When one speaks of hockey as ‘a simple game’, one also speaks of its absolutes. It has a speed and flow unlike any other spectator sport, and it has a suddenness and unpredictability that both excites, and tests the patience of, the fan. If one’s team is going well, the vicarious adrenaline rush takes over; when that team is struggling, the emotion can be unforgiving anger or brutal depression. The mood swings match the momentum swings of a contest and a season. The ride on the roller-coaster that has been the Chicago Blackhawks from October through December 2010 has been rocky at best. And waking up in tenth place on New Year’s Day 2011, shocking.
Ahead of the Christmas break, Hawks head coach Joel Quenneville sounded like a man whose hand was ever ready to reach for the antacid tablets. “Every day you’re looking at what it’s going to take,” he growled. Those who watch him explode behind the bench, berating his team for inexplicable lapses, wonder, as he no doubt does, whether the Stanley Cup Champions will even make the playoffs this coming spring. The season may be a marathon, but trying to run in the middle of the pack is a dangerous place to be. As Quenneville added after the latest disappointment: “If we want to become a playoff team and a better team, these are the points we have to have.”
December has done nothing to qualm the fears of those who expect the worst. Six wins, five regulation losses, one overtime loss: barely a .500 record, though a four-game win streak in the second half promised the Hawks had ‘turned the corner’, as the cliché goes.
That glimmer of promise was before Captain Jonathan Toews got slammed into the boards by the Blues’ Matt D’Agostini in a 3-1 December 28th defeat in St. Louis, putting Toews out of action for the next two weeks and seven games at least, with what was called a shoulder injury. And installing a black cloud over Hawk Nation.
Thoughts of putting distance between themselves and other teams in the race and their Division, possibly making up ground on the leaders in Detroit, suddenly evaporated. ‘Managing expectations’ became the operative phrase as Blackhawks TV color commentator and former star Ed Olczyk ominously intoned, “Without Jonathan Toews, this team has to be concerned at staying one game above .500.” Not a thought with which to celebrate the New Year.
Add to that gloomy perspective the news that newly designated starting goalie Corey Crawford, suffering from the flu, would be absent from the net for an undetermined time, as would for the same reason, underrated and valuable checking forward Fernando Pisani. Hot prospect winger Jeremy Morin suffered an injury in the World Juniors. Some Hawks fans were saying it was time to “think about baseball season”, as one put it in a Hawkey web forum.
For the players, such thoughts bring no relief.
Their recent loss in San Jose was replicated at the United Center on December 30, with Antti Niemi serving up the same bitter prescription for his third consecutive win over his former employers.
Though the game was close, the outcome had the feeling of inevitability once the Blackhawks fell behind 3-1, and a brief comeback could not be turned into a lead, Joe Thornton getting his revenge with the game-winning tally for having been stifled in the Hawks’ playoff sweep of the Sharks. The sound of San Jose GM Doug Wilson, ironically one of Chicago’s most revered former players, now rubbing his hands at the Hawks’ travails, could be heard as well.
If expectations must be managed, the fan still seeks explanations. And why not? The supporters invest themselves, and their earnings, taking a stake in the team’s fortunes. How can the Champions have the look of a sputtering jalopy as the dead of winter takes over? How can the Blackhawks, who were so deep at all positions just months ago, be reduced to playing two defensemen on the forward lines? How can the club that powered its way to a record-setting hundred and twelve point campaign and the Cup last June, be projected to little more than ninety by next April? To make matters worse, Hawks fans glance at the hated Red Wings, who without Pavel Datsyuk, appear to be marching onward, to the delight of their faithful who taunt Chicago as the ‘little brother’.
Reality paints a slightly different picture. The 2010-11 NHL season has been marked by wild swings in performance by clubs in both Conferences. Teams go on winning streaks and losing streaks seemingly at the drop of the puck. While a cluster of clubs already look ready for the golf course, another gaggle is battling for berths, and the standings change from week to week, sometimes day to day.
Where Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have established themselves in the East, the other squads in the Top 8 pinball around the standings. While in the West, Detroit, Vancouver and Dallas have managed to perch themselves in front, the pursuers, from fourth down to twelfth, battle over a four-point spread. So any combination of a pair of wins and losses can shuffle the deck. And anybody can beat anybody.
This tests the mettle of the fan who wants consistency, and irritates the stomach walls of the coaching staff, who just want their troops to ‘keep it simple, stupid’. When the clichés are so worn they have the consistency of used Kleenex, coaches age with each passing shift.
Looking beyond the microscopic view of the Hawks’ struggles, the bigger picture indicates that the transition undertaken by management is going about more or less as anticipated. Critics of the Blackhawks crowed that Chicago would look like an “AHL team” after the summer re-tooling. There are still those pining for Dustin Byfuglien, among others the Hawks couldn’t afford to keep. Many are wondering how the glory so long in coming, could be so fleeting.
The relative weakness of Chicago’s bottom defensive pairing, and the ongoing problem at center, has Stan Bowman looking for solutions. That won’t be simple when the entire league is up to its neck in overpriced players with no-trade clauses, and contenders are cap-strapped. But there are short-term upgrades to be found.
Combing through the depth charts for d-men, names like the Flames’ Anton Babchuk (ironically a former Chicago first round pick), the Islanders’ Milan Jurcina, and Montreal’s Alex Picard emerge. All are around or below the million-dollar cap hit the Hawks can credibly consider.
Centers are much, much more difficult to find in that price range. Everybody wants a Jordan Staal-type; good luck finding one. Among pending FAs who might be available, defensive specialists Rob Niedermayer (BUF), the Flames’ Craig Conroy (solid but aging), the even more aging Doug Weight (NYI), the physical Todd Marchant (with Anaheim acquiring Max Lapierre) could augment the bottom six. Perhaps the Oilers’ Andrew Cogliano (offensively gifted but smallish), might be on Bowman’s shopping list. But could any of them deliver the desired impact, and are they worth the transaction?
Those who lament the Hawks’ dilemma might look at the situations with the Ducks, Flames, Hurricanes, Devils, Oilers and Senators, all teams that were considered ‘elite’—four of them, Cup finalists, one a winner—just scant seasons ago; none can lay claim to that, now. Blame the cap? Blame the CBA? Blame ‘parity’? Not that such things comfort Hawkey people.
Blackhawk fans might decide to be patient with their heroes, or they can spend this season gnashing their teeth, pulling their hair and uttering expletives. Nothing is easy for a Champion, and few things more frustrating for the follower who wants more. Building a Cup winner is a tenuous process, and hanging on to that status is an art few have ever mastered; none in the last dozen years, never mind the post-lockout era.
The Blackhawks are defending their title with difficulty. They must soldier on without three or four key players, as they have had to, throughout the current campaign, though the names have changed. For now, those ‘missing in action’ are Toews, Crawford, Pisani and Morin. Come the New Year, their return can make a difference. Might a premium prospect like World Junior d-man, top pick Dylan Olsen, ascend from Rockford? Stranger things have happened.
In the meantime, the spotlight shifts to a superstar like Marian Hossa, who becomes by default the Hawks’ finest player. Hossa is one of the league’s best two way forwards, but the question of whether he can lead a team remains to be answered. He will have to lead, until Toews, who may be the best center in the NHL along with Sidney Crosby and Pavel Datsyuk, recovers from his injury. Hossa is, arguably, the lynchpin in the Chicago core comprising Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Brian Campbell: a core as good as any in the NHL. That logic suggests Hossa was the final missing component that allowed the Blackhawks to go to the Cup Final and capture the crown they had been seeking for half a century.
Hossa has shaken the ‘big game’ demons that dogged him through his time in Ottawa, Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Detroit, and he has his Cup ring. But these are desperate times in Chicago. Time for him to show he is the franchise player that Rocky Wirtz signed to the equivalent of a lifetime deal. The Hoss Man has to be the Boss Man, if the Hawks are going to be there when the roll is called for the springtime prom of Lord Stanley’s Dance.
(Photo: Marian Hossa; NHL)
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.