Chicago Blackhawks: It's the new year; time for resolutions
All that being said, Sunday night's game vs. the Los Angeles Kings was the Chicago Blackhawks official halfway point, their 41st game played.. No going back down, but here's what needs to be done in the four months ahead. A resolution list, if you will:
- Start playing 60
Last year, it was all too common: the Blackhawks would take a lead into the third period, they'd begin to relax in the third, the other team would start to catch up, and the Hawks would scramble to hold onto their lead to make it through the period and take the win.
You'd think they would've learned from that; but no, the same mentality seems to be have gotten worse. The primary reason it's worse this year is because the defense has been so spotty that even going into the third with a lead or even tied, the Blackhawks have given up more third period goals than just about anybody else in the league, if not the most. The other scenario being witnessed a lot is the Hawks giving up points early, and having to fight their way out of the hole. Neither is a good position to be in.
As much as the fans want to see another playoff run, what the team needs to remember is this: in the highly competitive Western Conference, you cannot cruise into a playoff berth. And the fans care less about returning to the playoffs than they do that the team shows up and looks like they are interested in playing every night.
Because if the players don't care about what's going on out on the ice, why should the fans?
- Know your role, and stick to it
Since Coach Joel Quenneville is constantly shuffling his lines, it may be more difficult for players to identify with the role they play on any given line. The best of the new players to know his role is Jake Dowell, who is not a flashy player - in fact he's very low-key - but who has quietly amassed a 5 G, 10 A, 15 pt season - which, combined with his +10 and 11.9 S%, is actually better than Dave Bolland's record right now (5 G, 10A, 15 pt, +2, 8.5 S%). He's having decent success because he knows - and plays - his role on the team.
Patrick Sharp also knows his role well, and he is having a beauty of a year, leading the team with 23 G, 18 A, 41 points. He is strongly on pace for a career year; last year, he was 25 G, 41 A, 66 points.
- Get physical
Some of the most physical players on the team - Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager, Brent Sopel - got traded away this year. The non-physical play is showing the difference it makes, especially in games where the Blackhawks have limited hits to the single digits.
In games where the Hawks get gritty, good things happen - but that aspect of the game isn't showing up consistently.
- Improve the blue line
Good defense is Chicago's most glaring need right now.
It was announced today that defenseman Jassen Cullimore was being sent down to the Rockford Icehogs, the Blackhawks' AHL affiliate. The question on most fans' minds is: how soon until Nick Boynton follows him?
Cullimore has played 36 games, with 8 assists, 38 hits, 34 blocks, 15 giveaways and 7 takeaways, with only 8 PIM, 8 points and a +4. Boynton has played 37 games, with 6 assists, 47 hits, 67 blocks, with 34 PIM, a suspenion early in the season, 24 giveaways and 15 takeaways, 6 pts, +2. Although Cullimore has proven to be the more reliable player - less dumb penalties, less blind throwing away of the puck - it is perhaps because he provides less grit, which the Blackhawks greatly need this year, as well as his 2-way contract, that is the reason he was sent first to Rockford over Boynton.
Beyond that, we need to look at Rockford and what they could send up. The most obvious answer is Nick Leddy, the most NHL-ready of Rockford's blue line and who has already seen time with the Chicago club. Leddy has already played 6 games in Chicago, posting 1 goal, 1 point, -1, 3 hits, 10 blocks, 2 giveaways and 2 takeaways. The primary issue about bringing Leddy up is that with 4 more games, it will burn the first year of his contract, so if it looks like Leddy will stay with the big club, then there is a good chance that a 3rd- or 4th line depth player with a salary in the $1-3M range will get traded in order to make room not only for Leddy, but potentially to bring up another Icehog or two (Jeremy Morin, anyone?).
Beyond the Cullimore/Boynton issues, the top two D-lines need to find themselves again. Duncan Keith in 2009-10 registered 14 G, 55 A, 69 points; his outstanding 2-way play earned him the Norris Trophy. This year, he so far has 3 G, 21 A, 24 points, which puts him on pace for just 6 G, 42 A, and 48 points - roughly 2/3 of his production from last year. It's hard to fathom what might be the issue for Keith, but his form has not just looked the same this year.
His linemate and partner Brent Seabrook, who is in his contract year, is actually on pace for a better year in terms of G & A - currently 3 G, 19 A; last year he was 4 G, 26 A. But Seabrook's play has been just as irregular as Keith's. The one bright spot is between the two of them, their hits and blocks totals are on pace with last year, so at least that portion of their game hasn't changed.
Brian Campbell is the most consistent defenseman the team has this year, but he missed a dozen games. While fans may grumble about his contract, there's no denying that Soupy is a difference-maker on the ice, and perhaps nowhere has that been more obvious than his line partner, Niklas Hjalmarsson, who struggled for consistency through October. With Campbell back, Hjalmarsson has seemed to settle down, but he has not yet regained the form we saw late in the season last year.
- Improve the penalty kill
It seems staggering that the team with the league's best PP (24.8%, up from last year's middle-of-the-pack 17.7%) is also saddled with one of the worst PKs, but that's the facts. Last year, Chicago ranked 4th with an 85.3% PK; this year, the team plummeted to 28th, with 77.3%.
The drop in the PK has seen the team give up PK goals far too often this season (37 in total), directly attributable to the struggling D-lines and poor positioning on the penalty kill.
The main difference this year? Mike Kitchen, who replaced John Torchetti as an associate coach, is in charge of the PK. With an 8% change in the PK and a 24-position slide to go with it, perhaps Kitchen just isn't the right man for the PK. Figure out who is - in a hurry.
- Show the same intensity you played during games like the December 17-26 four game winning streak.
The team was still missing some important major players, and yet they still got the job done -- and not only that, but held their opponents to a total of just 5 points across 4 games. So even without their stars, this team can get it done, but it goes back to "play 60".
Perhaps the biggest barometer of the team this year is its stars and returning players, who've struggled to stay in form.
Patrick Kane 's 11 G, 19 A, 30 points is off his usual pace, even factoring that he missed a few games due to injury. Last year he had a 30 G, 58 A, 88 point season and it was believed he would break 100 points this year. At his current pace, he'd be lucky to close in on his 2008-09 season record of 25 G, 45 A, 70 points. On the ice, he's looked, at varying times, anywhere from indifferent to cherry-picking.
Dave Bolland wasn't particularly remarkable points-wise in the regular season last year - he only played 39 games, but put together 6 G, 10 A and a +5. He's nearly at those same stats now, but he just doesn't seem to have that "pest" attitude that he did last year; he isn't drawing penalties with the same consistent ease that he did before.
Tomas Kopecky is already having a career year - 7 G, 18 A, 25 points, and the season's only halfway through. Now he needs to tighten up his play: make more consistent passes, smarter moves, not throw away the puck. He also plays over 40% of his time as Marian Hossa's linemate, so he has to be as productive off Hossa's line as he is on it.
All around, the team needs to tighten up their passing, quit blindly throwing the puck away (especially when not in sheer desperation mode), quit passing to the opposition, and get back to simple hockey. We'd all take a dozen boring wins over one flashy heart-attack-inducing win.
- No more excuses
The players - Captain Jonathan Toews especially - must get tired of repeating "I don't know we're doing that" in post-game interviews, of admitting that the team seems to be shooting itself in the foot. It's halfway through the season: any Stanley Cup hangover is gone; any sadness over traded teammates needs to have been assimilated; they've played half a season together, so no longer is anybody unfamiliar.
There's no excuses left. What could there possibly be? Wednesday's game against Dallas was the team's 125th consecutive sellout, so the fans are still showing up.
The team needs to show up, too.