Personnel changes aside,the Blackhawks remain the same

20131211_151215We all know that the Blackhawks are an incredible team with as much elite talent as any franchise in hockey. We have seen them win three Stanley Cups, all in rather remarkable fashion, and yet some things they do still never cease to amaze us. Friday afternoon’s comeback win in Anaheim is just the latest example.

Down 2-0 in the game with less than two minutes remaining in regulation, the Hawks struck twice in just over a minute to tie the game and send it to overtime. Once in OT, it took only one minute and fifty-three seconds to score again and earn that second point. With the win, their record on this Circus Trip improved to 3-1-1, with the sixth and last game slated for later tonight against the Kings.

Regardless of the amount of personnel changes on a year-to-year basis, the Blackhawks’ attitude and character remains unchanged. With guys such as Toews, Seabrook, Keith, Hossa, Kane, and Hjalmarsson leading the way, that winning mentality, visible confidence, and natural competitiveness will always be present throughout the team.

It means nothing to this group if they are trailing by a couple of goals in a game, regardless of the amount of time left on the clock. They have overcome that a countless number of times. It does not faze them if they are behind a game or two in a playoff series. We have seen them come back and win a number of series after trailing at one point or another.

The leaders of the Blackhawks have been through just about every imaginable situation under the sun, and they know better than any other group how to use that to their advantage and teach any “new guys” along the way.

This year’s Hawks may not be as deep or formidable as any of the three teams they had that won the Cup, but the overall team mentality and character remains the same. That is why with the right additions via call-ups, signings, and/or trades, the Blackhawks have and will continue to find themselves as serious Stanley Cup contenders.

As of this moment, the Blackhawks sit at 13-8-2 on the year and hold a three point lead for the top Wild Card spot in the West (yes, it is still very early in the season). This current six game road trip was bound to either put them in a very unfavorable spot in the standings, or give them a shot of adrenaline and some momentum as they enter the winter months of the season. With a win in L.A. tonight, they could come home with a 4-1-1 record on the trip looking like their old selves again. And even if they lose, it’s been a rather successful six games given how they started the season on the road.

The bottom line in all of this is that the Blackhawks we have come to know will remain unchanged in terms of character, drive, and competitiveness as long as their current core remains intact. All it takes is some correct tinkering of the roster here and there where the salary cap allows to turn them back into a serious Cup contender.

Cutler now the Bears’ MVP

20131211_151215Whether you want to accept it or not, the fact of the matter is that Jay Cutler is the Chicago Bears’ MVP and most important player. You may dislike him for any number of reasons, and that is fine. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. But after nine games of this Bears season, there is no denying that this team goes as Cutler goes.

Remember earlier in the year when Cutler went down with an injury and missed a game and a half? Remember how miserable the team looked while he watched from the sideline? The offense could hardly pick up a first down.

Coming off of two consecutive victories in games that the Bears were supposed to lose, both of which Cutler played very well, it is clear just how important his presence behind center is.

I don’t think there is any question that Cutler’s stretch of quality play is a direct result of the new coaching staff in place. John Fox and Adam Gase have figured out a way to get through to Cutler and get him on their same page. They have developed not only a football relationship, but seemingly a friendly relationship, which was quite noticeable on the Bears’ sideline during Sunday’s win over St. Louis. For once, Cutler seems to have confidence in his coach and coordinator. That goes a long way in football; longer than many people think.

It has led to Cutler playing with more confidence and more leadership than we’ve seen in his years as a Bear. That in itself has transformed the entire attitude of this Bears team; a team that was supposed to compete for the top draft pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. The Bears are 4-5 on the season and are in the middle of their best stretch of play in quite some time. Players on this year’s team are on a mission to prove the world wrong by winning as many games as possible. The word “playoffs” has even been mentioned a number of times by Bears players in recent weeks.

None of that would be happening if it wasn’t for Jay Cutler. He has transformed into an actual leader over the course of this season thanks to some good coaching for a change, which has led to Jay playing much better football.

The quarterback on any NFL team can often be considered the team’s MVP simply because they touch the ball every offensive play. In the case of this year’s Bears, however, Jay Cutler is the team’s MVP not only because he is involved in every play on offense, but because of how he is now carrying himself and his teammates. There was a time when Bears players wouldn’t stick up for Cutler, but that time is gone now.

Like him, love him, or hate him, there is no denying the importance of Jay Cutler to this Bears team. He has managed to get the team and the city talking about a possible successful season in a year when the Bears were supposed to be one of the league’s worst. If this upward trend continues, Cutler’s $15 million salary next year won’t look so bad. I have always said he is better than most alternatives, and now there is no way to argue it.

Blackhawks lack the forward depth to be a legitimate threat

20131211_151215The Blackhawks are showing us that their top two lines have the potential to be absolutely deadly this year, and possibly for years to come. That second line of Panarin, Anisimov, and Kane has been shredding opposing defenses as of late, while the top line of Toews, Hossa, and whoever occupies the “lottery” spot on the left wing always possesses the ability to do the same. It’s the bottom two forward lines that need some help.

Sunday night’s game against the Flames saw Andrew Shaw, Marcus Kruger, and Teuvo Teravainen as the Hawks’ so-called “third line,” while Brandon Mashinter, Tanner Kero, and Ryan Garbutt made up the fourth line. Here’s the problem with that, if you couldn’t already figure it out on your own.

That fourth line is not good. None of those three players own any true play-making skills, with the exception of Kero who has only played in a handful of NHL games. In reality, Shaw and Kruger belong on the fourth line like they were during last year’s Stanley Cup run. Guys like Mashinter don’t really offer much in today’s NHL where skill has become far more important than physicality. And the Blackhawks know this, but can’t do much about it at the moment due to the salary cap.

Ideally, the Hawks would like Teuvo Teravainen to be the team’s third line center. They’ve tried him out there on occasion, but continue moving him back out of that role. Part of the reason for that is the fact that this roster does not have enough skilled forward depth to allow Teravainen to be successful as a bottom six center. As proven during last year’s playoffs and while he was in the top six this year, Teravainen is a guy who, whether at center or wing, needs to be on a line with skilled, play-making linemates in order to be successful. While the line of Shaw, Kruger, and Teuvo has actually been good the last two games, it’s not a permanent thing.

If you look at the three Blackhawks teams that have won the Cup over the past six years, each one has had four lines that present a legitimate threat to score. The only reason the 2014 team didn’t advance to the Cup Final is because they only had three lines that could produce. That is where this current team is headed. Until they can add a skilled guy to their bottom six, this Blackhawks team cannot win another championship. Unfortunately, the only thing preventing that from happening is the salary cap. Once that hypothetically happens, it will allow Quenneville to put his guys at their correct spots in the lineup.

There’s no question that this Hawks team has elite talent as usual. With Keith and Rozsival now back and healthy, their defense is slowly looking less and less concerning, and the goaltending doesn’t figure to be a problem either. It’s the forward depth that is holding the Hawks back from being a true Stanley Cup threat at the moment. Maybe Bowman works his magic this season and pulls off a trade to fix this problem. Maybe he doesn’t. Until he does find an upgrade for the bottom six though, expect this team to remain top-heavy.

Blackhawks’ young guns helping team ease through some early setbacks

10-171460575-smallThe Blackhawks have been dealt a tough hand early on here in the 2015-16 season. After being forced to dump a lot of salary over the offseason, resulting in multiple new faces in the lineup on opening night, the Hawks are now having to deal with injuries to some key players. It was already going to take a while for the new guys and the mainstays to gel together, but throw in the injuries to Keith and Hossa, and that whole gelling process gets even tougher.

Duncan Keith is expected to be out of the lineup until at least early December after having surgery to repair a torn meniscus. Marian Hossa recently suffered an undisclosed injury that held him out of the lineup Monday night against the Kings. Michal Rozsival has been sidelined ever since Game 4 of the Western Conference Semifinals last May, and is still at least a week or two away from returning. In their spots, the Hawks’ youngsters have had to step up.

Monday night’s lineup against the Kings saw Ryan Hartman, Tanner Kero, and Marko Dano make up the Hawks’ so-called third line. Three rookies with very little previous NHL experience.

On the blue line, rookie Victor Svedberg has been asked to play a large role in Keith’s absence, as has Trevor van Riemsdyk, who including this season has 20 games of regular season NHL experience. The Hawks also recently recalled Erik Gustafsson to add depth to their defensive unit. All three d-men played in the Blackhawks’ last two games, with those being the first two career games for Gustafsson.

Add in that Artemi Panarin, another rookie, has been a regular in the Hawks’ lineup this year, and you start to realize just how challenging a first twelve games of the season this has been for the Blackhawks.

When you take a step back and look at how the team has performed so far though, you can’t really help but be pleasantly surprised given the circumstances. Monday night’s 4-2 win over L.A. was a perfect example.

The Blackhawks were going up against one of the NHL’s best teams, who oh by the way was on a 7-game win streak, and managed to mount a three-goal third period to come back and win the game by a pair. Granted, that late charge was led by Patrick Kane, but the rookies, specifically the ones on the blue line, hung in there quite nicely and played a big role in the win.

Guys like TVR and Svedberg have transitioned very nicely to their increased roles and more minutes of playing time, which has been huge for Quenneville and the rest of the Hawks. While Hartman, Kero, and Dano didn’t have much of an impact against the Kings, they held their own for the most part.

This is something we’ll likely continue seeing this year as the Hawks try and find the right pieces to fit in on their ever-changing third line. As for the defense, Gustafsson likely won’t stick around once Rozsival returns, and when Keith gets back, some minutes will be cut from Svedberg and TVR.

All in all, despite a record of 7-5-0, there have been some encouraging signs shown by the Hawks through the first twelve games. This may not be a team playing in June for the Stanley Cup right away next summer, but the youngsters are showing signs of promise for the long run.