“Christmas, game 41, New Years, all-star games, you can look at all (of them). To me, I look every day. Every day you’re looking at what it’s going to take.” Those were the cautious words of Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville ahead of the Christmas break. He knows this is crunch time for his team. Does his team know? Hawkey watchers are about to find out.
December started poorly for the Hawks, with a blanking by the Canucks at the United Center, and the seeming banishment of Marty Turco to the backup goalie role. If the Blackhawks thought Corey Crawford would save them after taking the next two, they got a stiff reprimand as they dropped three straight to San Jose with back-to-back collapses against the Avalanche, surrendering eleven goals in those two games. Something had to give, and Hawk fans were waiting for the roof to fall in as the ‘mighty’ Red Wings came to Chicago. But a funny thing happened.
The Blackhawks began to play defense as a team.
The Hawks de-feathered Detroit, and it was as if a switch had been flipped, a light had gone on, call it what you will. But without Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane and Viktor Stalberg, the Blackhawks suddenly realized they already had the components to win games.
And as the Wings, Kings and Predators found out recently, when a team realizes that winning hockey games is about executing the fundamentals instead of putting on a show, that team can beat any other team in the NHL.
If there is anything remarkable about the 2010-11 season, so far, it is the observation that the difference between teams on a nightly basis is minimal in terms of talent. What appears to be the determining factor is the willingness of a team to play within ‘The System’. When interviewed, NHL coaches will cite the same things over and over again: the importance of forechecking and backchecking, gap control, the ability to protect ‘the house’, low-risk plays, puck protection, limiting turnovers, the elimination of lazy penalties, and so on, all of which have become clichés. Not very interesting to listen to for a fan, and probably not very interesting for a brash young hockey player who wants to show off his skills.
But as veteran hockey players discover, these ‘boring’ aspects of the game are essential to winning with any consistency. On teams where the balance favors experience, like a Detroit or a Philadelphia, watching them, validates the theory that simplicity and execution are more important than pure talent. Not to say those teams don’t have talented players, but their modus operandi under coaches like Babcock and Laviolette is predicated on their Cup-winning formula, the now-hackneyed but persistently accurate phrase, ‘do the little things’. In the early part of the season, and in their recent losses, the Blackhawks’ failures can all be traced to the failure to ‘do the little things’. While that may seem simplistic to the hockey writer or the fan, the reality is that in a game as fast as hockey, being able to do ‘the little things’ may be the most difficult part of the sport.
With the departure of so many players, the big question for the Hawks this year was how their replacements would fare. Looking at the roster, a few things have become clearer in that respect.
One is that the Blackhawks are still auditioning the sixth man for their ‘Top 6’. Toews, Kane, Hossa, Sharp and Bolland have both the salaries and the qualifications; below them, there is a dramatic drop-off in compensation, and ability to apply skill effectively.
So far, neither Troy Brouwer nor Tomas Kopecky have established themselves as Top 6 forwards. At about a million dollars each, both slated to be free agents next summer, both are playing for their jobs.
Below them, Bryan Bickell, Jack Skille, Viktor Stalberg, and when he has been called up, Jeremy Morin, have all taken their turns at playing on the top lines. With the exception of Stalberg, none has yet played a full NHL season; so patience can be deemed reasonable. In the case of Stalberg, his time with a dreadful Leafs organization whose collective performance was less than AHL level, can hardly be called quality schooling, so he also needs more time to fulfill his potential.
Skille and Bickell appear to have found the ‘touch’ recently, scoring goals at key times. If Bickell can keep his pace, he is on track for 20 goals. Jack Skille, whose draft position is too often cited (Dan Cleary was also a Chicago Number One pick, and there are many other such stories), is finally playing with poise and patience. With Bickell and Skille on task, the Hawks’ forward depth is augmented.
The so-called ‘bottom 6’ has been better than expected, with Jake Dowell, Fernando Pisani and now Ryan Johnson all demonstrating they are solid supporting players. Jordan Hendry and John Scott, pressed into duty at forward with the spate of injuries, have performed adequately.
With the Hawks being as cap-strapped as they are, the latest results, with Hossa, Kane and Stalberg still ailing, provide encouragement not only to fans, but to management. Trades will not be easy to make this year, so if the solutions can come from within the existing personnel, all the better. As Quenneville’s philosophy of rolling four lines has proven successful in the past, the improved play of his new guys is a major boost.
On defense, the answer seems to be a more equal distribution of ice time among the Top 4: with a healthy Brian Campbell, Quenneville can now rotate both pairs, which has reduced the factors for error that come with overwork. Nik Hjalmarsson’s play has improved noticeably as well, with Campbell using his speed and puckhandling to throw opponents off-balance. With greater cohesion, the play in the defensive zone, long a weakness of the Blackhawks, appears to have been transformed. Exits are cleaner, the slot is well-covered, and loose pucks are being retrieved from in front of Corey Crawford.
Though I had reservations about Jassen Cullimore, he seems to have found suitable form as a 5/6 man, as has the often-bashed Nick Boynton. Playing within their limitations and given defensive support from the forwards, both these veterans can get the job done until prospects like Nick Leddy are ready, or if Stan Bowman trades for an upgrade .
Crawford’s emergence has to be the big story so far for Chicago. Some are still not ‘sold’ on the young netminder; but as my Hockey Independent colleague Al Cimaglia and I observed at the beginning of the year, Crawford has become the Hawks’ equivalent of Jimmy Howard.
Like Howard, Crawford paid his dues for a long time in the AHL, and both of them faced skepticism when moving into the starting role. But both have an excellent grasp of the position, and both can make game-changing saves. In my view, Crawford is superior to Howard at this stage. If Marty Turco has become, as Al and I both agreed would probably be the case, the backup by Christmas, Hawks fans should not be disappointed or perturbed.
With five games to go, as of this writing, before the halfway point, the Blackhawks find themselves in a position not unlike the Red Wings last year; and the Penguins the year before. If some question the relevance of comparisons, these analogies are nonetheless instructive. Both Pittsburgh and Detroit, following consecutive trips to the Finals and respective Cup wins, had to re-shape their personnel significantly due to salary cap constraints. Both of those teams found themselves either in the pack jockeying for playoff position, or even on the outside, as Christmas arrived and New Year’s loomed. Both teams (like the Hawks this year) had to deal as well, with injuries to key players in the first half of the season; as the hockey world saw, both of those teams went on to recover from their setbacks.
Whether the Blackhawks do indeed make the playoffs in a dogfight that is extraordinarily tight, with six points separating first from ninth, and three points separating fifth from twelfth, depends on their willingness to play so-called ‘boring’, efficient hockey, going forward.
And with Detroit’s recent struggles compounded by the loss of Pavel Datsyuk for the next four to six weeks with a broken hand, even the Division Crown may be up for grabs.
One thing is for sure: if the Hawks can achieve consistency, and maintain that when Hossa, Kane and Stalberg return, they have a credible and unique opportunity to defend their Stanley Cup Championship.
But as Quenneville reminds his team and all Hawk watchers, it’s about looking at every day, what it’s going to take to win that day, that game, that period, that shift. And playing every one for keeps.
With three big games coming up, two against Division rivals, and all against teams as desperate for points as they are, there are no ‘gifts’ for the Hawks this Christmas, just the sound of Crunch Time.
(photo: Bryan Bickell, Jack Skille; NHL/Yahoo Sports)
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.