Throughout the 2014-2015 season The Hockey Writers scribes Steve Sobel and Michael Szwaja will debate all things Chicago Blackhawks in what we are calling Blackhawks Cross Talk. In the first installment, they debate holes in the lineup, the state of the power play, Nick Leddy’s absence, expectations for Brandon Saad and the mystery surrounding the Winter Classic sweater.
What’s the biggest hole in the lineup?
Sobel: The biggest hole in the lineup was seemingly created by GM Stan Bowman, in my opinion. The Blackhawks lost last year because the fourth line wasn’t as deep as it has been in prior years – or at least Joel Quenneville didn’t trust it to be – so it saw very little ice time and put too much pressure on the top lines. Brandon Bollig, for example, often saw as few as 4-5 minutes per game. This isn’t how championships are won.
Szwaja: Bryan Bickell tallied 11 goals and four assists in 59 games last season. He barely hit anyone. And he was a minus-6 player. That doesn’t sound like a $4 million cap hit player. Bickell’s only sustained success with the Blackhawks has come in one short burst on a line with Jonathan Toews during the 2013 playoffs, while playing for a new contract. After one season, it appears Bowman grossly overpaid for Bickell. The Blackhawks need more points, more physicality and more defensive responsibility out of Bickell this season.
Why, or why not, will the power play improve this season?
Sobel: The power play has been stagnant for years now, but this year’s preseason shows signs of improvement. I feel there’s got to be something wrong with a combination of both the coaching staff and the personnel. The Blackhawks have far too much talent to have a lackluster powerplay – which in my mind is exactly why they do.
This preseason, the Blackhawks finally did what they haven’t done so much of in the past: moving without the puck. When the Blackhawks players without the puck start moving and spreading the defense, they are much more effective. Unfortunately, no amount of coaching in the past few years has forced them to do this and they seem content to mostly sit still.
Szwaja: The Blackhawks have scorers all over the ice, but that scoring prowess hasn’t carried over with the man advantage. Their average power play percentage during the last five seasons combined is 15th in the NHL. And it seemingly always goes like this: Play catch at the point, point man finds open man on goal line extended, back door pass to crashing weak side winger through traffic in front of the net. The predictability is maddening. First year assistant coach Kevin Dineen will provide a new perspective, and it appears he has a tall task on his hands, as the Blackhawks went 0-17 during the preseason on the power play.
Will Nick Leddy be missed?
Sobel: Leddy will absolutely be missed, but the team is in a tough spot. Oduya couldn’t be moved due to a no trade clause, and the pairings of Seabrook/Keith and Oduya/Hjalmarsson were extremely effective last year. Much like the situation with Teuvo Teravainen – there’s too much talent stacked at the top to open up a spot just yet.
Without getting 2nd pairing minutes, Leddy would never develop into the talent he’s capable of. On another team, he’ll get those minutes and the Blackhawks may well regret having to let him go. His speed and offensive upside are amazing, and with enough ice time and trust from his coach he can shore up his defensive liabilities a bit. I wouldn’t place bets on him being an All-Star, but I also wouldn’t be shocked if that happens a year or two down the road.
Szwaja: Short answer: Yes. But it won’t be immediately. The Blackhawks will be fine in the short term without Leddy. Quenneville, for whatever reason, wasn’t Leddy’s biggest fan, which meant his ice time was minimal anyway. Leddy, still only 23 and an above average skater, will eventually be a top two-way defensemen in the NHL for a long time if he stays healthy. Bowman and the Blackhawks might regret this trade in five years, but for now the trade is of minor consequence for an organization with young, talented depth on the blue line.
What should we expect from Brandon Saad?
Sobel: Playing in a contract year, Saad will likely have some extra fire in his belly – not that that’s been a problem to date. The chemistry that developed with the Saad / Andrew Shaw / Patrick Kane line last season seems to have carried over into the preseason – so much that he seems to have unseated Brad Richards as the center of that line.
That’s right – the team whose fans have been clamoring for a “proper second line center” for the last 5-plus years finally signed one, and if the preseason is any indication they may have already promoted Shaw into his spot.
Szwaja: Saad appears to have been the early steal of the 2011 NHL draft, going at number 43 to the Blackhawks, but let’s slow down on the point-per-game rhetoric. Saad will be 22 in two weeks, and it’s rare for a player to become a superstar at such a young age. On a team already full of stars, there’s only one puck, only so many goals, only so much ice time available. He will benefit from the open ice playing with Kane creates, but we haven’t seen any convincing evidence that he’s ready to be a consistent point producer.
The Washington Capitals released their Winter Classic sweater recently. What direction should the Blackhawks take with their sweater?
Sobel: To be honest, the only Winter Classic/Stadium Series jerseys I’ve liked from the Blackhawks were those from 2009. I am not a huge fan of the creation of new jerseys just for the sake of marketing, but the ones from 2009 were beautiful throwbacks. I’d be content to see the Blackhawks wear their normal reds this season, rather than see yet another cheesy design like last year’s.
The real question is what’s the over/under on how long it’ll be before the Blackhawks don’t play in an outdoor game?
Szwaja: Come on, Sobel, the hockey sweater is the most hallowed uniform in sports. Lighten up a little. Any chance we get for a new sweater gets me burning a hole in my closet door. (Although, you’re right, the chrome-accented Stadium Series sweaters were nauseating.) The Capitals created an entirely new logo for their sweater, but the Blackhawks already have an alternate logo that is worthy of the limelight. I’ve always been a huge fan of the alternate Blackhawks logo, and I would love to see the “C” and crossed tomahawks featured on the crest of a vintage looking sweater with the familiar Chief Blackhawk assuming the shoulder positions normally reserved for the alternate logo.
Michael Szwaja is a Chicago Blackhawks writer and former sports columnist at the Daily Illini at the University of Illinois. Michael follows the Blackhawks and NHL closely, and has held Blackhawks season tickets for seven years now. Follow him on Twitter @ChiSportsTweetr