Keys to a Blackhawks’ series victory over Nashville

15-_DSC2491-toresizeTwo months ago this matchup didn’t quite seem possible, as the Predators appeared to be running away with the Central Division crown. Then came their downfall that landed them as the second seed in the Central, leading us to a rematch of the 2010 Western Conference Quarterfinals. The Blackhawks haven’t necessarily been playing well either, and have lost four straight games heading into the playoffs. Putting all of that behind us, there are many factors that come into play when trying to determine a winner in this series.

I said it in my “predictions” post that I think the Hawks will win this series in six games. Obviously it could go four, five, or seven games, but regardless I still think the Blackhawks will advance. The questions is, how will they advance?

-First of all, Patrick Kane is back and will be playing in Game One. That right there is a huge advantage in favor of the Hawks, who badly need to get their offense and powerplay back on the right track. I think we all know just how valuable a player Kane is, so I won’t elaborate anymore on him.

-Secondly, the Hawks’ defense has to be playing at the top of their game. Kimmo Timonen will be back to start the series after missing the last handful of games to close out the regular season, and his presence on the team’s blue line gives them more depth and reliability. That means nothing, however, if his partner (likely Rundblad or Rozsival) continues to be a liability. In the top four, we pretty much know what we’re going to get for the most part. Seabrook always seems to have the ability to stink, as does Oduya, but hopefully those two play the way they have lately and like they did in 2013. If it were up to me, I’d have the d-pairings look like 2-7, 4-27, 44-32. Keith and Seabrook, and Oduya and Hjalmarsson all seem to play better when they are paired that way.

The Blackhawks finished the year as the second best team in hockey in goals against per game, which says a lot about their team defense (and goaltending, which we’ll get to). The problem that the blue liners of the Hawks have had is their giveaways in their own zone and the neutral zone. More often this year than in years past we’ve seen Blackhawks defensemen pass the puck right to the opposition at the Hawks’ own blue line or in the neutral zone, leading to incredible scoring chances for the other team. This cannot continue to happen. Mistakes like these are usually mental ones and can be eliminated or at least cut back on.

While the Predators don’t present the best group of forwards in the league by any means, they’re still good and can take advantage of mistakes. I’m not too worried about the actual defensive play of the Hawks’ top five d-men, but they cannot afford to turn the puck over.

-Corey Crawford is coming off of arguably his best regular season since becoming the team’s number one goalie, earning his second career Jennings Trophy, and he’ll need to keep it up for the next couple months. He and his backups are a HUGE reason why the Blackhawks ended with over 100 points this year, so hopefully he can keep that up as well as get some more goal scoring from his teammates in front of him.

-Line combinations always are, and will continue to be a huge part of the playoffs. Right now, unfortunately, Joel Quenneville has his lines messed up. In the team’s last two practices, including today, the line combos were Saad-Toews-Hossa, Versteeg-Richards-Kane, Bickell-Shaw-Sharp, Nordstrom-Kruger-Teravainen. As you may have noticed, Antoine Vermette is missing from those line combos. Yes, that’s the same guy that the Hawks traded away a first round pick and arguably their top defensive prospect for at the trade deadline. And yes, he’s still one of the league’s best players at winning faceoffs. Yet he appears to be a healthy scratch for Game One.

The first question that pops into my head is why did they trade for him if he’s going to sit for Game One of the playoffs? I’m guessing that’s a common question among fans right now, but it’s not really a good one. A better question is what makes Joakim Nordstrom and Kris Versteeg more valuable than Vermette? Nordstrom is a fourth line player who is smart and reliable on the penalty kill. Guess what? So is Antoine Vermette, who’s also a better all-around player. As for Versteeg, he has been the worst Hawk over the last month and a half and has provided next to zero production for the team over that span. What makes him so irreplaceable? What Quenneville is probably thinking is that with Kane now back, he can reunite that trio of him, Versteeg, and Richards that was so successful back in December. If it works, great. If not, Versteeg should either be in the bottom six or scratched.

Another negative to Vermette apparently being benched is that you now have to play Andrew Shaw at center. Granted, even with Vermette in the lineup this has still recently been the case because Quenneville inexplicably decided to put him at wing. By having Vermette in the lineup and at center, the correct position, Andrew Shaw is moved to the wing where he has been his most effective throughout his career with the Blackhawks. As a wing, Shaw is able to be more involved on the forecheck and doesn’t need to take faceoffs. After acquiring Vermette back in March, the Hawks had Shaw on the wing and he instantly started playing his best hockey of the year. Go figure!

I am extremely hopeful that Quenneville will come to his senses and put the playoff experienced, veteran center Antoine Vermette back in the lineup for Game Two. Better yet, maybe he’ll still play him tomorrow and hope that these last two practices served as a “wake-up call” for Vermette who really does need to step up his game. Best case scenario, the lines for Game One would be Sharp-Toews-Hossa, Saad-Vermette-Kane, Versteeg-Richards-Bickell, Shaw-Kruger-Teravainen.

I’m not saying that the Blackhawks can’t win with the current line combinations, but I also think they’d be a lot better off with Vermette in the lineup on a nightly basis.

This series has the potential to be a really good one. In the end though, I think the Blackhawks are simply too deep and have too much offense (provided they start clicking) for Nashville to handle in a seven game series. I also think that the Blackhawks’ defense and goaltending will triumph over the Nashville forwards.

I hope I’m right…

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Blackhawks’ trade targets and pieces

15-_DSC2491-toresizeThe NHL trade deadline is fast approaching (March 2nd). Multiple teams around the league will be looking to somehow strengthen their rosters heading into the final month and a half of the regular season, and the Blackhawks may be no different. I say “may be” because I’m not one hundred percent sure that they are aggressively looking to make a move. “Kicking the tires” on a few players is different than actually trying to acquire somebody.

As I’ve said on here before, the Hawks, if they do make a move, would probably like to add another depth defensemen to the roster. I’m not so sure that they feel comfortable enough with the group of d-men currently on the team. I know I don’t feel too confident about this defensive corps, but that’s just me.

The two biggest names in terms of defensemen that are reportedly on the block are Edmonton’s Jeff Petry and Carolina’s Andrej Sekera.

15-_DSC2491-toresizeJeff Petry (6’3″, 198 lbs) has been buried in Edmonton since making his NHL debut in 2010, and therefore most people don’t know who he is. While the Oilers have consistently been an awful defensive team in recent years, Petry is arguably their best defenseman. This year, he has 4 goals to go with 11 assists, but that’s not really why you’d trade for this guy. He is an above average defender, he’s got a 6’3″ frame, and he is a right handed shot. This would be quite a nice fit for the Blackhawks, who are struggling to get any quality ice time from a guy like Michal Rozsival or whoever the sixth d-man happens to be. Petry won’t come at a very cheap price, but he should be cheaper than Cody Franson who went to Nashville.

139990-330-0Andrej Sekera is more of an offensive defenseman. He finished the 2013-2014 season with 11 goals and 33 assists, and currently has 2 goals and 17 assists this year on a bad Carolina team. At 28 years old, he is a nice puck-moving defenseman and gives you a good left handed shot from the point. His 6’0″, 200 pound body isn’t the biggest, but he’s no pushover. Like Petry, but for different reasons, Sekera would be a real nice fit for the Hawks. The Blackhawks are a fast team that likes their defensemen to skate the puck up the ice and be involved in the offensive game, and that’s exactly what you get with Sekera.

Adding either one of these two defensemen, or someone comparable, to the Hawks’ lineup would instantly make them a better team. The problem is trying to afford these guys.

Right now the Hawks are about as tight against the league salary cap as you can get. Acquiring anyone would mean they’d have to lose someone’s salary off their current NHL roster. Petry has a $3,075,000 cap hit this season, with his contract expiring this summer. Sekera is making $2,750,000 this year, and his contract also expires this summer. To trade for either player, or even an unmentioned player of equal salary, the Hawks would need to trade a “bigger name” in return.

Who might that be?

Well, Patrick Sharp, Bryan Bickell, Michal Rozsival, and Andrew Shaw would all qualify (Shaw and Rozsival are making $2 million and $2.2 million respectively). One of those guys would have to be headed the other way to acquire any solid defenseman who is not on an entry level contract.

While I’m sure no one wants to hear it, Patrick Sharp may be the best option in terms of who to trade. We all know what he’s capable of offensively, but he is on the down slope of his career, he’s in the middle of a sub-par individual season (he’s now on the team’s fourth line), and he is a $5.9 million dollar cap hit. Not only would trading him allow the Hawks to fit a solid d-man into their lineup in terms of salary, but it would also open up a lot of cap space for next season when they are going to have to re-sign guys like Saad, Kruger, and maybe Oduya. And, there aren’t many teams with cap space that would say no to acquiring Patrick Sharp.

Bryan Bickell and his $4 million dollar salary would also open up some cap space for the Hawks if they were to trade him, but dealing him would be a much harder sell than Sharp. I don’t see this scenario happening.

Then there’s Andrew Shaw. It’s no secret that he is one of Joel Quenneville’s “favorites,” but trading him would free up $2 million dollars. Shaw is definitely a replaceable kind of player, especially when you have someone like Ryan Hartman now on the team who is virtually Shaw’s clone in terms of playing style, and maybe even better. Hartman’s call-up raised some questions regarding Shaw’s future with the team, and maybe the Hawks are looking to move his salary.

The bottom line here is that the Blackhawks really do need to make a trade for a quality defenseman. It’s just going to have to come at a higher price. Add in the fact that other teams know the cap situation that the Hawks are in, and they have very little leeway in terms of trying to work out a favorable deal.

If it were up to me, I’d be in favor of moving a Sharp, Bickell, or Shaw if it meant getting a Petry or Sekera in return. You might be saying “Why would you trade Sharp!?” Well, this team has a ton of firepower on their first two lines without Sharp, and when you have guys like Teravainen and McNeill down in Rockford, it is definitely possible to fill Sharp’s absence on one of the bottom two lines. The question is whether or not the management would make a trade like this now as opposed to waiting until the summer. Either way, adding a good defenseman to this team is crucial. Could you imagine if Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson, or even Oduya got hurt and the Hawks had to fill their spot with Rozsival or Rundblad? That would be a nightmare, which is why they need to make a move.

Blackhawks reassign Teravainen; Recall Hartman, Cumiskey

IMG_1999-0Earlier this evening, the Blackhawks announced that they had sent top prospect Teuvo Teravainen back to the Rockford Icehogs of the AHL. In return, they called up 2013 number one draft pick, Ryan Hartman (right winger), and 28 year old defenseman Kyle Cumiskey. Cumiskey has been seeing playing time in the NHL on and off since the 2007-08 season, while also playing a number of games in the AHL. He played 4 preseason games with the Hawks this year before getting sent to Rockford for the start of the season.

So what does this all mean?

Well, with the return of Kris Versteeg to the Hawks’ lineup, someone had to leave it. Nordstrom was sent down to make room on the roster for Versteeg, and now Teravainen has been sent down to make room for Versteeg in the everyday lineup. While most of us would love to see Carcillo be the one to lose his spot in the lineup, that’s not happening. At least not right now. It is believed that the Hawks ultimately want Teravainen as part of their top nine forwards. With Versteeg now back in the top nine, that leaves no room for Teuvo, unless Quenneville got smart and decided to leave him as the third line center and demote Shaw to a fourth line wing where he belongs. But that’s not going to happen. Shaw is Q’s third line center, and that’s that. Instead of keeping Teravainen in the NHL and having him scratched from the lineup on a regular basis, the Hawks have opted to send him to Rockford where he’ll see loads of playing time.

In Teravainen’s place on the roster we’ll now see West Dundee native Ryan Hartman. Hartman is looked at as being a potentially more valuable version of Andrew Shaw. They are similar players in that they are agitators who also possess offensive talent. Hartman is likely a better offensive player than Shaw, and has notched 8 goals and 10 assists in 47 games this year in Rockford. He also earned 81 penalty minutes there this year.

Also coming up to the Hawks is Kyle Cumiskey, who leaves Rockford with 1 goal and 10 assists on the year. Cumiskey is recognized for his speed and puck-moving abilities, and that’s about it…

These moves raise a few questions regarding the current state of the Blackhawks.

  1. Will they stick with 8 active defensemen on the NHL roster?
  2. What does this mean for Andrew Shaw?
  3. And to combine the two questions, is a trade looming?

It’s no secret that the Blackhawks probably would like to upgrade their d-corps between now and the end of the trade deadline. I’m not sure that anyone in Chicago feels too comfortable having to rely Rozsival, Rundblad, and Oduya in the lineup at the same time on a nightly basis in the playoffs. It would be great if they could get a trustworthy, number 4-5 defensemen to replace either Rozsival or Rundblad, ideally. The odds of that happening are not great though, as almost every contender is looking to do the same thing for a low price. Still, I don’t see them progressing with eight active defensemen. Does this mean that Tim Erixon gets placed on long term injured reserve assuming no trade is made? We shall see. And let’s not forget that Trevor van Riemsdyk is due back from injury sometime before the playoffs. That adds another d-man to the roster. We would all like to believe that TVR is the answer for the Hawks’ defense, but there’s no telling what kind of shape his legs will be in or how long it will take him to get back into game-shape, let alone playoff-shape. Needless to say, more moves are to come concerning the team’s defensemen.

As for Andrew Shaw, the call-up of Ryan Hartman could possibly (not likely) mean that the Hawks are looking to deal him. The Hawks need to shed some salary before next season, and with the way Shaw has performed this year, he looks expendable. Ryan Hartman, if he performs well in the NHL, is a very similar player to Shaw, and could hypothetically take his place in the lineup. If dealing Shaw results in acquiring a defensemen of the caliber that I previously described, then I’m all for it. The Blackhawks have enough offensive firepower to win without Andrew Shaw, and if Hartman can fill his void, it’s a win-win situation. Granted, this is assuming that Hartman gets a chance to prove himself, which is by no means a guarantee as long as Quenneville his behind the bench. It’s just as likely, if not more, that Carcillo continues playing every night while Hartman watches and eventually gets sent back down.

Clearly, a lot could potentially happen with the Blackhawks’ roster in the near future. One thing is for sure though, and that’s that the recent moves by the Hawks have raised a lot of eyebrows and questions. Could a trade be coming? Or do they have a different plan in store? As usual, only time will tell.

Not looking good

7327531For the second game in a row, the Blackhawks were badly out-played and have left us fans questioning their desire and work ethic. In Boston on Thursday night, the Hawks were shutout 3-0 and never once looked like they wanted to be playing in that game. In tonight’s 5-2 loss, the Blackhawks looked even worse than Thursday for about 35 of the 60 minutes played against Ottawa, a team that won’t be making the playoffs, and a team that the Blackhawks need to be beating at this time of year.

I’m not quite sure where to even begin trying to explain how bad the Hawks were tonight, but here we go:

  • They came out looking OK through the first 5 minutes tonight, but then proceeded to lose all energy, all effort, and all competitiveness for the remainder of the first.
  • This may have been the worst game of the season for the Hawks’ defensemen. Ottawa torched them multiple times for odd-man rushes and breakaways. If it wasn’t for Raanta, this could have been a 7-2 final, at least…
  • How much longer are we going to watch guys like Versteeg, Sharp, Keith, etc., continue to pass up open looks at the net to try and force a pass through traffic? When you’re down 3-0, you need to shoot the puck as much as possible. This did not happen against the Senators.
  • I am beginning to wonder if Quenneville is losing his mind a little bit. At what point will he see that Bollig and Handzus are bigger liabilities to this team than they are assets? Yeah, Bollig will “fight” now and then (big help that was tonight….not), but he is terrible offensively and just average on defense. Handzus’ only upside is his work on the PK. The rest is flat out bad. Nothing a guy like Morin couldn’t do better.

Maybe it’s that time of year where the playoffs are so close, yet so far away and the Blackhawks are losing focus on the remainder of the regular season. I hope that’s the case, because this effort cannot continue. Multiple times over these last two games have I caught myself saying “they aren’t even trying,” or “this team has no desire to win.” It shouldn’t be that way, not with a team this talented, not with a team this experienced, and not with a team that represents a very proud organization. It’s on Quenneville now to get their heads back into place.

Joel QuennevilleSpeaking of Quenneville, like I mentioned above, his decision making is becoming extremely infuriating. Peter Regin has done nothing but play his butt off since he joined the team by crashing the net, winning board battles, and effectively backchecking the opponents. Yet, Q benches him seemingly every other game in favor of Handzus. Near the end of tonight’s game, it was Regin going hard to the net prior to Seabrook’s goal that may have thrown Anderson off, thus causing the goal. This is what the Hawks need more of, but Regin will probably sit in a sky-box Sunday in Pittsburgh instead. In the case of Brandon Bollig, why Bowman ever gave him a 3-year extension I will never understand. He is not very skilled, he’s a defensive liability, and he makes some bad decisions. In a playoff series, I’d MUCH rather take my chances with someone like Jeremy Morin who can create offense and hustles.

Teuvo Teravainen was not in the lineup tonight after playing in each of the team’s last two games. The Blackhawks still have not hinted one way or another as to what their plan is with Teravainen right now. My gut unfortunately tells me they’ll keep him under 10 games played to avoid using up the first year of his contract. I don’t agree with that move, but I can see that happening.

As a few side notes, Antti Raanta appeared to hurt himself during the first period tonight after falling awkwardly on his right leg. He played the rest of the game, but this is something to keep an eye on. Also, Niklas Hjalmarsson was blatantly kneed by Chris Neil near the end of the second period and looked to be in a lot of pain. He too continued playing, but then appeared to have been held off the ice for most of the third. Hopefully he doesn’t miss any time. Andrew Shaw was called for spearing late in the game and received a game misconduct. By rule, the NHL has to review the incident to determine 130107_gq_trout_awhether or not further penalty(s) are warranted. Lastly, Matt Carey made his NHL debut tonight. Unfortunately for him, it was not a memorable debut. Cody Ceci’s shot from the point in the first period deflected off of Carey’s stick before going into the net past Raanta for the Sens second goal. Then Carey took a bad delay of game/faceoff violation penalty early in the third that led to Ottawa’s fourth goal (a dagger).

With the way the Blackhawks are playing at the moment, I don’t see any reason why the Avalanche couldn’t put them away in just 5 games in the first round of the playoffs. Granted, the Hawks are without Patrick Kane right now, but still.

They better show up in Pittsburgh Sunday night.

Andrew Shaw Gets 3 Game Suspension

Well, just when you thought Brendan Shanahan couldn’t be much more inconsistent with his handling of suspensions, he pulls this out of his hat. Shanahan announced today that Blackhawks forward Andrew Shaw has been suspended 3 games for his hit on Coyotes goalie Mike Smith on Saturday night.

Here is Shanny’s reasoning:

  • It was a charging penalty.
  • Smith was not injured on the play.
  • Shaw has no history of illegal hits.

That kind of makes you scratch your head, doesn’t it? Smith was NOT injured on the play, and Shaw has NO history of suspensions or fines. So is Shanahan saying that if Smith was injured, or if Shaw did have a history that Shaw would have been suspended basically the rest of the playoffs? This is an absolute joke!

In Game 1 of the Red Wings and Predators series last week, Shea Weber of the Predators punched Henrik Zetterberg in the head, and then grabbed the head of Zetterberg and slammed it into the glass as the third period ended. He received a $2,500 fine, which is basically a tiny slap on the wrist. Isn’t the NHL trying to eliminate head-shots? Isn’t what Weber did as clear of a head-shot as they get? Yet all he got was about as small of a fine that the NHL could possibly hand out, and nothing else.

In Andrew Shaw’s case, he skated in behind the net at full speed to try and get to the puck before Smith could play it, but ended up colliding with Mike Smith. If you watch the replay, Shaw had his head down looking at the puck the entire time. When he got to the puck, his shoulder hit the head of Mike Smith knocking Smith to the ice. Smith stayed down for a couple of minutes before getting back up to play the rest of the game. Meanwhile, Shaw was given a 5-minute charging penalty, a game misconduct, and now a 3-game suspension.

After the game, Mike Smith made a statement through the Coyotes PR department that he was “100 percent.” However, Smith was held out of Monday’s practice for undisclosed reasons, and wouldn’t talk to the media. In the NHL, the only time that a player is allowed to avoid speaking to the media is when the player is under “extreme circumstances.” In this case, the Coyotes made it seem like Smith was having concussion symptoms after all even though they said he was “fine” after Game 2. Today, Smith was back on the ice for practice and is listed as a “game-time decision,” leading most to believe that he will in fact play. The bottom line here is that it seems as though the Coyotes have been milking the system the past few days to try and make it look like Smith did in fact get hurt on the play, all in an attempt to increase Shaw’s suspension length. With that said, Brendan Shanahan stated that “Smith was not injured on the play,” and that factored into the suspension of Andrew Shaw. None of this adds up or makes sense.

Here is my question:

Are players now supposed to stand by and simply watch as goalies go to play pucks in behind the net? Based on the suspension of Andrew Shaw, that sure seems like what Shanahan and the NHL want. Players are going to be scared of trying to play pucks behind the net while the goalie is back there with the fear that they might get suspended if they touch the goalie. Basically, goaltenders are now going to have free reign of the area in behind the net whenever they would like.

Brendan Shanahan has handed out a number of questionable suspensions this year, but none of them have puzzled me more than this one. He better have a new job next season, or else there will be a lot of angry people in the NHL.

Here are the replays of Weber’s “head smashing” and Shanahan’s explanation for his suspension of Shaw:

 

Shanahan’s explanation video