I can’t seem to shake the impression that a lot of these early games the players have an attitude of “We’ll make it into the playoffs and from there we’ll kick it up” vs “Every game is important and we must win.”

    • Al Cimaglia says:

      I heard a recent interview with Keith…He said this season has been tough to deal with mentally.

      So many games so quickly and such a hectic summer….combined with all the new teamates…

      There are reasons but….if they continue on the same pace through the Holidays…trouble.

    • Dave Morris says:

      @CNS, Shruew…it is indeed tough to imagine what is going in player’s heads, but watching Brouwer and Kopecky, one gets the sense neither of them is playing smart, focused hockey.

      Which is strange, considering they are both in ‘contract years’.

      IMO either they pick up their play soon or they may find themselves losing their spots to kids like Morin, Ben Smith, or even, a current ‘dark horse’ like Kyle Beach…or a value-priced vet waiting for a phone call from Bowman.

  8. donkey says:

    Wow! I have not read your work before but this simply the best analysis of the Hawks I have read. Keep up the good work!

  9. Dave Morris says:

    Donkey>thanks…

    @CNS re: your Brouwer-Pisani-Kopecky idea…Brouwer apparently sat out practice Tuesday, with the reason given as ‘upper body injury’ (source ESPNChicago):

    http://espn.go.com/blog/chicago/blackhawks

    Hard to say whether that combo would work. In principle, both Brouwer and Kopecky should be net crashers, and Brouwer certainly has the scoring skill. But as I mentioned, both Troy and Tomas seem to lack focus in their recent play. A seat in the press box might be a better cure for what ails them.