Blackhawks

Hawk Talk: Coasting to the Finish

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Hawk Talk: Coasting to the Finish

Friday, March 26, 2010
7:06 PM

By Brett Ballantini
CSNChicago.com

Its time for some unsurprising, yet still sobering news about the Blackhawks: In the second half of the season, they just havent been very good.

Choosing the slightly arbitrary (but telling) midpoint of Game 45the meltdown in Minneapolis, when the Blackhawks turned a 5-1, third period lead into a 6-5 shootout loss to the Minnesota Wildits clear just how pedestrian the Hometown Heroes have been for the balance of 2010.

Taking the ice at Minnesota on Jan. 9, the Blackhawks were 31-10-3, playing at an extraordinary clip. Their .739 points percentage then would be better even than the current Capitals, and that includes Washingtons long winning streak and significantly weaker Eastern Conference schedule.

Counting the Wild setback and running up to the worst loss of the season last night at Columbus, the Blackhawks have gone 15-10-4 having played about three-quarters of this second half of the season. That record, translating to a .586 points percentage, is deceiving, because the league average stands at .559, and the percentage for the current No. 8 seed in the West, the Detroit Red Wings, is .596.

Thats rightat the clip the Blackhawks have been playing since Game 45, they wouldnt even make the playoffs in the West.

Theres a lot to point fingers at when trying to explain how a team that started out so well has taken such a poor turn.

Some reasons are perfectly legitimate. Olympic fatigue, which has affected some players (Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook all carry minus ratings since the break) and not others (Patrick Kane has remained a scoring threat and has played even, Marian Hossa has been a plus player and the teams most dangerous scorer). Injuries to the blue linefor a couple of games the Blackhawks were absent three of their top five defensemen in losing Seabrook, Brian Campbell, and Kim Johnssonhas played a role.
But the more significant issues that have set Chicago into a slump have little to do with outside forces and more to do with whats reflecting back in those dressing-room mirrors.
The Blackhawks power play catches a lot of flak, and its preposterously impotent given the firepower of this Chicago team, but overall it ranks 11th in the league at .187, nothing that should set anyones hair on fire either way.

Team defense has been shambolic since the Minnesota meltdown, and particularly bad since the huge road trip the team shoved off on just one week later. Seabrook was at plus-22 and 20 points heading into action vs. the Wild, and in 27 games since is a minus-five with just four points. His partner, Keith, has shouldered a massive minutes load all season longat 26:43 per game hes ate the second-most minutes of anyone in the leagueand these days hes skating in mud, reaching with stick rather than throwing the body. Niklas Hjalmarsson, currently No. 3 on the defensive depth chart, is playing in his first full season. Hes battled injury on and off, which might be a harbinger of dangerous things given his primary value as a defenseman isnt in puck possession or speed but toughness.

The goalie messdenied all season long by analysts too quick to point to goals allowed as an end-all of netminder performancewas resolved by Cristobal Huet backing out of the competition last night. But overall, the condition of the Chicago net is worse than ever. Yes, Antti Niemi shows signs of getting back on the roll he was on early in the season, where it wasnt far-fetched to consider him a Calder Trophy candidate. But if his three-game run of great play (including two shutouts and discounting five garbage minutes last night) is exception and not rule, the Blackhawks are in trouble. Niemi had just five games saving less than .900 of shots in his first 14 leading up to Jan. 9something thats happened in 10 of 16 games since. (If you trim away his last four games, wiping his last two shutouts off the board, hes failed to stop at least a .900 rate in eight of 12 games.)

Niemi was an above-average goalie in the first half of the season, and below average since then. Right now, his .912 save percentage puts squarely in the middle among NHL netminders. If he can maintain that level of playand his recent run indicates thats a fair expectation, increased workload with Huet out of the picture or notno Blackhawks fan will be howling about his performance in the crease.

But speaking of the goaltending, it may be time to levy a little criticism Joel Quennevilles way. For all the success the team has had this seasonits important to remember that the team still leads the Western Conference, for crying out loudseveral of his decisions and tendencies have been suspect. Seems Q might coach a bit passive-aggressively.
He trusts his team, and the leadership in the dressing room. In Toews, he has one of the strongest young stand-up players in the game policing the team. But to have waited a couple of dozen games to lay into his faltering defense, as he finally got around to doing only on the Blackhawks recent mini-road trip west, seems a matter of too much trust.
And on the flip side, there is Quennevilles almost-nightly Line-o-Rama, wherein the mentor pounds the randomizer button a period or so into the game when things arent quite clicking. Last night, Troy Brouwer was punished for an early mistake leading to an odd-man rush and found himself demoted to the fourth line.

That kind of haste to stir lines up is not productive for the Blackhawks. Were not talking about a San Jose Sharks club, which boasts a clear superstar line, and lets the rest of the schmoes fall as they may. Chicago is constructed as a deep offensive team that needs production nine, or even 12, down. The top line of Toews-Kane-Brouwer has been aces. The second line, Dave Bolland centering Hossa and Patrick Sharp, has clicked. The so-called checking line, with John Madden centering Kris Versteeg and Andrew Ladd, has been scoring goals at a one per game clip since its formation. To jumble all of them up whimsically is counter-intuitive for the Blackhawks.

So, theres blame to pass around given the Blackhawks second-half slump. With two-thirds of their remaining nine games left against non-playoff teams, there is still room to get healthy, build momentum and make a deeper run into the playoffs than last season.

The days are dripping short on the season. Sunday marks the start of potentially the most exciting stretch of hockey in Blackhawks history. But as presently constituted, the Hometown Heroes are closer to a heartbreaking upset than a stirring Stanley Cup run.
Lets hope that with the title belt card already played, Coach Q has one more, sustainable, trick up his sleeve.

Brett Ballantini isCSNChicago.com's Blackhawks Insider. Follow him @CSNChi_Beatnikon Twitter for up-to-the-minute Hawksinformation.

Blackhawks mailbag: Defensive challenges and happy campers

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks mailbag: Defensive challenges and happy campers

The Blackhawks entered this season with the same mantra they have countless others: get off to a good start and save yourself a point chase at the end of the season.

My first season on the beat was probably the Blackhawks’ best lesson lately on what happens when you’re scrambling late; they just about missed the playoffs, losing to Detroit in the regular-season finale and needing Minnesota to beat Dallas to get into the postseason. And while the overall results have been a mixed bag, their opening record (5-2-2) isn’t shabby.

Still, there are questions regarding where the Blackhawks are and where they’re heading. To that end (yeah, we’re finally getting to the point of this whole spiel), we bring you this week’s mailbag:

The Blackhawks’ happiness with Tanner Kero was partly because of Kero’s work last season. But in terms of comparing to other centers, Kero’s emergence had more to do with replacing Dennis Rasmussen than it did Marcus Kruger – Kero re-signed with the Blackhawks around the same time talks reportedly went awry between the team and Rasmussen. Anyway, back to Kero. I don’t think it’s so much what he’s not doing as what Tommy Wingels is doing in that fourth-line spot. The Blackhawks originally envisioned Wingels at wing but he has previous experience at center and his work there has been pretty good. Saturday night’s game certainly helps, be it for Wingels alone or keeping that fourth line together (he, John Hayden and Lance Bouma, who scored the game-winner). Don’t be surprised if there’s some rotation there, though.

Maybe, although either of those guys will likely still be rotating in/out with another player. Just depends on how much the Blackhawks want those guys playing constantly (I would guess that would be the case with rookie Matthew Highmore more than Hinostroza).

We all know this contract, all know how it hamstrings the Blackhawks for a while. But in the immediate future, what can you do? Fellow scribe Mark Lazerus has asked a few times about Seabrook’s place in the lineup and coach Joel Quenneville has demurred. Granted, we’re guessing general manager Stan Bowman doesn’t want Seabrook out of the lineup, either. Seabrook’s leadership skills are tremendous; to a man, the Blackhawks will say how vocal he is. His past work, especially in the playoffs, speaks for itself. It depends on how things progress as the season goes but I don’t foresee Seabrook coming out of the lineup right now. Speaking of Seabrook…

Highly doubt it. The asking price won’t be just one guy for another. And with any trade talk I remind everyone to see a player’s NMC status. Seabrook has a full no movement clause.

Nope, he’s not going anywhere, as the traveling media confirmed with Quenneville on Monday afternoon in Las Vegas. I had to be reminded that DeBrincat was nearing that deadline on Sunday, his status not coming up in conversations with Quenneville and Stan Bowman like it did when Brandon Saad made the team at 19. DeBrincat has made such an impression that it was going to take something extraordinary for the Blackhawks to reassign him. DeBrincat has found his place in the lineup and whether or not he’s been scoring he’s been good. So here, he remains.

You don’t trade him. The Blackhawks are where they are right now due in large part to their goaltending, especially Crawford. There have been, what, two games in which the Blackhawks dominated? So no, you don’t trade Crawford.

We’re quite a while from the trade deadline, so let’s tap the breaks on any talk about what the Blackhawks may do several months from now. As far as Murphy’s current status, no, I don’t believe his job is in jeopardy. Again, part of this is the eight-defensemen situation. But it’s also getting Murphy more ingrained in the system. I talked to Dave Tippett, Murphy’s former coach, a few weeks ago. He said, “we put him into situations he may not have been ready for [with Arizona], but he always continued to improve in those situations. He still has a lot of growing to do but he’s a very dedicated athlete and I think there’s a lot of upside there.” It’s easy to look at who the Blackhawks traded away for Murphy and Murphy’s contract and say, “yeah, he should be an everyday guy.” He should be at some point but considering what I mentioned above, I’m not surprised he isn’t right now. Speaking of defensemen rotating in and out of the lineup…

Yeah, I’m still not a big fan of the eight-defensemen set, for the reason you just mentioned. I wrote about the Blackhawks’ defensive juggling act on Sunday and, while I still think it’s tough to do I believe the Blackhawks will stay with it for a while. I list some reasons in Sunday’s story, which is linked above. So far (judging from outward appearances) the defensemen seem to be on board with the changes. I’m just curious to see how long they can keep the balance to where no one is sitting too long. That’s always the challenge.

Signing Cody Franson was part of the short-term plan regarding the long-term injured reserve funds. I think the Blackhawks just let things play out now for a while. You’re not going to make a move based on the first month of the season.

Yeah, someday I will stop writing about the power play’s woes but it won’t be today. I personally don’t think it’s the personnel. Whenever we talk about this it’s usually the same culprits: lack of movement, not enough shots and net-front traffic. I still say a strong penalty kill is more important and if the Blackhawks’ 5-on-5 scoring increases the power-play concerns fade. But it has cost them, so it’s certainly a concern.

I wouldn’t take the stern expressions as a sign of unhappiness. I’ve seen them plenty of times arriving at an arena looking like that; just focused before a game.

Going to go with a B-plus mainly because they came out of those first eight games with a pretty solid record. Granted, goaltending deserves a massive pat on the back for that. But it’s still early and I still figure the lines will get rolling at some point. Penalty kill has been very good and power play absolutely has to get better.

Hawks Talk Podcast: Blackhawks find 'Energy Line' before they hit the Vegas Strip

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USA TODAY

Hawks Talk Podcast: Blackhawks find 'Energy Line' before they hit the Vegas Strip

On the latest Hawks Talk Podcast, Pat Boyle and Tracey Myers discuss the "Energy Line" of Lance Bouma, Tommy Wingels and John Hayden.

The also look at how video replay hasn’t gone the Hawks' way this season and the dangerous hit that Ryan Hartman received from Zack Kassian.

They also preview the matchup with the surprise of the NHL, the Vegas Golden Knights, and the issues the expansion team has in net.

Take a listen below: