Chicago Two Months On: Doctor Jekyll & Mister Hawks

December dawns, and the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks have, if their recent record can serve as evidence, found firm footing. After staggering through the first half of November going 2-4-1, they scorched through the next two weeks at 5-2-0 (though their loss in Calgary was, to pardon the expression, a flame-out). Evaluating their status at the quarter pole, this column suggested, “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.” They did, and it does.

The Jekyll-Hyde persona the Hawks were assuming showed its face in the first half of the Western ‘road trip’ as Chicago dominated in Edmonton, got smoked in Calgary, then nuked the Nucks before getting chomped by the Sharks (following a team party in Vegas that made headlines in the Sin City gossip columns). Whatever the reason, the squad was not playing smart defensive hockey in front of Marty Turco, who dropped six of his eight starts in November. With Corey Crawford, who plays a more conservative style, in net, the Blackhawks appeared to return to sound execution and sustained effort. Beating Anaheim at the Honda Center, stifling the Ducks’ top line of Getzlaf-Perry-Ryan was critical. Coach Quenneville stayed with his young netminder and Chicago won a tight battle in Los Angeles to attain their objective of eight points out of twelve on that leg.

Something else happened on that road trip. John Scott has become something of a controversial figure among Hawk fans and bloggers. His supporters and detractors square off even more often than he does. But for those who accept management’s decision to add the towering (6’8” 258lbs) Scott to the roster, they were delighted to see him demolish the Kings’ Kevin Westgarth as the Hawks won in Los Angeles. There are plenty of discussions as to whether an enforcer is needed in the NHL, but the fact is John Scott is the best value, at $500K per year, as a ‘physical utility player’ (as Faceoff.com puts it) in a group that includes George Parros, Derek Boogaard, Cam Janssen, Raitis Ivanans, Darcy Hordichuk and Chris Neil, all of whom are paid more, some, like Neil and Boogaard, much more. And Scott, apparently, doesn’t ever lose a fight.

Is there a psychological advantage to having such a player on board? The debate is more heated than the bouts themselves. But Hawks fans who have longed for such a sheriff since the days of Bob Probert and Stu Grimson are satisfied. As long as the Blackhawks continue to win games, Scott remains the nuclear weapon held in reserve to be deployed strategically, as the Blues’ Cam Janssen discovered to his dismay Tuesday night.

More importantly, the Blackhawks’ main arsenal is now firing again. Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews all scored important and timely goals during the recent three-game win streak and now have 16, 11 and 11 respectively.

Marian Hossa’s absence due to injury is a gap in the lineup management hopes will be filled in part by 19-year old prospect Jeremy Morin. Called up for a second showing, Morin showed his worth: he is a skilled, tenacious player whose ability to ‘play both sides of the puck’, creating opportunities in offensive and defensive mode, augur well for his and the Hawks’ future. The young man has also showed his readiness to scrap, check, block shots, in other words, do whatever it takes to win. Refreshingly, he seems also to be rather humble. His talent and energy evoke a former number 27, another American-born Jeremy. Will Morin follow in the skate tracks of Roenick as a new Hawkey hero? Stay tuned.

The rest of the forward contingent appears to finally be playing as units rather than individuals. Viktor Stalberg continues to improve his two-way play, and has added hitting to his menu. Troy Brouwer picked up his play as well, with smart hits and goals resulting from determined effort and good decisions. Tomas Kopecky, who seemed to be on the edge of taking a seat in the press box, delivered a four-point performance against St. Louis that resembled his Olympic and playoff form. David Bolland’s checking is less obvious, but keeping the big guns in Anaheim and LA quiet showed he might be back on his game. Dowell, Skille and now Bickell are blending well into the mix. Once Fernando Pisani comes back, he adds to the group. Consistency will continue to be the main issue; every one of these players has to put himself on notice.

After experiments with a variety of defensive pairings had mixed results, Coach Quenneville re-united the Top 4 that led the team to the Championship. The time apart appears to have been beneficial; during the recent uptrend, Keith-Seabrook and Campbell-Hjalmarsson have played with the assurance and precision the Hawks need if they are to defend the Cup.

The bottom pairing is vulnerable, however, and questions remain as to whether Jassen Cullimore and Nick Boynton can deliver reliable minutes. Garnet Exelby is apparently on deck in Rockford, but Exelby’s strengths are his pugnacious play rather than his defensive tautness. This is where Brent Sopel’s versatility is clearly missed, though his cap hit is not.

The goaltending, at this stage, stands in good stead with Crawford and Turco. Crawford is proving to be Chicago’s equivalent of the Wings’ Jimmy Howard, which can only be good if he continues to win the way Howard has been for his club. With Turco on the other side of the ledger, if the former Stars goalie hit a rough patch, he appears to know that he just has to be ready when called upon. The Hawks need wins now, however they get them.

Hockey is an ugly game, and winning ugly is what separates Champions from also-rans. The Blackhawks have had more than their share of ugly losses so far this season; hopefully the bad taste of those defeats spurs them forward.

A ‘winning ugly’ mindset will be mission-critical in December and beyond. The Western Conference standings are a traffic jam. Only four points separate 4th and 11th spots. The Hawks have played more games than anyone, and their winning percentage is inferior to the teams chasing them. So they have no margin for missteps.

As Joel Quenneville reminded everyone after the Blues clawed back to make what should have been a romp at the UC, a nail-biter, “It’s always tough, no matter what you try to do or say. We got a little bit casual there. You’ve got to stick with it mentally in games like this.”

Those words of wisdom from a veteran warrior like Quenneville should, and must, be heeded, by the Blackhawks, for every game, from now on.

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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. ChicagoNativeSon says:

    Nice summary Dave. When I saw the photo of Murdersaurus at the top and no comments from Al at the bottom, I figured he’s probably waiting for his Tylenol to kick in :P

    Amazing how a guy who plays about 5 mins/game can be so polarizing. And talk about fights at the wrong time – hello Boynton. If you haven’t won a scrap in years, why would you enter into one with a 4 goal lead?? At least Scott wins his bouts. Oh wait, my bad. Boynton’s loss should have motivated us, right? I’m so confused…

    27 games down and 30 points. Hawks are at the “1/3 pole” with 1 game hanging as the remainder. If Hawks win JUST 1 MORE GAME per 1/3 over the remaining 2/3rds of the season and win or tie that extra game, they will be at 95-96 pts after 82 games; 95 being most people’s “magic number” to make the playoffs. Not a bad spot to be in.

    Also, the Hawks SRS rating has been in positive territory as of late. Teams ending the season with a positive SRS have made the playoffs 88% of the time since the lock-out. Since SRS is also a good predictive system, this is refreshing to see. Watching the Hawks is feeling familiar again.

    • Al Cimaglia says:

      lol….Had a busy day…I will have more to say later in the week.

      Dave kind of touched on the biggest issue imo…

      If Scott could play defense over Cully or Boynton his signing would make a lot more sense.

      Those two aren’t going to get any better.

      The Hawks were 2-1 in the fights vs. the Blues…they caught some breaks but deserved to win…fights or not.

      • ChicagoNativeSon says:

        Big “if” on Scott playing D better than Cully or Boynton – although Boynton is doing a good job of digging his own grave as of late.

        The biggest problem IMO with Scott on D is that neither Boynton, Cullimore or Hendry have the ability to cover for him like any of the top 4 can. Therefore the pairings would need to be broken up and hopefully that won’t happen again. What the Hawks really need is a #5 d-man. Cully has been doing well enough to keep his spot, but can you put him and Scott together? Possibly they’ll take up enough ice by shear size to be effective, but I doubt it.

        I don’t believe fighting influences a game except for breaking momentum. I doubt it “inspires” a team to play better. Scott’s enjoyable to watch because he goes about it very business-like, but to me it’s ultimately a sideshow. I totally agree with you though Al that there’s a time to fight and a time to skate away. Momentum often can be a determining factor in close games.

        • Al Cimaglia says:

          The problems are somewhat subjective…I think Boynton is doing a bad job for primarily two reasons.

          1. Biynton is often with a slow non physical partner in Cully

          2. At this stage in his career Boynton is even more inconsistent…and he was never great.

          The Hawks went from spending way too much on a third pairing to ….Now they are getting what they paid for, but on mnay nights it’s not great to watch.

          • Dave Morris says:

            Al, you nailed it…1 mil for the bottom pairing d-guys when both are reserve players over 30, will probably not cut it over the course of the campaign and especially come playoff time.

            Boynton’s scouting report from Faceoff.com sums it up: “plays a physical game and is reliable when he plays within his limitations.” Cullimore, from the same source: “Doesn’t use his size enough and plays a fairly passive game. Always leaves you wanting more, due to his incredible physical package.”

            Stan is probably shopping…but what’s out there is limited and probably pricey.

    • Patrick says:

      CNS – it’s because Scott only plays 5 minutes a night that he’s so polarizing. I’m not a big one for fighters, but I like Scott, and he seems to be picking his spots and fitting in (Al – good article on that with LA, Boynton proved you right last night.

      If the Thrash fall out of the hunt (which it’s not looking like they will), my guess is that Sopel returns home when his cap hit is friendlier.

      One question – why isn’t Hendry getting time over Culli or Boynton?

      • Dave Morris says:

        Patrick> I don’t have a good answer re: Hendry, though from what I have seen, that JH doesn’t bring enough physical presence to make up for his lapses in decision making (which Boynton does, though Nick has his own issues).
        Cullimore is slow, but he at least takes up space.

        Hendry can be an effective offensive d-man, but I get the feeling he’ll be supplanted by Nick Leddy before the season’s over.

  2. moots says:

    Good write up Dave! Would love to see us go on a nice roll now in the month of December. maybe 10-1-1 would be sweet. Got some real quality teams on the schedule but only 12 games, so practice and rest should be had by all. They can say all they want about Scott, but last nights tilt was what it is all about. If only Boynton would have skated away for his fight, it really wasn’t needed and seem to give the Blues some momentum. Big game on Friday, would love to see another touchdown on our side….

    • Al Cimaglia says:

      Moots…A question if I may.

      If Scott fell asleep and got tagged, or got exhausted and lost that fight…

      Would the Hawks have lost the game?

      • moots says:

        Possibly, a team like St. louis feeds off of that type of game.
        They did score the next goal, (not that that refutes your position) but Janssen knew not to start anything until it was almost over after that. But after that Boynton fight you could see how the Blues took it to us. Their was no need for a fight at that time in the game. Up 5-1 Boynton should have laughed and skated by. Lucky for us Q got them settled down at 5-4 and we got a couple quick ones to ice it.
        Scott has a place on this team in these circumstances. I wouldn’t play him every game, but you know what teams you do have to play him. And thats fine by me.
        If one guy on the 4th line is the reason we don’t make the playoff’s at the end of the year, I’ll chalk it up to not being our year. Not one guy being the reason we lost it!

        Our best players were not our best players for a long stretch in the beginning of the season. They will all have to step up their games for the next couple months to get us over the hump. A nice 9 or 10 victory month is just what we need. While Detroit has a tough road with 17 games in the month to our 12, maybe we can gain some ground. Cause everyone else seems to be closing in on our 11 losses which is key!!!!

        • Al Cimaglia says:

          The Blues are a well coached team…they know what they need do to beat a more talented club.

          Actually after the fight it was a very boring period for the most part…and the Blues almost came out tied.

          If Scott is ever going to play it should be against the Blues.

          Against almost everyone else he should be odd man out.

          This Hawks team isn’t good enough to leave Pisani or really any other bottom six guy in the press box for the majority of games.

  3. Dave Morris says:

    CNS, Al, Patrick, Moots> thank you all for your comments…IMO the Hawks’ defensive issues this year have their origin in the Hjalmrasson offer sheet, which may have well thrown Bowman’s budget and plans out of whack.

    If Hammer had signed for 2 or 2,25, there would have been money to keep Ladd or maybe Sopel…but as we have seen, it looked like there was a scramble to bring in a defensive forward (in this case Pisani) and patch up the D at the bottom end (hence the salad bar with Cully, Nick, Scott and Hendry).

    However, if the Blackhawks stick to playing disciplined hockey, there’s really no reason why they can’t contend.

    And Jeremy Morin is quite a revelation. He is impressing his teammates, and the coaches.

    Bobby Hull was on TSN’s “Off The Record” TV program today, and he repeated his mantra about the Hawks needing to attack, because “when they’re in their own zone, they get their butts kicked”.

    If the Blackhawks can learn how to clear their own zone on a consistent basis, and clog up the middle of the ice (as they did so well in LA) against speedy opponents, they might just rack up a series of wins.

  4. Brian says:

    Thanks Dave, from your lips to the Hockey Gods ears about J.R. Sure does seem like our Hawks have started focusing on hockey finally. Nothing like some cold weather to help get serious. The first line looks better every game. Kane sticking up for Stalberg is a good sign. Boyton’s fight at that point in the game explains a lot about his decision making on defense to me.

    • Dave Morris says:

      Brian, thanks…I tend to cut Boynton a little slack because he is what he is, so to speak…a reserve d-man who can play some minutes with a Top 4 guy.

      Boynton’s story is one of a guy who has battled both Type 1 Diabetes (he plays with a special medical device) and, apparently, a fiery temper. He was a first round pick (by the Capitals) years ago but for some reason didn’t play in the NHL, and was then re-drafted 21st overall by Boston.

      His bio makes for interesting reading.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nick_Boynton

      He had a run-in with Panthers coach Pete DeBoer a few seasons back and bounced around some more, until landing in Chicago.

      Hockey is a very tough way to make a living, and Boynton has never been one of the ‘glamor boys’. From all accounts, including some by people who know him well and who I have corresponded with, he’s just a ‘lunchpail guy’ who tries to do his job.

      Next to a Keith, Seabrook, Campbell and Hjalmarsson, his shortcomings will be obvious. But Boynton was the guy who jumped in last year when the Hawks needed someone to drop the mitts.

      At 500K, one has to manage one’s expectations. That said, Boynton has some skill, and who knows, he might just be an unexpected hero down the road.

      I don’t know if you remember Reggie Fleming…but I know Al does…and I do. Reggie was somewhat like Nick. Not always good decisions, but gutsy, and honest in his play.

      • Brian says:

        Sounds like a good guy and the picture of him and what’s her name is cute also but he’s old enough to know better than doing a lot of the stuff he’s doing.

      • vito says:

        Dave, Interesting story on Boynton. When I heard he was a first round pick I felt the same about him maybe becoming a better player under coach Q. The team seems to like him too especially Seabrook is one who spoke highly of him.

        • Dave Morris says:

          Thanks Vito…my view also is that Boynton is a ‘character’ guy.

          Fans can be harsh in their judgement, but from what I see Nick always gives 110% (even if he makes some mistakes).

          If Q and the coaches can continue to work with him, Nick may become a solid bottom pairing d-man. I wonder how he would be with Leddy; or if Stan brings up Exelby.

  5. Living the Cup says:

    Thanks for the write – up Dave. It’s been a busy week (missed the Blues game) so I’m a little late with my own comments.

    The 3rd pairing I think will continue to haunt the Hawks until Stan makes a trade – probably not until the deadline – for a puck moving D man (this year’s K. Johnsson) to play with Boynton. I could see Hendry and a prospect or draft going the other way (nobody major off the roster for a UFA). Until then we’ll have to soldier on. Boynton and Cully are doing their best and if that doesn’t work there’s Exelby or even Hendry or maybe Leddy. I think the goal must be to hang tough in the playoff race until the deadline then improve the 3rd pairing.

    I’d love it if Morin can stick but it seems unlikely unless he starts lighting the lamp regularly. To make room for him on the roster someone would have to go. The Hawks seem committed to Scott (despite my pleadings) and they also seem to prefer Cully over Hendry so Cully stays, and you don’t want to lose Hendry for nothing on waivers. So who goes? Probably Morin back to the AHL – unless he makes it impossible for them to do so. But he could be back once a trade is made.

  6. Al Cimaglia says:

    Don’t count Morin out…

    You didn’t see the game but…. He did everything well even though he didn’t score a goal.

    One way or the other he will be in Chicago to stay.

    He has a lot of natural ability and is smart beyond his years.

  7. Living the Cup says:

    Al – I hope you’re right.

    But who would go?

    • Dave Morris says:

      Al, LTC, based on what Q, Stan and some of the players have said about Morin, it seems just a matter of time before Jeremy carves a spot for himself in the lineup.

      As Al said, Morin plays smart hockey…and ‘hockey IQ’ is something that can’t be taught.

      The next few weeks (while Hossa is out) will give management an opportunity to explore what they can do to move someone if Morin deserves to stay.

      A d-man to play in the bottom pairing would be a good return.

  8. Living the Cup says:

    Would they move Skille or Bickell? maybe but it seems a shame to me to lose one of those guys who could prove to be very valuable depth.

    Brouwer, Kopecky? I wouldn’t do that so Morin can fit in right now. That seems short sighted and I don’t think Stan thinks that way.

    Hendry – yes but will anyone will trade for him?

    Waive Scott – I’d be in favour but I don’t think the Hawks will do that.

    If Morin outplays either Skille or Bickell in Hossa’s absence maybe one of them goes but you are not going to get the upgrade to the 3rd pairing by trading one of those two. I still think that improvement has to wait until other non-playoff teams decide which UFAs they will part with.

    • Dave Morris says:

      LTC, looking at teams who may miss the post-season, there really isn’t much among potential UFA d-men with reasonable pro-rated cap hits as of Jan/Feb/March, unless you consider the Oilers’ Vandermeer (2,3MM), CGY’s Staios (2,2MM), Buffalo’s Rivet (3,5MM) or Montador (1,5MM)–or possibly Ottawa’s Chris Phillips (3,25MM)–as being adequate bottom pairing guys.

      If I remember correctly, Al has been strong on Steve Montador in the past, but he’s not really an upgrade over Boynton.

      Vandermeer (an ex-Hawk) is a pretty nasty guy when it comes to the front of the net, but again, is he better than Boynton, Cullimore or say, Exelby?

      Same questions could be asked about Staios, though he has shown some valuable leadership qualities.

      Phillips is the best one in the group, though I can’t see Ottawa letting him go even if he is a UFA and they need help badly, given Bryan Murray’s reluctance to make any bold moves.

      So not an easy problem to solve.

  9. Forklift says:

    Bickell is cheap, and signed for 3 years. I don’t think the Hawks could get anything back that would be any better than what Bicks brings. Because of the Cap situation, they have to pretty much dollar-for-dollar any move they make. Same thing goes for Skille, he’s not making much dough either.

    My only concern with Morin is, will the Hawks let him go to Team USA for the WJC? If they do it before he hits 10 games, they get another year on his entry-level deal.

    This team will make the playoffs, and maybe pull a surprise. Next year, expect Morin, Leddy, and maybe Paradis and/or Olsen to show up.

    I also expect that the 2011-12 version of Nick Boynton will be #5 in your scorecard and #1 in your heart, Brent Sopel.

    • Dave Morris says:

      Fork> I agree with your assessment re: Bickell and Skille…and Sopel eventually back in CHI for 1 year at $1M, for example, could be a bargain.

      I just don’t see any short term solution to the 5/6 situation on D other than what the Hawks have; though a guy like Milan Jurcina (6’4″, 245, currently on IR in Long Island, just $1M/1yr) is interesting…if only he played with more toughness.

      If the Hawks can finish in a 4-5 seed, which is reasonable, who knows what can happen…but still a long way to go until then.