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.

Stan Bowman explains how Blackhawks may utilize extra cap space

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AP

Stan Bowman explains how Blackhawks may utilize extra cap space

The Blackhawks had cap space to use this summer but elected to shore up their depth rather than make a splash when free agency opened up on July 1. Perhaps a large reason for that was because Marian Hossa's $5.275 million cap hit over the next three years complicated what they could do exactly in the short term without jeopardizing the long term.

Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman admitted Tuesday that they had had discussions about moving Hossa's contract for a year now. But it finally reached a point where they simply needed to get it off their hands, even if it meant giving up Vinnie Hinostroza as a sweetener.

"We tried to make that deal work in every other way possible but they obviously said he had to be in it," Bowman said of including Hinostroza.

That's how important it was to free up even more cap space. By trading Hossa's contract in a nine-piece trade with the Arizona Coyotes, it created more options for the Blackhawks and financial flexibility going forward.

"It was a difficult trade from a sentimental perspective, because we'd love to not have to do that," Bowman said. "But on the practical matter, it was becoming challenging to try to operate with that contract here. It necessitated us trying to make the move that we did make. You don't know when those opportunities are going to come to try and make that type of a move. ... When this presented itself, we talked it through and got to the point where we thought it was something we had to take advantage of."

The problem for the short term is, it's mid-July and the big-name free agents are off the market. There's not much the Blackhawks can do to improve their roster externally unless they make a trade, which would require dipping into the pipeline.

And it's unfair to put a grade on the Hossa trade as a whole without seeing how they utilize that extra cap space. Could that be before the 2018-19 season starts?

"It's an option if we can find the right player or the right situation," Bowman said. "We certainly have more options now than we did before. I wouldn't say we have to do something. Having cap space is an asset in and of itself, so things will come along maybe in the summer or maybe in the beginning part of the year where teams have a couple players that make their team unexpectedly and that makes some other players more expendable. In the past we probably haven't really been a good match for those types of situations because we didn't have the cap room at that time, so now we're going to be in the mix for those types of things.

"Whether we use it right away or whether we use it during the season, I think the nice thing is we have the flexibility now going in to the coming years where we're going to need cap room, all that and more, to sign the young players."

It doesn't sound like there's much urgency to pull something off between now and when training camp rolls around in September. At least for now.

That doesn't mean there won't be once the market picks back up again. 

"Each year teams have surprises, good and bad, in camp," Bowman said. "Our team’s the same way. You have ideas on how your lines are going to look or how your players are going to be ready. Sometimes guys surprise you in a good way, sometimes it’s not what you think. There’ll be some adjustments around the league, but probably not a lot of activity.

"If you look back the last couple of seasons, late July and August are quieter as far as transactions. But there are some arbitration cases coming up around the league; those may get settled ahead of time. But if they do go to arbitration, if the number's not the way the team likes it, they may look to do something. There’s the possibility of moves, but probably closer to training camp is more when changes may happen."

All eyes on Blackhawks defensemen as prospect camp opens

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AP

All eyes on Blackhawks defensemen as prospect camp opens

The second wave of Blackhawks defensemen is on the way. That's exactly where all the attention was when prospect camp opened up Monday at MB Ice Arena.

Nicolas Beaudin. Adam Boqvist. Henri Jokiharju. Ian Mitchell. Call it the Big Four. Where are they all at in their development? When will they be ready to make an NHL impact? Who's the most pro ready? 

Lots of questions. Those will slowly start to get answered and it begins now.

While there may not necessarily be an open competition among the group right away, there's certainly a desire to make a strong first impression in front of the upper brass that included Stan Bowman, John McDonough and Joel Quenneville watching on Day 1.

"Every NHL team has a lot of good defensemen prospects, so I mean obviously when you want to go out there you want to showcase yourself as best as you can," Mitchell said. "Obviously you want to be the best defenseman here so that's my goal going into this, I want to prove to everyone that I'm a good defenseman, I deserve to play at the next level. Obviously there's lots of good players here, but you're trying to all succeed."

Said Beaudin: "There's a lot of competition. There's a lot of good, young defensemen. I think you just need to be different when you play when you show what you can do."

Said Boqvist: "I'm trying to be better every day. Of course I will play in the NHL one day and win Stanley Cups, so that's my mindset."

The theme? Focus on your own game, take what you learn out of this week and apply those tools in your game when advancing your development next season. The rest will take care of itself.

Mitchell will go back to Denver for his sophomore campaign to continue his development. Beaudin is expected to return to the QMJHL with the Drummondville Voltigeurs. Boqvist signed with the OHL's London Knights, where he will look to get accustomed to the North American style of play.

For Jokiharju, the goal is different. This is his second development camp. He signed an entry-level contract in June. Making the big club is a real goal and a legitimate possibility for a Blackhawks team looking for young, impact defensemen immediately.

"I think if Henri has a really good summer of training, comes into camp, I certainly thinks he gets a good look," Blackhawks vice president of amateur scouting Mark Kelley told NBC Sports Chicago last month.

Jokiharju showed poise and confidence with and without the puck during drills, like someone who knows this is only the first step towards that ultimate goal.

"Yeah," Jokiharju responded when asked if the expectation is to make it to the NHL this season. "You want to set the bar high, you don't want to set the bar too low. I want to dream big and that's the dream."

That's the dream for everyone. When that happens, it's up to them. This week is a chance to set an early tone.