Hawks At The Half: Ball of Confusion

Tomas Kopecky: useful forward, or 'Ball of Confusion'?Watching the Blackhawks this year, the Temptations’ hit of the ‘70s comes to mind. “Ball of Confusion” was a throbbing, chaotic collage of music and voices that spoke of a world changing faster than humans could comprehend. An appropriate soundtrack for a Hawks’ team that, halfway through the season, is often chaotic, and has changed faster than either the fans or the team itself can comprehend. So what’s next?

A scan of the hockey media, whether in the mainstream or the blogosphere, reflects that confusion. Though the rationale, and the proposed solutions, may differ, all seem to agree that the basic core of the Blackhawks should mean they are both a playoff team and qualified to defend their Championship with some credibility.

But the roller-coaster ride of inconsistency wears thin, and after the Hawks dropped another two points in the third period, on home ice, this time against the Dallas Stars, nerves are justifiably frayed. Make no mistake: the Hawks’ front office has no intention of letting this team miss the playoffs. Unless, that is, they have suddenly changed their agenda of driving revenue and growing the fan base.

Owner Rocky Wirtz was candid about the choices management would have to make this year, saying in an interview with the Chicago media, “You have a core of players you need to secure long term, and the rest of the roster, you fill in.”

In principle, sound thinking, and the kind of thinking Cup winners like Detroit and Pittsburgh have applied in recent years. The Wings and Penguins have seen important, and role, players, leave through free agency, and have had to cope with injury and the inevitable changes in ‘team chemistry’ that has seen them stumble at times during the regular season. Last year, both Detroit and Pittsburgh got humbled in the playoffs as well. So the idea, and the reality, that the Hawks would suffer through what they are now, should not come as a surprise.

But of course, an organization as high-profile as the Chicago Blackhawks, can’t just stand pat. Stan Bowman has said the team has two obvious needs: a quality centerman, and an upgrade to the bottom pairing on defense. This is clear to observers, and probably at the root of the Hawks’ up-and-down performances.

The lack of that second centerman behind Jonathan Toews could be mitigated last year because the Hawks, deep at all the other forward positions, could roll four lines, and slot in players like Dave Bolland, Patrick Sharp, Kris Versteeg and Tomas Kopecky, none of whom is a Top 6 center, but all of whom could serve on an interim basis.

This year, the Hawks have a hole in the middle of the lineup. As the season goes on, the nature and the extent of that hole has become more obvious. Like the mysterious rattle in a car the mechanic can’t identify until it become serious enough to be seen, the Hawks’ squeaks and rattles have elicited all kinds of diagnosis.

An astute diagnosis came in a comment by my Hockey Independent colleague Al Cimaglia and a response by a reader: the Hawks have too many players at forward who have the same profile. Not skilled enough to be Top 6, not gritty or responsible enough to be Bottom 6.

If one concedes the ingredients of a winning hockey team are Skill, Smarts, Snarl, Speed and Size, the combination of those in one player being rare means a GM needs to be the chef that finds, and implements, the balance of those ingredients in his roster.

To my mind, Ray Shero represents one of the best examples. His Penguins have a variety of players, some of whom are top-end, many of whom perform specific roles with the ability to create an element of surprise when facing an opponent. And Shero, having learned from his father, the legendary Philadelphia Flyers coach Fred Shero, knows hockey is about “Arriving with a sense of ill humor”. In other words, nastiness or ‘snarl’. Penguins like Kunitz, Dupuis, Kennedy, Cooke, Adams, Rupp, Engelland, Godard, for example, are all players who bring considerable snarl, and some of them have some of the other ingredients.

Paul Holmgren knows that as well, having been a player under Shero’s guidance, with snarl; he has built his Flyers with enough skill and more than enough snarl to take them to the Finals last year, and quite possibly, this year.

Do this year’s Hawks have enough ‘snarl’? The short answer is ‘no’.

The Stanley Cup Championship team had that perfect balance of the ‘Five S’ (Skill, Smarts, Snarl, Size and Speed), and, the benefit, as Stan Mikita said about his ’61 winner, of “putting it all together at the right time”.

The current team has plenty of skill at the top end. What it doesn’t have in the mid-range, and this is only truly evident at the halfway point, is the right combination of necessary ingredients.

As anyone in management will tell you, it is extremely difficult to know exactly how a new worker, or a worker who is promoted, will pan out once they are on the job. Potential within the organization, a great interview, the successful execution of pilot projects, may all say, ‘this one’s a keeper’. But when the pressure is on, and applied constantly, the true character of a worker emerges.

Troy Brouwer, Bryan Bickell, Jack Skille, Viktor Stalberg, Tomas Kopecky and Jake Dowell are the ‘middle of the roster’, and except for Dowell, no one can say that any of them have performed optimally this year. Not one of them has enough of the ‘Five S’ to make them essential. Would the Hawks miss any one, or even two of these players, if traded for an asset the Hawks really need? That is a question Stan Bowman may be asking. It is a question Hawkey writers and fans have been asking.

Like the aforementioned ‘new worker’, all these young men have skills that suggest they could be promoted. But none of them have proven to be the answer.

When a prospect like Jeremy Morin shows up and displays almost all of the ‘Five S’ qualities, one or more of the other aforementioned players will, logically, be displaced. There is another prospect who, it has been suggested, may also bring this skill set to the Blackhawks, first round pick and World Juniors Team Canada defenseman Dylan Olsen. They may be kids, but both Morin and Olsen represent the kind of dynamic, game-changing player the Blackhawks need more of right now.

Players like Dave Bolland, Fernando Pisani and Ryan Johnson all do their jobs as veteran defensive players well enough, though Bolland’s salary will continue to make him a magnet for criticism.

In a previous article, I mentioned that Marian Hossa would need to take a greater role in leading the team. After watching the Stars defeat the Hawks at the United Center Wednesday night, January 5, it’s clear that leadership, even by the top end players like Hossa, as well as Sharp, Duncan Keith and even Jonathan Toews, won’t be enough to get the Blackhawks to the post season.

There a few things to like about the Hawks at the half. Corey Crawford has been better than anyone could have hoped; Patrick Sharp’s goal production establishes him as a premier forward.

But the warning signs are flashing.

There have already been some demotions on defense, as Nick Boynton has been scratched, and Jassen Cullimore sent to Rockford.

To be in the pack of ten teams fighting for five playoff spots, with four points between them, is not a disaster; it is, however, increasingly precarious.

Sitting in tenth place, playing little better than .500 hockey, spinning their wheels, in a ball of confusion, is not the tune the Hawks should be dancing to.

With seven weeks to go before the NHL trade deadline, that tune has to change. Either it comes from within, or it comes from the Blackberry of Stan Bowman.

(Photo of Tomas Kopecky, Associated Press)

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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. shruew says:

    Good read, though I’ve always preferred the Love and Rockets cover version myself…

    • Dave Morris says:

      Shruew>thx.

      PS Love and Rockets had some good moments…back when…and the Hawks had some snarl in those days too ;-)

  2. Al Cimaglia says:

    Very good account of this quandry.

    Maybe Bowman can come up with a bigger package of trade bait…Someone from the roster, draft picks and Ice Hogs.

    But it won’t be easy…
    The for sale sign is going up in NJ and other places but…

    Do the Hawks have enough trade bait to be able to improve themselves?

    I’m not so sure unless Bowman parts with someone he probably would rather not want to trade.

    I don’t think he can wait very much longer and he doesn’t have much cap room.

    Tough spot.

  3. shruew says:

    Unless someone waives their NMC’s, there’s not a lot of cap clearing trade options. Kopy and Brouwer might be around $1MM, but their likely replacements from Rockford are in the $850k range anyway.

    You basically have Hammer, Seabrook, Hossa, Sharp and Bolland to move to add real salary.

    Turco’s probably happy he got his NMC …

    • Al Cimaglia says:

      When there is a replacement from within the organization then it makes sense to deal Hammer.

      Everyone you mentioned can’t be replaced by anyone they can acquire who would be better…

      So a Hammer for a 2nd line center could happen this summer…If Olsen or Leddy is ready.

      Otherwise trading any of those mentioned…NMC or not…would be basically to dump salary and not helping them improve for this season.

  4. rock says:

    Could a Dowell/Smith/Klinkhammer type line work? I know none of them can score but in terms of being defensively responsible and being able to play on the PK would that be a better 4th line option?

    Is Dowell injured?

    When do you expect Morin back in the line up? And whose spot can/will he take?

    It isn’t like the Hawks aren’t scoring… They are just letting in wayyyyyyyyy to many goals. Like on the PK, what is so different?

    • Al Cimaglia says:

      Could a Dowell/Smith/Klinkhammer type line work?

      No…Now the Hawks use…

      Toews-Hossa

      Bolland-Pisani- Sharp- Dowell

      Is Smith or Klikhammer going to be any better?

      • rock says:

        No… you are right, probably more of the same with a lower ceiling

        Does the math on the Langenbrunner thing work if they carry 2 less players (3 healthy scratches seems a bit much with Rockford so close)

        Move either a Kopecky or Brouwer and toss Skille in there somewhere?

        That could create close to 2mil? Maybe kind of tight.

        NJ really doesn’t have any room for a “player” and we have a plethora of desirable prospects and draft picks…

  5. vito says:

    Good read Dave, I thought what Steve Konroyd said last night about the Hawks not playing confident and Troy Murray saying that they’re not playing a full 60 minutes is so true. There is no reason why this team can’t be better than at least 10 teams in the west, Talent wise Hawks are top 5 but the heart and determination is right were they belong in the standings. I may be wrong but its just the way it seems to me.

    • Dave Morris says:

      Vito, thanks> as you know, Steve Konroyd and Troy Murray tell it like it is…the real problem isn’t that the guys don’t have the ability, it’s the mental lapses.

      Lapses that keep recurring.

      It’s like the guy who works for you, and you ask if he understands what he needs to do…he says “Yeah” and then makes the same mistakes over and over again, and yet, never often enough that you can say with certainty, that he’s not competent.

      So it is with some of these players: some nights, you say, they’ve got it, other nights, they’re nowhere, or making hare-brained mistakes or lazy plays, you name it.

      That’s what is so infuriating for fans…imagine how infuriating it must be for Q and the coaches.

      The teams that are winning are playing fundamentally sound hockey, and some, like PIT and PHI, are playing with a real edge. But even *those* guys have to be reminded to stay on task.

      The Hawks don’t have the depth, so if their middle of the roster guys don’t play 110% every night, they lose close games.

      Star players are generally risk takers, and they have the talent to compensate…look at what Toews did after taking the penalty in LA the other night: the Captain goes out and scores a goal.

      Middle-level guys can’t do that, and the middle-level guys in CHI right now aren’t getting it done.

      As for Al, Shreuw and Rock’s trade suggestions, they are all correct in that the options are truly limited unless Stan gets lucky and finds a dance partner.

      I think Leddy, Morin and Olsen will all get an audition before the trade deadline, and I believe Bowman will work very hard to find that ‘missing piece’. But I am not optimistic in that respect.

      The good news is, IF the Hawks pull themselves together, their chances of making the playoffs in such a tight pack are as good as anyone’s.

  6. Dave Morris says:

    PS The Daily Herald’s Tim Sassone said today he thinks Bowman should make a pitch for Jamie Langenbrunner. At a $2.8M cap hit, I don’t see how that’s possible, but Sassone is right when he says Langenbrunner is the *type* of player the Hawks could use.

    With the Senators coming to Chicago, I would like to see Bowman get young centerman Peter Regin (Al would like d-man Matt Carkner)…IF Bryan Murray is ready to deal. But being here in Ottawa, watching that team for the last few years as I have, Bryan Murray’s logic when making trades still escapes me.

  7. hockeynut says:

    Dave,

    Melnyk, Murray, Clouston appear to be on very different pages as the Sens come to town. Additionally, Murray seems to be in a tailspin about his standing with Melnyk.

    In short, the Sens seem combustible at the moment. If I am Bowman I am all over Murray to see if he will make a move to buy himself more time.

    I brought up the idea of Campbell for Spezza some time ago in one of Al’s blogs.

    I still like it with a few additions.

    Campbell (7.1m), Brouwer (1.02m), Bickell (0.55)and Hendry (0.6m) for

    Spezza (7.0m), Regin (1.0m) and Carkner (0.7m)

    Reasons:

    #1 Centers are harder to find than #3 d-men. However, on the Hawks Spezza would be #2 which might do him some good.
    Regin adds some much needed depth at center and would allow Sharp to play wing. Between Bolland, Regin, Dowell, Johnson, Pirri they have to be able to find a third and fourth line center combo.

    Between Leddy, Olson, Lalonde, Connelly, Vish they should be able to replace Campbell in part if not totally. If the Hawks have prospect depth it’s at D.

    Stan would have to spell it out for Bryan for sure. He has not shown to be a very skilled or creative deal maker.

    Both teams need to do something and the money can match up.

    I assume Campbell has a no trade but getting close to home has been a priority for him according to some. Ottawa is closer to Strathroy than Chicago is.

    • Dave Morris says:

      HN> the Campbell for Spezza idea has been floating around for some time…as Soupy has an NTC I really don’t see him agreeing to move to Ottawa, basically because the Senators organization is a complete mess.

      Really.

      For the Hawks, giving up Campbell and taking on Spezza, an admittedly talented player, but whose brain cramps make Jack Skille look like Rocket Richard, is something I don’t think you as a Blackhawk fan would want to see.

      I like Regin, I like Carkner, because their value is simple, and measurable. Let’s see if Bryan Murray is a seller.

    • Al Cimaglia says:

      I can understand ur logic but I doubt Campbell would ok a trade there….

      Actually it will be tough to get him to ok a trade to any team.

  8. Dave Morris says:

    PS footnote to my earlier comment to HockeyNut:

    A few years back, before the Senators signed Spezza to that ridiculously overpriced contract, there was a rumor re: Tallon sending Khabibulin to OTT for JaySpez, which actually could have worked out for both clubs.

    Since that time, some questionable coaching and a number of injuries have reduced Spezza’s overall effectiveness. That said, on a good team, who knows…

    My view of Regin when I first saw him play in OTT was that he had all of Spezza’s basic skill with none of the bad habits. But Clouston has completely mismanaged him, which is why I would like to see Regin in CHI, where he COULD become a #2 centerman.

    • hockeynut says:

      Admittedly, the two keys to a potential deal are Campbell’s willingness to be traded and Murray’s ability to get out of his own way if it made sense for both sides.

      Nobody will answer the door if you don’t knock.

      • Dave Morris says:

        Hockeynut>agreed…one just has to know if there is a door, and if it is indeed willing to open…

        Bryan Murray’s history of trades during his tenure as GM has included acquiring players like Corey Stillman, Mike Commodore, Mike Comrie, Jonathan Cheechoo, Mark Cullen and Andy Sutton, all of whom are now somewhere else.

        So, if history tells us something, a trade of any magnitude w/Ottawa would be unusual.

        However, Henry Ford did say ‘history is bunk’.

        I don’t know if you remember the Phil Esposito-Ken Hodge-Fred Stanfield for Gilles Marotte-Pit Martin-Jack Norris trade. Those were the days of *real* trades. ;-)

  9. Adam F says:

    Very nice article. Although for my own selfish purposes I substituted the Kinks “State of Confusion” because…well..I like the Kinks.

    This is what I’ve kind of been wanting to see from Stan this year. I thought he did a pretty good job at making money driven trades. But can he make a “Brandon Buchenski for Kris Versteeg.” like talent driven deal. I don’t know much about Peter Regin or Matt Carkner ( He’s nothing like ex-flyer and Ranger Terry Carker is he?) but I won’t judge until a deal is actually made. How about Tuommo’s brother/ There’s your jam…

    I see the Brian Campbell traders are out again. Sigh…It must be a midwest thing this not getting over what a person makes. Would it help if I pointed out that Campbell has been our best d-man this year by a country mile? That he’s on pace for a +30, Lidstrom territory, despite missing a significant amount of time? That he’s turned Hjalmersson’s season around? That the Hawks are 6-0-0 in the six games he’s led in TOI? That according to Behind The Net he’s been not only the best defenseman but the teams all around best player? No? Still want to trade him because of some antiquated view as to what a defenseman should do and what he shouldn’t do? C’est la vie.

    Anyway keep up the great work. Look forward to reading.

    • Dave Morris says:

      Adam> thanks for your compliment and your comment…I understand why Brian Campbell is the centerpiece of trade scenarios. He is, after all, the most expensive player on the roster. But as you underline, he is also a key man in CHI’s core group, whose presence clearly drives the Hawks’ attack, and as he has shown, is a solid defender.

      Given the state of business in the NHL right now, I would be very surprised if any team, that Brian Campbell would be ready to go to (for one thing, Campbell seems pretty happy as a Hawk), would be ready to acquire Brian Campbell. But strange things happen in the minds of team owners and GMs.

      No one would have thought Kovalchuk would be a Devil and that Heatley would be a Shark…so it goes to show, as the great screenwriter William Goldman once said about Hollywood, that “no one knows anything.”

      So, if we really wanted to speculate, we could ask, “Soupy for Kovalchuk?” Which, all things being equal, might not be a bad deal for both teams.

  10. adam F says:

    yeah it would.

  11. Al Cimaglia says:

    Kovalchuk is the most untradeable player in the NHL….Without question.

  12. Al Cimaglia says:

    What is he signed through…. 2025 ???? Yikes!

    • Dave Morris says:

      Al, when it comes to ‘hot stove talk’, it costs nothing to have fun ‘trading’ players…funnily enough, Brian Campbell is more the kind of player the Devils could use than Ilya Kovalchuk. Campbell is very much a d-man in the style of Scott Niedermayer and Brian Rafalski, who helped power those Championship New Jersey teams.

      Kovalchuk, on the other hand, is the kind of flashy forward who would bring the UC crowd to their feet the way Bobby Hull used to. Take the money factor out for a moment, and imagine a Hawk attack with Ilya, Hossa, Kane, Toews and Sharp…

      But it *is* strange how things work out, or don’t…