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)
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.