The Blackhawks have been playing some pretty solid hockey all season long, and with the latest acquisitions of Andrew Ladd, Dale Weise, and Tomas Fleischmann they have only become more formidable. This week, they will likely be adding Marian Hossa back to their already impressive line-up (recent update points to Friday vs. Dallas). And in the coming weeks, Marcus Kruger will return as well.
Hossa brings a solid two-way game and exceptional hockey sense to a line that already boasts two accomplished two-way forwards in Ladd and Jonathan Toews. Because of Hossa’s injury, this will be the first time the trio will line up side by side as they face off against their divisional rival, the Dallas Stars in a must-win battle for both teams.
Taking Advantage of Opportunities Ahead
With St. Louis currently sitting a mere two points behind the Blackhawks, and Dallas a point ahead, every point matters. Especially when the teams go head-to-head. For the Blackhawks, a win on Wednesday would push them back in front of the Dallas Stars who currently lead the central by a point. The two teams have been jockeying for that top spot for the better part of a month already. So far, neither team has run away with it, but eventually one team could do just that.
Sputtering Stars lose in overtime to a Canadiens team largely composed of AHL kids. They limp a point ahead of the #Blackhawks.
— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) March 9, 2016
The Blackhawks have a considerable advantage to press right now as Dallas is facing a pair of losses on their blue line with John Klingberg and Jason Demers currently out. Klingberg is expected to return relatively soon (though still undetermined as he is not skating) while Demers appears to be out for the remainder of the regular season. Given the lack of blue line depth to begin with, this is a heavy burden for the Stars remaining defensemen to carry.
Of course, the road will not get any easier as the Blackhawks are kicking off a stretch of games against divisional rivals that include the Blues, Dallas twice, and Minnesota twice in the next three weeks.
Currently, Minnesota and St. Louis are the two teams that the Blackhawks are most likely to draw in the first round depending on how the final standings shake out. Over the course of the last four and a half weeks remaining a lot can change, but every game from here on out matters.
The return of Hossa and eventually Kruger will bring more fresh legs along with the new additions to the Blackhawks talented forward corps.
The Power Is Back on the Power Play
The Blackhawks power play has begun to click for the first time in quite a while as they are currently leading the league with a 24.1 percent success rate. The next closest is Anaheim with 23.4 percent.
The Blackhawks have two of the most stacked power play units they’ve had in years with Patrick Kane, Toews, Ladd, Teuvo Teravainen, Artem Anisimov, and Artemi Panarin factoring in and making significant contributions. On the back end, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith have been the mainstays, with Erik Gustafsson, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Niklas Hjalmarsson contributing as needed.
There are still those lapses where it seems like everyone is moving in quicksand for two minutes, but more often than not the power play has been more fluid and generally more productive. Whether that comes from an extra forward or a more aggressive offensive drive from the defensemen, it makes little difference to coach Joel Quenneville. Like his lines, when the power play clicks he doesn’t mess with it.
— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) March 7, 2016
Net Front Presence
The other key presence has been in front of the net. Earlier in the season, Andrew Shaw was frequently found rattling around the cage. However, with the recent additions, Ladd has found some crumbs in the blue paint as has Dennis Rasmussen, Toews, and Anisimov.
The increased traffic in front of netminders has created space out front and given the team some scoring chances in close as the right players are finding the rebounds and getting them behind the opposing netminders with some frequency.
This kind of play is an absolute necessity as everyone’s team defense is bound to get tighter the closer the playoffs get. Especially with the teams fighting for purchase in the tightly contested Central Division. And the playoffs will only ramp that up further. From here on out, it is a battle and only the best teams survive.
There are no more soft games. Every point counts and every game is now a must-win for any team that is still in the hunt.
For the first time perhaps all season, there is a clear idea of how all four lines will look in the coming weeks.
The top line will inevitably be Ladd, Toews, and Hossa as they will be tasked to hassle the top producers on the opposing team and add some scoring punch.
The second line will remain as it has all season with Panarin, Anisimov, and Kane who have already been giving most of the league fits all season. They are the high octane line that often seem to keep the puck on a string as they eat up time and space before eventually finding just the right spot to slide the puck through.
The third line is likely to be Weise, Teravainen, and Fleischmann (and perhaps Richard Panik could see some time here). This trio will be a multi-purpose line as Weise can grind with the best of them and Teravainen can finesse the puck with Fleischmann bringing some speed and a scoring touch as well. Teravainen is finally getting his shot at his natural position and it seems to be a great fit. He was given a significant vote of confidence at the deadline as he stayed put and was given Philip Danault’s center spot after he was traded for Teravainen’s new wingers.
Finally, that shutdown line from last season is likely to be reunited as Shaw will likely find his way back to the line centered by Kruger with Andrew Desjardins on the other side. The trio was quite successful in defensive zone starts last season and will likely find themselves in a similar position again when the game is on the line. Quenneville has a lot of faith in this line and they have proven time and again that they will not let him down.
Kruger Gets His Deal
Kruger was left hanging for almost the entire offseason, but he took it in stride as he waited patiently and took the only deal the team could offer him with the clock winding down. With only a one-year deal and significantly less salary than he was probably worth, Kruger signed as Stan Bowman promised he would find the money and term that he deserved if he would just put his faith in the team.
— Mark Lazerus (@MarkLazerus) March 8, 2016
Bowman came through. For a while there, it looked like anything was possible. Danault’s play had people whispering that Kruger could be expendable, or worse trade fodder. However, anyone close to the team had little doubt that Bowman would make good on his word to the center who has been the anchor on that all-important shutdown line for several years now.
Sadly, his signing may come at the expense of another beloved player, but that is simply of no concern now. The only concern for the team or the players is the road ahead and the job at hand.
Stan Bowman’s Job Will Never Get Easier
Bowman has once again worked some magic at the deadline, but the hardest deals are the ones that can not be made. The players lost in the inevitable cap crunch.
Trying to figure out how the Hawks are still under the cap 🤔 pic.twitter.com/bFwKE89yrS
— The Hockey Gods! (@HockeyGods) March 8, 2016
This summer may not feel as painful as the loss of Saad, Vermette, Sharp, Oduya, Raanta, and Richards, but it is unlikely to be painless given the fact that the cap is unlikely to get friendlier. However, late June is when Bowman does some of his best work.
The reality is that no one thought the Blackhawks could come out on top of the Saad deal, and yet it appears they did. Anisimov (along with Panarin) has easily been one of the best summer acquisitions, and Marko Dano enabled the Ladd pick-up at the deadline. It might have been painful, but it’s paid dividends. Yes, it would be incredible to keep players like Saad, but the reality is the Blackhawks simply can’t always make it happen. Under the circumstances Bowman leveraged him for the best possible return, and got it.
The contract concerns are something for late June after they have completed their season, and if all goes as they intend, well after the last of the confetti has fallen. The time for negotiating will come when the season is over, and not a moment before.
Currently, there are a number of concerns as the Blackhawks have several expiring contracts and a few they’d like to extend before they expire, so with money tight there are likely to be some painful moves even if they are able to unload Bryan Bickell and David Rundblad’s contracts early.
There are several restricted free agents with Shaw, Panik, and Rasmussen on the current roster with expiring contracts as well as a few at the AHL level. Shaw is the most concerning name on that list for fans. He is for many the heart of the team and would be a tough loss to stomach.
Bowman would almost certainly like to find a way to keep Panarin and Teravainen in the fold long term to avoid another Brandon Saad situation as well. Both players have one more year after this season concludes, but that won’t stop Bowman from trying to shore up some kind of deal sooner rather than later.
Dale Weise, Tomas Fleischmann, and Andrew Ladd are all obviously rentals, but if there were any way to hang onto Ladd, Bowman will surely be looking into that as well. All of this is likely in the back of his mind, but he won’t give any of it too much thought until they have completed their playoff run. One they hope will be a lengthy run, and preferably with the same results as last season.