Chicago hit the halfway mark on their season on Friday night, a frustrating 0-4 shut out against the surging Colorado Avalanche on home ice. As they begin the home stretch of the season, the Blackhawks sit comfortably at 52 points (which puts them on pace for 104). Although they have graced the top position in the league more than once this season, currently Chicago stands at 2nd in Central, 4th in the West, and 6th overall, with a 24-13-4 record; and hope to break a 3-game losing streak at home vs. the Red Wings tonight.
Compared to last season, the Blackhawks are in a better position overall. Last year at the 41-game mark, Chicago had 45 points with a 21-17-3 record, which was good enough for 3rd in Central and barely good enough for 8th in the highly competitive West.
The West is never un-competitive; it generally takes at least 96 points in the Western Conference to make the playoffs. Just 10 points separate the current #1 team (Canucks, 55 points, 42 games) and the #11 team (Coyotes, 45 points, 42 games). Calgary (43 pts/12th) and yes, even Edmonton (35 pts) could still theoretically earn a playoff berth, although the Ducks (28 pts) and Blue Jackets (27 pts) face elimination before January is even out.
Chicago learned from last season and have worked to be ahead of the curve, but as they face game #42, there are so many things the team could do better.
OVERALL TEAM ANALYSIS
Last year, the issue was consistency, and the issue still remains with the team this year, although perhaps not quite as obvious as it was during the 2010-11 season. Most of the consistency issues are directly related to bad habits and what is getting to be lazy play.
Although there were games when it was evident during the Stanley Cup-winning season, it was much more obvious during last year: there were times when the Blackhawks would take the ice, and it seemed like they were playing like charm and slick skill was going to win the day over hard work, grit, dedication, and a consistent work ethic. There are games this year where it seems like Jonathan Toews is single-handedly going to carry the team to a win through sheer willpower. If the team could only bottle whatever it is that drives Toews and pass it out among the rest of the players, this team would be unstoppable.
Message to the players: as much as fans enjoy seeing flashy, showman goals, there isn’t a single fan sitting in the stands or watching the game at home that much rather see plain, old, boring goals, period. You want to start getting flashy with your scoring? Then get yourself a big cushion of goals over your opponent first. No, “garbage goals” aren’t the least bit sexy. But neither is losing.
Rookies on call-up from Rockford shouldn’t be outplaying the stars on the bench. This team still has five Olympians (including four medalists), and at least three guys who’ve represented their country at the World Championship, including one guy who’s a current defending gold medalist from the 2011 WCs – and who is currently riding more pine than a carpenter. Nine of the currently team members have their names on the Stanley Cup (although one of them won with Anaheim); another went to the Stanley Cup Finals before. There is skill and natural talent out the yin-yang on this team. So why are some of the “character guys” the ones who are always working the hardest? Maybe it’s because they haven’t won the Cup before, and they’re still hungry for it. Nobody’s going to hand it back to you; you have to earn it, you have to take it.
It’s easy enough to point at the Blackhawks current stats chart and go “Look! Chicago has 3 players in the top 20 for goals! Two in top 20 for assists! Four in the top 25 for overall points!” Yeah, that’s swell. But are those goals and points coming every night? The Blackhawks have already been shut out five times this season, and haven’t logged any shut outs of their own. They’ve dominated opponents 5-1 one night, and been shut out a week later 0-2. They’ve handed out some of their worst losses to teams like Edmonton (a 9-2 loss) and barely squeaked out wins over other teams in OT or shootouts because they took their foot off the gas at some point in the game.
Their track record this season is a picture of confusion. They rank 6th in the league for goals scored. Much more concerning, they’re 10th-worst in the league for goals against — and 3rd-worst in the West — which doesn’t bode well for playoff time, because the only other Western teams worse than them for giving up goals (Anaheim & Columbus) won’t be making a trip to the playoffs. Their PK% was once one of the highest in the league, but after two horrible games early in November, their PK has lingered in the bottom five. Their power play was downright anemic; and while it has risen to 17.8% – good enough for 15th overall – it works in fits and streaks.
If the Blackhawks score first, they have an outstanding record: 12-1-1 (.857%). If they’re leading after the second period, it gets even better (16-0-1, .941%). But if they’re trailing after one period? 4-6-2. And if they’re trailing after 2? 4-13-1 (.222%). Amazingly, as bad as that sounds, it’s 7th-best in the league when trailing after 2. There have been games this season where the team has gritted it out and come from behind, but most of the time when it happens, it’s too little, too late. You can watch the body language on the ice: all too often, it seems like if the other team scores, they don’t exactly flat-out give up, but it might as well be five goals instead of just one. You can’t play the regular season being lazy about fighting for points when you’re behind, without playing the whole sixty, and then suddenly try to turn it on during the playoffs. You want to know you’re capable of turning the tide any given night. Who cares if the other guy scores first? Unless that goal happens in the final 10 seconds of the game, you still have time to make stuff happen. The Blackhawks just aren’t making it easy on themselves when they don’t play the full 60 every night; that’s when they have to start fighting from behind, or when they drop a lead.
When you watch the Hawks play, particularly in losses, you notice certain habits that the team as a whole has developed. Too often there are defensive holes in their own end with too many players in the neutral zone, looking for a pass, instead of somebody carrying the puck out of the zone – and, inevitably, a player from the other team is standing around, looking for that pass. Say what you will about Brian Campbell: the guy was a specialist in carrying the puck out of the zone. Not passing it to a waiting player for a breakaway attempt; no — he would carry it out and work his way up the ice.
They’ve become predictable on the offense, too. If the Hawks get a 2-on-1 and carry it to the net, you can bet on a last-minute pass attempt – which has all too frequently resulted in loss of the puck or the clink of rubber on steel. At this point, it would honestly surprise opposing goaltenders more if the player carrying the puck in just shot.
The power play is the most predictable of all: endless cycling, looking for that perfect shooting lane. Well, every other team is well-aware that the Blackhawks are full of lethal snipers, and they clog the net accordingly; so Chicago needs to start getting a lot more dirty and shoveling for those garbage goals. A goal is a goal; no matter how “ugly” it was, it’s prettier than no goals at all.
Defensive coverage is also inconsistent game to game. During the first quarter of the season, Leddy was nearly the most consistent D-man on the team; in the second quarter, he’s completely reversed that, and gets caught looking far too often like the 20-year-old he is. If anybody knows what Sami Lepistö did to be stuck in the press box every night, please tell somebody. He had decent chemistry with Steve Montador early in the season, but he is rarely getting game ice. (It’s not helping that the one-in-four games that he gets to play, he makes a bad move; this just puts him back in Q’s doghouse.) Duncan Keith struggled early but is finally looking like the Norris-winner we’re familiar with; Brent Seabrook has been a rock. New acquisition Steve Montador has had his ups and downs; Niklas Hjalmarsson is a shotblocking powerhouse (3rd in the league with 105) but he gets regularly nailed into his own boards and has offered very little offensively.
The goalies share in the blame as well. Both have given up their share of softies. Corey Crawford has struggled in mid-December. While Ray Emery looks far smoother and confident than he did directly after training camp, he has had his moments, too. The toughest losses are the ones when the goalies are doing their very best to hold the team in, but the skaters just can’t seem to score.
The forward lines have their issues, too. The Blackhawks didn’t re-sign Troy Brouwer because the belief was that Bryan Bickell would bring the same qualities for a much cheaper price tag. But so far, Bickell has just 8 points on the season, is a -9 (worst on the team), and although he’s 3rd-best on team for hits with 70, he just hasn’t been particularly noticeable when he’s on the ice. Daniel Carcillo has played only 28 games, and right now, he’s serving yet another suspension and will likely have some IR time after a bad hit the other night. Michael Frolik is barely scratching the score sheet.
Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, and Marian Hossa make up the powerhouse trifecta on the front lines. Patrick Kane is on track for his regular amount of points, but he’s been swapped between center and wing, and seems to run streakier than usual. When you look around the league, you see players like Claude Giroux, the Sedins, Phil Kessel, and Steven Stamkos – who are not only over the point-per-game mark, but who don’t seem to be subject to the same “streakiness” that Blackhawks are. What do they do differently?
Consistency has been a major part for other teams’ success this season. When you look at other teams high in the standings around the league – Boston, Vancouver, Rangers, Flyers, Blues, Florida – you’re seeing teams that have bought into a team system and entirely committed to it. Each player knows and accepts their role and focuses on playing it to the best of their ability. Vancouver has become a powerplay specialist; if you know what’s good for you, you don’t let them on the PP, because 30% of their goals are earned that way. Boston knows it can’t stay out of the box, and so they focus on producing goals 5-on-5 (and boy, do they ever produce them).
Coach Quenneville has a tendency to line shuffle. If a line isn’t producing, he may shuffle them up game to game or even period to period, shift to shift. With that happening, how does that affect chemistry and flow? Obviously, if you look at his career as a whole, he knows what he’s doing, and he gets teams into the playoffs, year after year. But it also sends a mixed message: instead of forcing players to notch up their play in order to produce, it’s the hope of instant chemistry (and thus results/goals).
So, after all this criticism, you might ask: what are the Blackhawks doing right?
When the Blackhawks keep it simple, and don’t look to shortcut their plays, and play the full 60 minutes – wow, it’s amazing what these guys can do. They have had some incredibly dominant games this season where they have made the other team on the ice look like it’s NHL vs AHL. When they commit and focus on the game, they can control the puck, the play, and the outcome. Marian Hossa in particular can make other teams look downright silly when he wants to hold on to the puck. The team doesn’t have four guys with 35+ points for no reason; Toews, Kane, Hossa and Sharp continue to produce. The team is still loaded with a lot of raw natural talent that can make things happen night after night. Right now, the team has to dismiss any games that have happened to this point, and just go forward with a fresh, focused mindset for the new year. Focus on one solid shift at at time, and the games will go their way. This team is more than capable of winning the Presidents’ Trophy. There is no good reason this team should not dominate in the West for the remainder of the year; all the tools are there.
At this point in the season, the Blackhawks are a solid B (and trending towards B-). That grade is buoyed by the team’s good record thus far. There are some glaring defensive issues that need to be addressed, and the team could also use a solid, natural center – both most likely by trade/acquisition; and the scorers need to start getting on the sheet a lot more regularly. On the bright side, the team sits atop a nice pile of points, and they should at least make the playoffs. But in order to make a deep run – or go all the way again – then it’s time for them to re-commit to the simple basics, in order to make a better whole.