This weekend marks the half way point in the NHL for the 2015-2016. The Chicago Blackhawks have actually now played 43 games, sporting a record of 26-13-4. Their 56 points leaves them second only to Dallas in the Central Division and Western Conference. Barring a disastrous final 39 games, they should once again make the playoffs.
In honor of the half way point of the season, let’s see what the first half taught us, as well as what the Blackhawks need to do if they are to successfully defend the Cup.
The First Half
The Blackhawks learned they could survive without Duncan Keith, though they are clearly a much better team with him in the lineup. Since his return from injury on December 11, he has tallied 20 points while continuing his stellar play in the defensive zone. Keith should remain fresh for the playoffs due to solid play of his fellow D-Men: Trevor Van Riemsdyk, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Michal Rozsival. Of course everything is easier for the defense when you have amazing net minder Corey Crawford watching your back.
We also learned that the line of Patrick Kane, Artemin Panarin and Artem Anisimov has no equal in the NHL. Kane’s 26 game point streak was amazing, and he is running away with the NHL points lead and will likely win the Hart Trophy award. Panarin, AKA BreadMan, is leading all rookies in goals, assists and total points (15/23/38). The Calder Trophy seems to be his for the taking. For more on Panarin, look no further than a great piece written by my colleague Kristi Loucks. As for Anisimov, he has more than helped fans forget the loss of Brandon Saad. In 43 games Anisimov has recorded 15 goals and 8 assists for the Blackhawks while adding a much-needed net front presence.
The first half of the season also revealed that the Blackhawks have a very deep and talented farm system. Phillip Danault, Erik Gustafsson, Dennis Rasmussen, Viktor Svedberg and Brandon Mashinter have all played and contributed while up with the big club. In fact five different Rockford IceHogs (Blackhawks AHL affiliate) have now scored their first NHL goal with the Blackhawks this year.
Six of this year's @goicehogs have scored their first career NHL goals this season. Danault, Kero, Mashinter, Rasmussen, Svedberg and TVR.
— Scott Grodsky (@ScottGrodsky) January 9, 2016
(Note for above: TVR was actually last year)
Unfortunately the first half of the season also confirmed that Bryan Bickell and David Runblad need a fresh start somewhere else. Runblad got his wish being loaned to the ZSC Lions in Switzerland. Things looked hopeful for Bickell after he was put on waivers, unclaimed, and then sent down to Rockford in October where he seemed to re-find his game. Unfortunately the Bickell project is once again flailing, with his ice time, and Coach Q’s patience wearing thin.
The Blackhawks appear to be in need of nothing more than some minor fine-tuning as they head towards the playoffs. I would like to personally see Shaw moved back off the first line. His game is grit and that just seems like a better fit with the third or fourth line groupings. In conjunction, I would like to see Teuvo back up with Hossa and Toews. During their brief time together, they just seemed to click. Plus Teuvo is much better creating chances than Shaw. Speaking of the top line, I am not at all worried about Hossa’s 5 goals and 12 assists. I expect his production will improve, but honestly don’t care if it doesn’t. His puck possession, back-checking skills and overall ice awareness are what makes him a Hall of Famer.
Regarding potential trades and roster moves, the trade of Jeremy Morin for Richard Panik is truly an unknown. Morin was never going to see NHL ice in Chicago and was too good for Rockford. Panik, a winger, was toiling away for the Marlies in the AHL. Rumor has it Coach Q intends to try Panik out with Toews and Hossa. Again, I prefer Teuvo, but that’s why he’s there and I am here.
Interestingly enough, concern over the loss of Marcus Kruger has faded as well with the arrival of Phillip Danault. He certainly has seized the moment and actually appears ready to carry the torch from Kruger, even if Kruger returns this year from his wrist injury.
Defenseman Erik Gustaffson has also been great since being called up, and will be the constant in the defensive pairings that will alternate Scuderi and Rozsival. This is significant in that in past years the main concern about the Blackhawks in the playoffs has been their defense beyond the Top 4. I realize Scuderi hasn’t shown much thus far, but he is a stay at home defensive veteran, and we all know how much Coach Q likes values these types – especially come playoff time. Thus, I honestly do not anticipate any jaw dropping trades for the Blackhawks. Quite frankly, none are even needed barring injury to a core team member.
I am not sure if the Blackhawks will end the year first in the Western Conference, or even in the Division. I don’t think they care either. If recent history has taught us anything, it is that the Blackhawks are one of the toughest teams to beat come playoff time, regardless of regular season standing.
One thing is for sure, this team has a ton of talent and sure seems to coming together at the right time. Enjoy the second half Blackhawks fans!