It’s mid-February, and the Chicago Blackhawks are still trying to find their place in this 2018-19 season. Yes, they’ve been winning more lately, but do they have what it takes to make a playoff push? Should they live in the present or look towards the future? Will they be buyers or sellers at the Feb. 25 trade deadline? So many questions!
It’s hard to look at the big picture, but it’s a little easier to delve into more day-to-day questions. In this month’s roundtable, Meghan Dillon, Greg Boysen, and Gail Kauchak tackle three questions regarding the current state of the Blackhawks.
The Blackhawks’ top two lines have been on fire lately – numerous players are riding point streaks and almost everyone has surpassed their production from last season. But, the third and fourth lines haven’t shared the same success. The Hawks would be a much better team if they could rely on more depth scoring. Along these lines, if you could be the coach for a day, what would you do to bolster bottom-six production?
1. Bolstering Bottom-Six Production
I would take a deeper look into who some of the stronger players are and give them more ice time. I would also switch up the lower lines to see if some work better together. It should be all about evaluating who is the strongest and figuring out who will help the Blackhawks make the playoffs.
Personally, I would give John Hayden more ice time. He’s not the strongest scorer but he always goes after the puck without fear. He plays a physical game, which the Blackhawks lack.
Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do to bolster the bottom-six. You have to play the cards you are dealt and there just isn’t a ton of offensive talent outside of the top two lines these days.
Brandon Saad, who is currently on the third line, is your best player in the bottom-six. He has Dylan Sikura on his line right now and those two should stay together because they at least present a threat to score.
It really doesn’t matter who their center is as neither Artem Anisimov nor Marcus Kruger provides much in the scoring department these days. You could recall Jacob Nilsson from Rockford, who now leads the team with 13 goals. He has been playing well for the last few weeks and can provide some offense and a little meanness, along with responsible play in his own end.
I would NOT play Chris Kunitz. Brandon Perlini and Hayden should be playing every night. They aren’t the greatest players at this point but there is no way they will ever improve by eating popcorn in the press box.
Head coach Jeremy Colliton has experimented with line-blending even more than his predecessor, Joel Quenneville. It’s paid off on the top lines, but the Blackhawks still don’t have depth across the board.
Right now, Saad is the only one producing on the bottom lines. Colliton just doesn’t seem to trust anyone else. Perlini, Hayden, and Kunitz aren’t getting big minutes and they switch off being a healthy scratch. Kruger and Anisimov are being swapped between the third and fourth line centers, without much success either way. David Kampf is injured, but was he really offering much when he was healthy? He can win faceoffs but can he be a scoring threat?
Sikura was recently recalled and he gained some momentum with an assist on Patrick Kane’s goal Thursday night against the Devils. Given some more time, perhaps he will make a bigger contribution than he did earlier in the season.
Every player is working hard and has something to offer. But the Blackhawks need a spark. And the right person could help pick up the games of others. I’m not sure it’s going to come from within. Much like with the trades for Dylan Strome and Drake Caggiula, the Hawks need new blood. I’d like to see an acquisition of a gritty forward at the trade deadline who’s willing to go to the dirty areas to score goals. Aw, I miss Andrew Shaw!
The Blackhawks are scoring goals, which is helping them win. But there is still a lot of work to be done on the blue line. Yes, they’ve improved in this area, but good teams can exploit their weaknesses on defense, which usually results in a loss for the Hawks.
Arguably the Hawks’ best overall defenseman, Henri Jokiharju, has been in Rockford since Jan. 31. If the team is truly making a push for the playoffs, should the rookie come back?
2. Jokiharju Recalled: Why or Why Not?
Jokiharju should be recalled from Rockford and it should happen soon, but not quite yet. He’s growing with the IceHogs, which will help his performance at the NHL level. I think it would be best to recall him after the trade deadline. That way he still has more time to improve and will have plenty of time to help the Blackhawks with their playoff run. He’s one of the strongest defensemen on the team. Making a playoff run without him wouldn’t be smart in any way, shape, or form.
Jokiharju is benefiting from his time in Rockford. He’s playing top-pairing minutes and quarterbacking the top power-play unit. He’s being deployed for key defensive zone starts and providing some scoring from the blue line.
Players also get more practice time and days off while playing in the AHL since they pretty much only play on the weekends with just a handful of weekday games per month. This will help recharge the youngster’s battery since he’s not used to playing such a busy schedule.
That said, he should be back in the NHL. My guess is that once the trade deadline passes there will be more room on the roster and he will return to Chicago. When he does return, he should be very confident and have a jump in his step.
The answer to this question depends on the direction the Blackhawks take going forward. Do they want to make the playoffs? If yes, then Jokiharju should return. Defense is what they need right now, and he could give them a nice boost. Not to mention, it would be better for him to learn and grow at the NHL level.
Or do they want to forfeit this season and look towards the future? If this is the case, Jokiharju is better suited for Rockford. He can play more minutes in all situations and build his game for next season. Heck, he could do that with the losing Blackhawks too. Ok well, I think I’ve made my stand. Free Jokiharju!
Netminders Cam Ward and Collin Delia have made a solid tandem of late but Corey Crawford is fighting his way back from yet another concussion. This past week he practiced with the team and told the media he’s cleared to play.
Most teams don’t carry three goaltenders. If Crawford is ready, the Blackhawks have a difficult decision to make. Which leads us to our final question. How should the Blackhawks handle the goalie situation if/when Crawford is healthy?
3. Goalie Situation With Crawford
That’s a tough question. Ward and Delia have been performing very well. The situation with Crawford should be taken very seriously. Actually, the NHL and their treatment of concussions need to be taken seriously. At the end of the day, this is about much more than hockey. If Crawford is ready to play again and his doctors think he should, I would see how the next few weeks progress after he’s given the go.
Since both other goalies are playing well, tossing Crawford in is a little risky. Perhaps hockey shouldn’t be the top priority on Crawford’s mind right now. After the number of concussions he’s had, his health should come before anything else. Everyone would understand if he decided to retire for the sake of his health.
If Crawford does return, and it is certainly looking like that’s going to happen, sending Delia back to Rockford is the correct move to make. For the most part, Delia has been very good with the Blackhawks and the demotion would not be a statement on his play.
He’s still developing his craft and he needs to play more. You have to remember this is a kid who’s just two years removed from the NCAA. Playing two out of every three games for the IceHogs will be more beneficial than playing once every five or six games for the Blackhawks right now. Hopefully, he could help them secure a playoff spot and get some more postseason experience.
If Crow is truly ready to return, he should be the starting goalie. After all, he’s a two-time Stanley Cup champion. Ward has a no-movement clause, so he would slot in as the backup which leaves Delia as the odd man out. The problem is Delia’s been putting up great numbers of late.
He just signed a new contract with the Blackhawks. He IS the future. There’s nothing wrong with Crow and Ward manning whatever it is the Blackhawks are going to do for the rest of the season. Delia’s time will come.
He should get as many games as possible for the rest of the season so he can progress. If this means he does it with the IceHogs, so be it. Heck, perhaps he could help them with a playoff push.
Related – Blackhawks Add to Wins & Achievements
With 20-plus games to go in the 2018-19 season, the Blackhawks’ future is still up in the air. But the answers to the above questions and more will be determined in due time. If nothing else, it should be an interesting ride. Buckle up!
Gail Kauchak has covered the Chicago Blackhawks as a content writer since 2014. She previously wrote for Fansided’s Blackhawk Up, and has been part of The Hockey Writer’s team since 2017. It’s not always easy to balance life’s responsibility’s with one’s passion, but Gail’s doing her best to make it happen. Let’s put it this way; she’s probably reading and writing about hockey instead of cooking and cleaning. Shh, don’t tell her husband!
Follow Gail for her unique commentary about this storied franchise. And be sure to catch her and the rest of the Blackhawks’ crew on their weekly Blackhawks Banter show, as well as follow her on Twitter.