Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Blackhawks and the NHL at the All-Star Break: Blackhawks Not So Down

Slovak power!
As I sit here watching Harry Potter and Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (and Emma Watson), I have been hit with the writing bug.  I’ve put my mind out of football mode after the Bears season ended in shambles and Michigan brought a very successful season to a close.  I have little desire to start previewing what will be a disappointing season (make that seasons) for the baseball teams of Chicago. The Bulls are rocking without a true big man and the Michigan men are pulling off a number of 2 point victories and losses.  While all those things will be covered in due time, I will discuss the Blackhawks, now that we have reached the All-Star break.  Hopefully you checked out the fantasy draft on Thursday (and tracked to see how Andrew and I picked).  You should watch the skills competition Saturday as well, with Marian Hossa (Fastest Skater, Accuracy Shooting) and Patrick “that blond is unbelievable” Kane (Breakaway Challenge, Skills Relay, Shootout) representing Chicago [EDIT: Since I took too long to post this, the skills challenge is over.  SuperKaner won the Breakaway Challenge, but his team lost the competition].   The Blackhawks also made a trade with the Calgary Flames, acquiring Brendan Morrison, a center and a Michigan hockey great.

The break gives us a chance to look back on what the 2011-2012 season has brought us, as well as what is to come, with trades and the playoffs.  I first want to grade each line and defensive pairing, as well as the goalies and coaches.  I’ll go into what the Hawks need to make a playoff push, and then revised picks for how the conferences will shake out.  Hopefully, I will give Hawks fans some confidence.  I say this because the Bears train of thought (“OMG A LOSS WE’RE HAVING A FIRE SALE”) has crept into the Blackhawks fan base.  It was only a matter of time, given the Hawks recent success and the town’s desire for a winner.  However, when I am browsing Twitter and am seeing suggestions that Kane needs to be traded, everyone needs to take a step back and take a deep breath. The hockey season is long and no team will win every game, and no player can be on every single night.  Yes, this team needs some improvements, but so does every team, especially in the salary cap world we now find ourselves in.  So now that we have stepped off the ledge and taken the noose off our neck, let’s grade Chicago’s hockey team.

Here’s what I said in the preseason about the Blackhawks:
"I expect a middling record while coach Joel Quenneville figures out the lines and how all the new pieces will fit together. Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa look like they will absolutely dominate this year as long as the latter stays on the ice. They should be able carry the team until my boy Jonathan Toews ends his yearly October funk and does what he is capable of. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook should soon find themselves on the blue line together again, heading up a deep defensive corps and a goalie looking to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump. The Hawks also added a lot more grit to the team this year, which will hopefully help them be strong down the stretch."
For once, a prediction I made actually was halfway decent.  Quenneville has been line juggling all season, which is something he is well known for.  Bother Kane and Hossa started off the season as red hot linemates, though the former has cooled off considerably.  Toews didn’t even have to wait until October to begin his dominating ways and is in the conversation for the Hart Trophy (the MVP for all you non-Hockey folk).  Keith and Seabrook have been a pair for most of the year, while Crawford has had an average season that has been a bit of a rollercoaster ride.  With that in mind, here are my grades for each line, the defensive pairing, the goalies, and the coaches.  I will use the lines that will most likely be used for the rest of the season."

Midseason Grades

Patrick Kane – Jonathan Toews – Victor Stalberg  A: This has truly been the top line for Quenneville, and would get an A+ if not for Kane’s disappointing stretch.  As mentioned before, Toews is having a Hart-caliber season, leading the team in goals with 27, killing opponents on the face-off dot, and being the true leader this team needs by being the hardest worker night in, night out.   His is the reason this line gets the highest mark on the team. Stalberg has been a pleasant surprise and has almost made us forget about Kris Versteeg.  Stalberg has outstanding speed that he is using wisely and seemed to find a nose for the net that he has lacked in the past. Kaner, on the other hand, has been on a rough patch since around November, disappearing from both ends of the ice for long stretches.  Yes he has 41 points, good for third on the team, but we know he can be so much more.  When he wants to, he has the talent to take the game over.  He has some of the quickest hands in the league and we have seen the stretches where he goes into what some term as “F*** You Mode.”  This is the line that will need to stay healthy if the Hawks want a shot at the Cup.

Marian Hossa – Marcus Kruger – Patrick Sharp A-:  The Hawks have the privilege of rolling 2 lines that could be the top of many teams in the NHL.  Hossa definitely deserves his All-Star selection, leading the team in points and +/-.  Like Kane, he has the size and skill to just take over a game.  I love watching him cycle strong with the puck before holding a guy off with one hand and getting a good shot on goal.  He is also a force on the power play and penalty kill.  Kruger has far outplayed expectations, providing a nice centerman skill set through his defense and ability on the dot.  As long as his brains don’t get scrambled again, he could be the second line center for the rest of the year, but his size may work against him there.  Sharp has been his usual self before going down with a wrist injury. His spotty defensive play has been discouraging since it used to be a strong point, but as long as he scores at his pre-injury pace, he will be welcome on this line.

Andrew Shaw puts Peggy on hold. #ShawFacts
Michael Frolik – Dave Bolland – Andrew Shaw/Jimmy Hayes C+: When Chicago won the Cup in 2010, it was because of the stellar play of the third line.  Both Andrew Ladd and Kris Versteeg are on the top lines of their respective teams.  The success of this line, though, will always draw it’s strength from Dave Bolland.  Despite struggling to score and win faceoffs consistently, Bolland has the ability to hang with an opponent’s top line.  However, Bolland has been the only good thing on this line.  Frolik has been very disappointing.  He can’t find the back of the net to save his life, with 5 goals in 40+ games.   This would be less of a problem if he offered help in his own zone, but he looks lost on defense.  Bryan Bickell started on this line, but has found himself scratched in recent games, most likely for his inability to effectively use his large frame.  The kids Shaw and Hayes have looked very good for rookies, with Shaw becoming a cult hero with 6 points in 8 games and some nice play on defense. Hayes has also played well, and I believe he will be a nice player in the years to come. He is a big body with good hands.  If he can develop a shot, I think he can be that big presence the Hawks want alongside Kane and Toews.  For this season, he could stick on this line, and right now is a better option than Bickell.

Jamal Myers – Brendan Morrison – Andrew Brunette B-:  The highest grade I would ever give a fourth line is a B, so this is a pretty high evaluation for them.   Myers has been exactly what we expected, a guy who will throw his body around and get in a few scraps.  He was centering this line, but that job now goes the newly acquired Morrison, who gives the Hawks depth at a much need position.  He is an injury risk, but is a veteran presence that will remind fans of John Madden (another Michigan guy!)  with his faceoff prowess and ability to chip in on offense.  Brunette has been solid, though a bit of a letdown. Everyone predicted he would be a top-6 guy, but hasn’t shown he can keep up with the top line.  I do like what he brings to the PP with his ability to camp out in front of the net.   I suppose I should mention Dan Carcillo here, which was a signing I hated from the start.  He had a nice first 10 games, and then went on to show why no one likes him.  I never like to see players injured, but I am glad to see him off this team.   In the end, this is one of the better 4th lines out there, and gets the job done for the Hawks.

Duncan Keith – Brent Seabrook B+: The top D pairing for the Blackhawks has been solid and by far the most trustworthy for Chicago. Keith and Seabrook provide the best +/- combo on the blue line and are often called to shut down the other team’s top talent.  Seabrook is my favorite defensemen on this team, since he uses his size wisely and has a heavy show that is underused on the power play.  Keith has improved over his performance last season, where he would try blind or long breakout passes at the worst time, but he still isn’t quite at his 2010 Norris-caliber level.  He has done a nice job contributing on offense, with 24 helpers.  My concern continues to be this pair’s TOI (time on ice), which Quenneville pushes into the 26 minutes mark on a nightly basis, which is thankfully less than the last 2 years.  The pair will be relied on heavily for a deep playoff push, and it would be nice if they are not completely burned out by season’s end.

Nick Leddy – Nicklas Hjalmarsson C-: This is the line that caused the most concern going into the season.  Although the Brian Campbell trade will definitely help in the seasons to come, it did leave a void on the blue line.  Campbell had the team’s top +/- last year, and his ability to bring the puck up the ice was a huge benefit to how the Hawks want to play their game.  20 year-old Nick Leddy was pegged to fill that role after playing for most of last season.  He has actually done a good job with respect to his experience level and has shown he can be that offensive defensemen the Hawks need.  However, he is simply being asked to do too much and often times looks totally overmatched in his own end. It doesn’t help that his partner Nicklas Hjalmmersson has totally forgotten why the Hawks chose to resign him over Antti Niemi. I don’t mind that the Swede doesn’t show up on the stat sheets, but his defensive play can be perplexing and leaves fans wondering what happened to that fine young talent that helped win the Stanley Cup.  Hjalmersson needs to step up his game, because the Hawks can’t ask Leddy to do more than he is right now.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Hawks trade for a d-man, but I would hate to see it impact the Hawks puck-possession style.

Steve Montador – Sean O’Donnell C:  I was confident about this pair going in, given their experience and skill sets.  Yes, they’re slow as hell and sometimes make bone-headed plays, but that is the life of a NHL 3rd pair d-man.  I honestly think this pair could be better if Coach Q trusted them a little more.  They rarely break the 15 minute mark for TOI, which is not good for a defensive pairing.  The attention lapses are unfortunate, but again, third pair.  Montador has actually settled in nicely on the second PP unit.  I just ask that these 2 (or whoever finds themselves on this line) keep up what they have beendoing.

Corey Crawford & Ray Emery B-: Goalie is one of the most interesting positions in sports, and is even more bizarre in the Madhouse on Madison.  Rookie Neimi rose to win the Cup, but was not kept in the great salary purge of 2010.  I called the move a great choice and still hold by that.  The Hawks chose to build their team through defense, not goaltenders, which I really like. Yes, a goalie can get hot and carry a team to the Cup Finals on his shoulders (see Roy, Patrick or Thomas, Tim).  But goalies are streaky, while defenses can be far more consistent.  Just look at the Red Wings.  They won multiple Cups with lesser goalies (with the exception of Dominik Hasek).  So the Hawks brought up Corey Crawford, who had a great rookie season and nearly willed the Hawks past the Canucks in the playoffs.  This season, however, he has fought the puck and was pulled for backup Ray Emery for a stretch in December.  Chicago is the only team in the NHL not to post a shutout.  I think Crawford is the man going forward and that this is just part of the sophomore slump.  At this point, they aren’t going to acquire another goalie before the playoffs as there are more pressing matters to take care of. Crawford has shown he can be the guy, and Emery has proven to be a capable backup.  The lower grade for the goalies reflects the inconsistency of the defense (which is not good, because that is how this team is built).

Bow before its glory
Joel Quenneville B: It’s hard to grade a man with such a glorious mustache anything lower than an A++, but that is what I am doing.  The Hawks PK has been at the bottom of the league all season, and poor special teams play is usually a reflection of the coaching.  A lot of the things he does that I don’t like are things he has done his whole career, so that isn’t going to change. He is very quick to change up lines when the Hawks are down, which I really don’t like.  He also has a habit of putting guys in his dog house for no apparent reason.  Last season, it was Stalberg.  This season, it’s Steve Montador and Sami Lepisto.  These decisions mean more TOI for Chicago’s top players and goalies, which leads to a tired team when things really matter. 

What the Hawks Need

I think that I have highlighted what the Blackhawks need in the grades.  They need a top-6 type player, preferably a center, that can provide depth for injuries and some secondary scoring.   They also need a second pair defenseman who will bolster the Hawks poor PK and high shots against totals.  Unlike the past 2 years, they have about $4.8 million in cap space to add some pieces.  They also have a deep pool of prospects to deal away.  We obviously don't want to be mortgaging the future, especially with the hard cap, but there are some desirable guys on teams that are already out of the running.  Here are a few that I like.

  • Saku Koivu, Anaheim C - The Ducks have an awful record and are looking to get younger.  The Hawks could send a higher level prospect and a draft pick to get a guy who can be that 2nd line center and can help in all aspects of the game.
  • Bryan Allen, Carolina D - The Canes are also looking to dump salary, and this physical d-man would look real nice roughing up opposing players.
  • Tim Gleason, Carolina D - He wouldn't provide the presence of Allen, but he is a shutdown cover guy,  which the Hawks could use to clean up Leddy's screw ups.
  • Tuomo Ruutu, Carolina C - Yea, the Canes are bad and have lots of money locked up in just a few players.  Ruutu is a former Hawk that can be physical without being stupid, and can also play wing if needed.
  • Ladislav Smid, Edmonton D - This is a guy who GM Stan Bowman had his eye on. He has a big body, and uses it well, blocking lots of shots and getting in plenty of hits.  Like Koivu, he may cost a little more, but is a nice option for what the Hawks need.

Stanley Cup Playoff Prediction
"That's why my 2012 Stanley Cup Final prediction is the Tampa Lightning over the San Jose Sharks in 7."
And there goes my predicting ability, right back to where I thought it was to begin with.  While the Sharks are looking good in the West, the Lightning have a losing record.  Despite Steven Stamkos leading the league in goals, Tampa Bay has struggled mightily in their own zone, sporting a -29 goal differential.  They still have a chance to get back in it, as I believe Florida and Winnipeg's first half success won't last as the playoffs approach.

I'm not so concerned with the Eastern Conference, mostly because the Blackhawks are in the west, but also because the East is more top heavy than the West.  Boston and the New York Rangers are the teams to beat, with Philly and Pittsburgh (sans Cindy Crosbaby) not far behind.  In the Western Conference, however, the playoff bids are anyone's guess.  The top 6 teams are separated by 3 points, and LA is poised to make a push with the outstanding play of Jonathan Quick.  Four of those teams are in the Central, which makes it by far the best division in hockey.  The Red Wings, of course, are at the top despite their aging roster.  BTW, if you haven't tuned into a Hawks-Wings game this year, you really need to. They play beautiful hockey and each game has been decided by 1 goal, with two going to OT.  They Blues are using good goalie play (they rank #1 in goals against) and a reinvigorated style from new coach Ken Hitchcock.  Nashville continues to be the thorn in the Hawks side and win games despite having a roster full of castoffs.

I am fully confident that the Blackhawks can get to the playoffs.  They simply have too much talent to be kept out, and I can't imagine a team led by Jonathan Toews giving up as the season goes on.  A trade or 2 may help out, but are not 100% required.  Also, they can compete (and beat) any team in the Western Conference.  The Sharks and Canucks have no defense, the Wings play the same style with older players, and  the Blues and Kings are unproven.  Honestly, the Predators are the only team that scares me, as they have shown to be the only team that has found a way to shut Chicago down.  Let's just hope some other team takes care of the Preds before the Hawks have to.

As far as the Stanley Cup Finals go, I am going to stick with the Sharks to come out of the West.  I had a good feeling about them in the preseason, and they haven't really shown me a reason to give up on them.  In the East, though, I am going to switch the Pittsburgh Penguins (sorry Detroit fans).  Evgeni Malkin is playing out of his mind, Fleury is still a great goaltender, and this whole Crosby thing is probably some grand plan from Gary Bettman to have the captain lead the Penguins to the Cup.  I can also see the Red Wings winning it all in what should be Lidstrom's final season, as well as the Bruins returning to the final.

What are your predictions for the Stanley Cup Final?

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