Blackhawks still finding their chemistry in the new season

Buffalo vs Chicago 10/16/10 at the United Center
Buffalo makes a play on the net vs Chicago 10/16/10

There’s an old saying in team sports: “Good teams find ways to win. Great teams find ways to win, even when they shouldn’t.”

If that’s the yardstick, then Chicago may be heading for another great year.

The Blackhawks, as defending Stanley Cup champs, have a target on their backs, and it’s been evident since the first puck drop in the preseason. After 10 days of regular season play, the team has been repeatedly outshot, outworked, held to their own zone, and quite often dominated by the other team. Despite all that, they’ve started to show enough pep to pull themselves out of the basement.

The team’s stats speak for what a rough start the team has had: 202 shots against in just six games is an average 33.67 per game, up from last year’s league-low of 25. More players have negative +/- than positive, and one of the team’s superstars, Patrick Kane, is -5. The team’s 5th-best S% guy is the 19-year-old defenseman who just got sent back to Rockford in what is probably a cap space-saving move. The team’s two leaders in PIM – Kopecky and Hjalmarsson – have already racked up 25 PIM and a suspension between them, where last year, together they had 48 PIM total.

Of course, the obvious factor is that there was a lot of team turnover this summer and the players just need to be given time to gel. It hasn’t been helped by the fact that one of the team’s top 4 defensemen got sidelined in the preseason with a knee injury that will keep him out of play until November. But you can look across to the east coast and consider the Atlanta Thrashers, who also had a great deal of turnover this summer, and have been playing extremely well, to say that locker room turnover is not the only culprit. Injury/loss of players cannot fully be the issue, either, as the NJ Devils demonstrated this week, playing an undersized roster against a healthy Penguins team.

It’s not to say that the Blackhawks haven’t had bright spots, good periods, or breakout players. Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp have been playing like men possessed. The pair lead the league with 5 goals apiece (an honor also shared with Clarke MacArthur and Patrick Roy of Buffalo), and Hossa leads the league with points (9). Sharp is 4th in the league at 7. In addition, Tomas Kopecky is second in the league with assists (6). The team looked pretty decent against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Some thoughts after the first ten days of the season:

– Brian Campbell’s contract has been considered an albatross, but after the impact his absence had on the team late last season, and at the beginning of this one, it’s shown that Soupy is a vital part of the Blackhawks core D. When he’s been off the ice, his play has been sorely missed, and it shows.

– Likewise, Campbell’s absence from the D line has given his regular ice partner, Niklas Hjalmarsson, a rough start to the season. This isn’t even considering the hit that Hjammer put on Jason Pominville: the Swedish D-man is -4 after 4 games, and has at times been outplayed by rookie Nick Leddy. After his contract became the priority re-signing this summer, Hjalamarsson has yet to show the form that we saw at the end of last season.

– Duncan “Iron Man” Keith holds the current league record for TOI at 29:58, more than 1:30 than the next closest skater, Joni Pitkanen (Carolina). The third D-line has to get their act together, because the team cannot expect to have Keith spend this much time on the ice the entire year. Keith also put a magnificent goal in the net against Buffalo last night, but it was negated by the refs whistling for Kopecky being pushed into the net.

– Nick Leddy got sent back to Rockford today. This clearly has to be an effort to protect both cap space and his entry-level contract. He’s played twice as much ice time as John Scott, more games than Jordan Hendry, and been the most noticeable D-man on the ice after Keith and Seabrook. True, he made an error in the opener against Avalanche that led to a goal. And last night, a puck bounced off his skate and into the net to become a goal. At the same time, he’s also put up just as many goals and assist as Viktor Stalberg (1 each) with just as many SOGs (7). Leddy will be a valuable part of the Blackhawks’ D-line, there is no doubt; but for now, he’s going to be racking up a lot of ice time in Rockford and working on bulking up. I would not be at all surprised to see him back in Chicago come January.

– John Scott was brought in as an enforcer, but he is never going to be Dustin Byfuglien – at either end of the ice. If he’s going to fight, then he needs to fight. He could also use more skating coaching, as could Rockford call-up Jassen Cullimore. Both of these guys just have not been fast enough to keep up with the rest of the team.

– Jordan Hendry has been a ghost so far this season. As a returning member of the team, he should already have some baseline chemistry with his teammates. Paging Jordan Hendry…

– The front lines have had their chemistry issues as well, although the HoKoTo line – Hossa, Kopecky, Toews – has been relatively successful. Troy Brouwer has been moved around the lines and was reunited with Toews and Kane for Saturday’s game.

– Bryan Bickell has announced his presence with authority this season. He’s playing like a man who wants to get his name on the Cup. (His name was left off the engraving of this year’s champions as he did not play in the Final round and did not play at least 41 games, although the team could have petitioned for it.)

– Nick Boynton has also arrived this year, although he should just avoid getting on the ice for the last five minutes of the game – twice in five games, he’s gotten a penalty with less than 3 minutes to go on the clock. Otherwise, he has been collecting his fair share of ice time (more than 20:00 per game), and when he’s not collecting dumb penalties, has actually been not bad.

– Marty Turco saved Saturday’s rematch against Buffalo from being a total disaster. He’s still going to be giving fans heart attacks with his puck-handling all season long – he’s sometimes playing pucks that are better left to the skaters – but if the goalie coach can help him make some better judgments about when to play the puck, he will be an outstanding asset to the back end of Chicago’s ice. As The Goalie Guild discussed this summer, the most spectacular goalie saves come when the goalie is out of position. And while spectacular goal saves are fun to watch, it’s most important to be in position to make the play to begin with. Still, those who doubted if Turco had anything left in the tank can already see that his years of experience behind Dallas’ D-line is already coming in very, very handy for Chicago this year.

– Marian Hossa: BEAST. After the Blackhawks won the Cup, I predicted that with the monkey off his back, Hossa would have a fantastic 2010-11 season. So far we’re not seeing anything to prove this wrong. Hossa skates like the wind, fights for the puck like a tiger, can pick your pocket for the puck, shoots like the sniper he is, and so far has a 29.4 S%. He is one of the best all-around players in the league and watching him play is just a delight. Sometimes he’s so good that you can’t help but wonder if other players just watch him go and think, “Wow, he’s really amazing.”

– Patrick Sharp: STUD. The Flyers are probably regretting they ever traded him for a bag of pucks, but Chicago is where Sharp has blossomed into an elite-level player who can be either center or wing. His flexibility has continued to make things happen this season, and he’s looked so joyful putting up goals so far this season you’d think he’d never scored before. Between Hossa and Sharp, there’s a lot of power in the example these two are setting for the team.

In about three weeks, the team departs for their annual “Circus trip” – a two week, Pacific/Northwest roadtrip that will hopefully give this team enough bonding time to start to gel. The pieces are all in place, although the chemistry is a little rough. Campbell will be back in the lineup by then as well.

It’s a bit of a bumpy ride ahead, but the road has just begun.