Previewing the Blackhawks’ Potential First Round Playoff Mathups

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at St. Louis BluesHeading into Tuesday night’s matchup between the Blackhawks and Coyotes at the United Center, the Hawks sit third in the Central Division with 99 points, while the Stars and Blues are tied atop the division with 105. The Blackhawks do have a game in-hand on both Dallas and St. Louis, but that won’t matter unless the Hawks get two points against Arizona. Given how the standings currently look, let’s breakdown who the Hawks may meet in the first round of the playoffs, and who they should prefer to meet.

We’ll start with Dallas.

If the playoffs started today, we would see a St. Louis – Chicago showdown in the first round. With the Blues and Stars tied for the top spot in the Central and each with two games left on their schedules, a lot can still take place, however. Heck, even the Hawks aren’t mathematically eliminated from winning the division. If St. Louis were to end up taking the division title, we would get a Stars – Blackhawks first round series.

This regular season, the Hawks went 1-4 against Dallas, and all of their losses were of the ugly sort. Needless to say, the Stars gave the Blackhawks some problems this year. While some may be inclined to think much of the same would occur in a playoff series between the two teams, that won’t exactly be the case.

Dallas is the league’s best offensive team with two of the game’s best scorers in Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. They’ve also got the likes of Patrick Sharp, Jason Spezza, and even John Klingberg, who developed into one of the NHL’s best offensive d-men this year. They are a deep team at forward and can roll four lines rather effectively.

Defensively, Dallas has some depth as well. The emergence of Klingberg as an elite offensive defenseman has been huge for the Stars, as has the addition of defensive specialist Johnny Oduya. Jason Demers is expected to be out of the lineup for a couple more weeks with a shoulder injury, and when he returns, Dallas has three decent defensive pairings.

The Stars’ biggest knock is their ability, or sometimes lack thereof, to keep pucks out of their own net. While their defense is built with recognizable names, they aren’t exactly the best group when it comes to actually playing defense. Like Klingberg, this is a defensive unit that is stronger in the offensive zone than they are in the defensive zone more often than not. Add in their goaltending, which ranks in the bottom five in total save percentage and allows an average of 2.80 goals per game, and you begin to understand that this is purely an offensive team.

Dallas ranks fourth in the NHL in CorsiFor (CF%) percentage (number of shot attempts a team generates, whether on goal or not, compared to their opponent), which means they’re a team that plays with possession of the puck more frequently than they do not. This is just how they want it given their issues defensively and in net.

In a potential Blackhawks – Stars series, the key for each team would become puck possession. The Stars need the puck so that their offensive weapons can do their thing. The Blackhawks, on the other hand, would need the puck to prevent the Stars’ forwards from doing what they do best: scoring goals. While the Hawks rank in the middle of the pack in CF%, they still own the ability to be one of the league’s best puck possession teams. Given how the Blackhawks seem to dial up their intensity come playoff time, it’s not out of the question that they could be the better possession team in this potential series.

As for St. Louis, they are somewhat the opposite of Dallas in terms of their team strengths.

Unlike the Stars, the Blues pride themselves on defense and goaltending. That is why they rank fifth league-wide in fewest goals against per game, and first in team save percentage. Their defense is led by a top four that is very solid in the defensive zone, unlike Dallas, who have two goalies behind them in Brian Elliott and Jake Allen that both own save percentages in the .920’s. Defense is without question the strength of the Blues.

Aside from the strong defensive capabilities, this team also ranks top ten in CF%. It’s a tough combination to try and go up against. However, despite the strong possession and Corsi numbers, St. Louis is 14th in goals per game. Therein lies their biggest problem.

It seems to be the case every year with the Blues: they have a strong defensive team, but not enough offensive firepower to advance deep into the postseason. You can rank as high as you want in CF%, but if you’re not putting the puck in the net, it will eventually come back to bite you. Granted, the Blues are in the top half of the league in goals per game, but their offensive depth is what could hurt them yet again.

When you look at their individual statistics, Vladimir Tarasenko leads the team with 71 points. Next is Alex Steen with 51, followed by three players in the 40s. Their bottom two lines are not very productive offensively, which usually spells trouble in the playoffs. It is due to this weakness that the Blues have not made it past the second round of the playoffs in any of the previous four seasons, while being eliminated in the first round each of the past three years. Obviously anything could theoretically happen this time around, but the 2015-16 Blues look, on paper, awfully similar to the previous four Blues teams to have made the postseason only to be quickly eliminated.

So looking at the two most likely candidates to face the Blackhawks in the first round, which one should the Hawks prefer?

While I hate “wishing” for a specific opponent (that usually ends poorly), I believe the Blackhawks would be better off getting the Blues in round one. Here’s why:

  1. The Hawks defense can be vulnerable, to say the least. Losing Johnny Oduya was a killer, and the Hawks are still trying to find his replacement on the team’s second d-pairing. Also, Corey Crawford has missed the last 9 games due to injury. Although he is expected back for Game 1 of the first round, who knows how much rust he’ll have to clean off himself. Given those two factors and the fact that Dallas is league’s best offensive team, I’d rather go up against a team like the Blues that isn’t as offensively strong. The Blackhawks’ offense and depth can be good enough to beat a solid defensive team.
  2. There is a certain “familiarity” that the Blackhawks have with the Blues. They’ve recently gone up against each other in the playoffs and know the tendencies that the Blues have on both sides of the puck. Joel Quenneville is no stranger to playing the matchup game against Ken Hitchcock, and he usually wins that battle. Bottom line here is that it would be easier for the Hawks to draw up a gameplan against the Blues than it would be to draw one up against a Stars team that despite playing in the same division, the Hawks are not as familiar with.
  3. Lastly, and feel free to take this one for whatever it may or may not be worth, the Stars have owned the Blackhawks this season. They have a 4-1 record against the Hawks and made Chicago look relatively bad in each of those four Dallas victories. Needless to say, the Stars would head into a series against the Blackhawks with loads of confidence. Again, that might not even be a factor, especially against a Hawks team that could care less about what happened in the regular season, but you never know. The Stars going 4-1 against the Hawks this year has to mean something, even if only a little.

There are pros and cons to playing the Blues and Stars in a seven game series. All I’m doing here is trying to highlight those factors and determine which ones are more important than the others when looking at potential playoff matchups.

With just three games left for the Blackhawks (2 for both the Blues and Stars), the Hawks’ best hope is to win out and have both St. Louis and Dallas lose their last two games. This would vault the Hawks into first in the division and guarantee them home ice advantage for at least the first two rounds. The next best option is to have the Blackhawks win their last three games, while just one of St. Louis or Dallas lose their final two. This would allow the Hawks to finish second in the Central and have home ice in round one. Keep in mind that the Blackhawks play the Blues on Thursday, and then St. Louis finishes their schedule at home against the Capitals. If both St. Louis and Dallas win just one more game, however, or if the Hawks lose one, the Hawks are guaranteed third place.

The push for a better playoff seed begins Tuesday night against Arizona for the Blackhawks. Marian Hossa, Andrew Shaw, and Corey Crawford are all out due to injury, while Duncan Keith serves the third game of his six-game suspension.

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Blackhawks lose Keith and the game in Minnesota

130107_gq_trout_aTuesday night’s Blackhawks – Wild game in St. Paul saw things quickly turn from ugly to really ugly for the Hawks. Not long before the game was set to begin, we learned that Brent Seabrook would be a scratch due to an illness. This was a decent blow to a defensive unit that had already been struggling. Then about halfway through the opening period, Duncan Keith was assessed a five minute major and game misconduct for an “intent to injure” Charlie Coyle of the Wild.

Keith’s ejection left Niklas Hjalmarsson as the only reliable defenseman in the lineup. At the time, the overwhelming thought was that the Hawks were absolutely screwed moving forward in that game given Seabrook and Keith would be out. Turns out, it wasn’t as bad as anticipated. The Blackhawks did lose the game, but it’s not like Minnesota torched the Hawks’ defensive corps the whole night. It could have been a lot worse than it actually was.

All of that is just the short-term effect of Keith’s penalty though. The long-term effect could be a lengthy suspension for the two-time Norris Trophy winner.

I’ll be the first one to try and defend a Hawks player when a questionable situation arises. In this instance, however, I cannot defend Keith’s actions against Coyle. You can’t, under any circumstances, intentionally slash a guy in the face with your stick. It does not matter how heated you might be in “the moment.” Doing what Keith did is just stupid, plain and simple, and he deserves a suspension.

The big question now is how many games Keith will have to miss.

If I had to make my best guess as to what kind of punishment the Department of Player Safety will hand down to Keith, I’d say he will probably be looking at a suspension of anywhere from 3-5 games. The possibility exists that he could get even more.

On the one hand, yes it was a bad move by Keith to do what he did, but there have been a lot worse actions by other players that have only warranted suspensions of 5 games or less. On the other hand, however, Keith was suspended during the 2013 Western Conference Final for a very similar reason when he slashed Jeff Carter in the face at center ice. Seeing as how he has done this more than once now, the NHL may look to send a stern message to the Hawks’ d-man and suspend him for 5 games or more. Any suspension of more than 5 games would mean Keith will miss at least one playoff game, seeing as how there are just 5 games left on the Blackhawks’ schedule.

Obviously, this is not an ideal situation for the Blackhawks. They are already all but eliminated from possibly ending up second in the Central Division, and they also have Nashville sitting just 4 points behind them in the top wild card spot. Losing Keith now is not what this team needs if they’re looking to lock up third place in the Central.

Guys like TVR, Rozsival, and maybe Ehrhoff are going to have to pick up more minutes now, which isn’t exactly a great thing. Luckily for the Blackhawks, 3 of their remaining 5 games are against non-playoff teams.

And as if this Keith stuff is not bad enough news, here’s some more for you.

It was reported on Tuesday by Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times that Corey Crawford’s “upper body” injury is in fact a head injury, and it could be that he’s dealing with vertigo symptoms much like Bryan Bickell was last spring and summer. The problem with vertigo is that there really isn’t a timetable for recovery. One person may see their symptoms disappear a lot quicker than others.

In Crawford’s case, no news is bad news, meaning that no updates to his condition likely mean he’s not improving. He has yet to skate since leaving the lineup, and Quenneville is still calling him day-to-day while hoping that he will be ready for Game 1 of the first round.

I, personally, am growing more and more concerned about this. The Blackhawks have, for the most part, been relatively quiet about the Crawford situation. Quenneville has repeatedly given the same quick answer when asked about Crawford’s condition (“he’s day-to-day, hopefully ready for Game 1”), and having listened to Q over the years, his quick answers usually mean he’s a little worried.

I guess time will tell with Crawford.

As for the Blackhawks as a team, their recent play is a bit bothersome, but I still can’t get overly concerned about them. Anyone who has watched the Hawks play over the last 8 years or so knows just how quickly this team can turn things around and go on to win multiple playoff series’ and even the Cup.

With just 5 games left in the regular season and Keith likely to miss at least a couple of those, winning 3 of those 5 would be big for the Hawks. They cannot afford to end up in a wild card spot.

Time to flip the switch: How the Blackhawks can get going again

NHL: Chicago Blackhawks at Winnipeg JetsTuesday night the Blackhawks will welcome the Central Division-leading Stars back to Chicago. Dallas currently leads the division with 95 points, while the Hawks sit in third with 91. Both teams have just 9 games remaining on their regular season schedules this year, so tonight will go a long way in determining whether or not the Blackhawks will have a legitimate chance of still winning the division. If they wish to achieve that goal, then tonight’s game becomes a must-win.

Lately the Hawks have been in a funk, to say the least. And in all honesty, it’s nothing that should come as much of a surprise. They have become a perennial mediocre team in the month of March over the past few years. Only when the “real” games begin in April do they dial it up a few notches. That being said, however, now might be the right time to begin that dialing-up process.

Following Tuesday night’s game against Dallas, the Hawks will take off on a four-game road trip out west to Calgary, Vancouver, Minnesota, and Winnipeg. None of those games will be easy, and given how the Hawks have performed on the road this year (18-14-4), it would be nice if they began flipping that switch to playoff-mode beginning with Tuesday’s tilt against the Stars. If they play the way they have for the majority of the last month on the upcoming road trip, the Blackhawks could be staring at another four-game losing streak.

To get a win tonight and to begin working their way towards that “playoff mode,” here’s what the Hawks need to do:

  • First off, the offense needs to start clicking again. The Panarin-Anisimov-Kane line was arguably the league’s best for the first four months of the season, but has since quieted down a bit. For this reason, among a few others, Joel Quenneville has begun mixing up his lines on a pretty regular basis whether in the middle of a game or heading into a game. We’ve seen Kane with Toews and Ladd while Hossa takes the second line RW spot, we’ve seen Ladd flanking Teravainen on the team’s third line, and we’ve seen a number of different combinations on the bottom two lines in recent games. All of this has been an effort to generate some offense, but it hasn’t consistently worked. At this point, I see two possible solutions moving forward. The first one is if Ladd just can’t seem to connect with 19 and 81 on the first line, move him to the third line and bump Fleischmann up to the top line. He has shown some really good skill and energy since coming to Chicago, and it may be a nice fit for everyone involved. Ladd, meanwhile, would add some really solid depth on the third line. The second option, and the one I hope prevails, is for the Blackhawks to simply wake up and “flip their switch.” We say this same thing every year, but only because it’s true every year. They are playing on auto-pilot right now, and until they begin to actually try and go all out each and every night, we’ll continue to see more mediocre performances. This team now has the depth and talent required to win a Stanley Cup thanks to the trade deadline, but until they start playing like they really want it, the losses will keep coming.
  • Secondly, Quenneville needs to figure out his defensive pairings. Right now we’re seeing guys like Ehrhoff and Gustafsson rotate in and out of the lineup while only getting around ten minutes or less of ice-time per game. Meanwhile, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Michal Rozsival are seeing their minutes increase to the high twenties despite them being arguably the two worst defensemen on the team. The bottom line is that while Q has been “resting” his top d-men as of late, he needs to start giving the appropriate minutes to the appropriate guys while at the same time figuring out who his 4-6 defensemen will be come mid-April. If it were up to me, the d-pairings would be Keith-Seabrook, Ehrhoff-Hjalmarsson, TVR-Rozsival with Gustafsson possibly taking TVR’s spot. Brent Seabrook cannot support a sub-par d-man on his pairing anymore like he maybe could have at one time. Instead, he needs a rock solid partner like Keith or Hjalmarsson. Speaking of Hjalmarsson, I like him with Ehrhoff for the fact that Ehrhoff can be a responsible defenseman, but he can also move the puck offensively better than any other d-man on the Hawks not named Keith. This pairing provides you with solid defense in Hammer, and good (not great) defense and above average offense in Ehrhoff. As for the third pairing, I say start with TVR and go to Gustafsson as soon as van Riemsdyk runs into trouble.
  • The penalty kill for the Blackhawks has been awful for most of the season in case you haven’t noticed. This is partially due to Marcus Kruger’s injury, and matters only got worse when Hossa went down. Hossa is now back, and Kruger could be coming back as soon as this weekend. Their PK was 3 for 3 against Minnesota Sunday night, but the Stars will be a much stiffer test despite Seguin not being in their lineup. Now is the time to figure this thing out and start building some positive momentum heading into April. I’m not saying the penalty kill has to be perfect every single game, but allowing a powerplay goal or more each night cannot continue. Kruger’s imminent return to the lineup should go a long way in helping solve this issue.
  • Surprisingly, the third period has become the Hawks’ enemy in recent weeks as opposed to years past. Take Sunday night for example when the Wild outshot the Hawks 16-7. Allowing 16 shots against in a period, let alone the third period, is not a good habit to fall into. Then when you consider that the Blackhawks are not generating many shots, it becomes a terrible scenario. There needs to be more urgency on offense and more reliability on defense shown by this team in the third period moving forward. If the Hawks are trailing entering the third period against Dallas or if they fall behind in the third, look for them to try and play with more urgency.

The Blackhawks are by no means a bad team or a team with huge concerns heading into the playoffs. There are, however, some concerns and weaknesses that need to be shored up starting now. The Hawks could really use home ice advantage in the playoffs this year as they have been very average on the road this season. The only way to earn home ice in the playoffs at this point is to start winning hockey games.

Expect the Stars to come out flying tonight as they look to unofficially eliminate the Hawks’ chances of winning the division. On the flip side, the Blackhawks know how big this game is with regards to their hopes of winning the Central, and it would be disappointing to see them come out as anything other than energized and ready to go.

*Update: Scott Darling will be in net again tonight as Crawford continues to recover from an upper-body injury.

Blackhawks’ biggest threats in the West

2015-11-07 13.59.52Now that the NHL trade deadline has passed, we have ourselves a better idea of how each team’s roster should (for the most part) look come playoff time. Minor changes could be made here and there and players could get injured between now and April, but we can’t predict any of that. So we’re left with the present rosters.

Many people are naming the Blackhawks as this year’s big winners of the trade deadline, and I’m not sure anyone can thoroughly argue that. But aside from what the Hawks did, there were some other big moves by other teams as well.

Given the current rosters of each team in the West, let’s look at which teams may pose the biggest threat to the Blackhawks’ hopes of returning to the Stanley Cup Final for the second straight season.

  1. Los Angeles Kings: The Kings are always scary in my mind. They aren’t as deep as they have been in the past when they won their two Cups, although they did just trade for Kris Versteeg, and their defense isn’t as much of a sure thing as it once was. That said, they’re still the Kings and they still possess more playoff experience than just about any other team in the league outside of the Blackhawks. Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar are world-class players at their respective positions, and those two alone can carry this team to another Cup if all goes well. Also, if they can get a healthy Marian Gaborik back for the playoffs, they’ll be that much better. So while L.A. may not be as good as the next team on this list, the fact that they’ve climbed to the mountain top and back twice is reason enough for me to be more afraid of them than any other team in the Western Conference.
  2. Anaheim Ducks: Despite their rocky start to the season, the Ducks find themselves in a position where they could win the Pacific Division. They didn’t make any big moves at the trade deadline, but I’m not completely sure that they needed to. They’re a deep team at forward and on defense, but their defense can also be torched at times. Come playoff-time, Anaheim will likely have to get by L.A. at some point if they are to end up facing the Blackhawks (again), and the same goes for the Kings having to face the Ducks. I bring that up because I don’t think Anaheim beats Los Angeles in a seven game series, thus eliminating their threat to the Hawks. The bottom line with the Ducks, however, is that unless they get great goaltending from Gibson, which can be a toss-up, and unless Getzlaf and Perry perform like all-stars, this team won’t beat the Kings or Blackhawks in a playoff series.
  3. St. Louis Blues: I’m still scratching my head over the fact that Doug Armstrong made zero moves to help his team at the trade deadline. They could really use another goalie given the injuries to Allen and Elliott, and James Reimer was available, but Armstrong did nothing. They could also have used a scoring winger and a defenseman, but again, they did nothing. As currently constructed, the Blues lack the forward and defensive depth to knock off a Chicago, L.A., or Anaheim in a playoff series. They’re a tough, bruising team, but like always they lack that offensive firepower that is necessary to make a deep playoff run.
  4. San Jose Sharks: This team has performed much better than expectations this year, and they lead the NHL with 22 road victories. It is imperative that you be a good road team if you want any success in the playoffs. Aside from that, they have decent depth at forward and own a very good top two lines led by Thornton, Pavelski, Marleau, and Couture. Defensively they’re not bad either, but they’re not great. Brent Burns is arguably the league’s best offensive d-man and adds a big scoring threat when on the ice, but overall their defense can be beaten. I really like their addition of James Reimer at the trade deadline, as they now have a very good goaltending tandem of him and Martin Jones. That said, Jones, their number one, has no playoff experience and Reimer has little. This is a team that has the talent to pull off an upset over a someone like Anaheim, L.A, or St. Louis, but not Chicago (I say that as unbiased as I can).
  5. Dallas Stars: Some may ask why they’re number five on this list, and I suppose that is somewhat justifiable. Here’s the thing, though: Dallas got WORSE at the trade deadline. I cannot fathom why Kris Russell drew so much attention when all he was in Calgary was a terrible defenseman on a bad defensive team. Sure, he may have some offensive numbers, but his defensive stats are horrible. Yet the Stars went out and got him with the hopes of deepening their d-corps. That d-corps, by the way, has some recognizable names to it, but they’re almost all offensive-defensemen with the exception of Oduya. Then you factor in their goaltending, which is probably the worst of any team near the top of the standings in either conference, and you begin to see why they really don’t have a strong chance of knocking off a team like the Blackhawks in a playoff series. Sure their offense is elite, but if you can’t keep the puck out of your net in the postseason, you have no chance. Oh, and I like to make note of the “experience factor” come playoff-time, of which the Stars have minimal with all things considered.

Given the additions made by the Blackhawks over the last week, I firmly believe they are the best team in the West, and quite possibly the NHL. They definitely have the deepest set of forwards in the league, which is absolutely crucial in the playoffs. Their defense could have really used a guy like Dan Hamhuis, but the hope is that Christian Erhoff will find success in the Hawks’ system and turn into a reliable number four, puck-moving defenseman by the end of the regular season.

I like the Blackhawks’ chances in a playoff series against any team in the Western Conference due to their forward depth and experience (keep in mind that they are still without Hossa and Kruger), but ultimately they’ll have to go out and prove they’re the best team yet again.

This is still too early to be making any solid playoff predictions, so we’ll hold off on that until the playoff matchups are set, but as of right now the Blackhawks are my Stanley Cup favorite for many reasons.

How the Blackhawks should approach the trade deadline

130107_gq_trout_aWell it’s now just six days until the NHL trade deadline, and the Blackhawks have yet to make any trades. There is no doubt that Stan Bowman is weighing his options and gauging the fluid trade market while waiting for the right scenario to evolve. And there is nothing wrong with that, just so long as he doesn’t wait too long.

If there was any hesitation from the front office to attempt making a sizeable trade before the deadline, the Blackhawks’ performance against the Wild in the Stadium Series game this past Sunday should have eliminated it. The Hawks looked flat out bad and mostly because of their defense.

This team really only has three reliable defensemen at the moment, and one of them, Brent Seabrook, isn’t even always reliable. Because of their situation at the defense position, the Wild exploited their weaknesses from start to finish and made the Hawks look bad. They looked so bad, in fact, that their performance should have left Stan Bowman with no other choice than to look for an upgrade on the blue line.

In a perfect world, the Hawks would trade for a top-four defenseman between now and February 29th. In our realistic world, just about every other team in the playoff race is looking to do the exact same thing, making Bowman’s job that much tougher. The more teams there are looking for a specific type of player, the higher that player’s price will be. It’s the law of supply and demand, and in this instance, there’s very short supply and lots of demand.

Along with their need for a d-man, the Blackhawks could badly use a left-winger who can play on the team’s top line with Toews and Hossa. We’ve talked about this a bunch already, so I’ll leave it at that.

The question now becomes, which position should Stan Bowman make as his number one priority as the trade deadline draws closer and closer?

There isn’t an easy answer. The Hawks really do need both a left-winger and another defenseman. So really, it all comes down to which one would increase their chances of making another Stanley Cup run.

The old saying goes “defense wins championships,” and it’s hard to argue that. If you can’t keep the puck out of your own net, you have virtually no chance of winning. Therefore, right now the Blackhawks’ biggest need is a top-four defenseman. Someone who can block shots and play big minutes in an important role.

One trend that the Blackhawks have been following is that of allowing too many shots on goal. They are currently averaging the eighth most shots against per game league-wide, at 30.9. Granted, last year’s team finished the season ranked ninth in that same department, but they had four really good defensemen who were able to clamp down come playoff time. This year’s team has three at best.

Limiting the number of shots that you face each night, and keeping them to low quality, especially in the postseason, is hugely important. You could have the best goalie in the world, but if you’re allowing tons and tons of shots against each game, and quality ones, you’re going to get beat. It’s not difficult math.

As of this moment, the Hawks are allowing too many shots against and too many quality chances against. That can’t happen in the playoffs, and therefore this team needs to add a top-four defenseman between now and the 29th.

Now none of that is to say they don’t still need a left-winger, because they most definitely do. I’ve always said that one of the single biggest keys to winning the Stanley Cup is forward depth. You can’t win it all if you are only going to assemble two or three effective lines. Look no further than last year’s Cup-winning team. Their third line was Sharp-Vermette-Teravainen. That’s pretty damn good. Their fourth line was Shaw-Kruger-Desjardins, and they looked like the best fourth line in the league.

Adding a left-wing that can play on the first line would allow Joel Quenneville to move Shaw back down to the third or fourth line, where he belongs, making this team a lot deeper. People want to solely focus on getting an Andrew Ladd, or Mikkel Boedker, or Eric Staal, but they don’t realize the full importance that such a trade would have on the whole team. It’s not just about adding to the top line, but also about adding to the bottom lines from within thanks in part to a trade.

Rumors regarding the Hawks have not really gained any steam over the past couple of days, but there are still plenty floating around out there. The same names we’ve been hearing are still being linked to the Blackhawks, but no solid evidence of them pursuing any one specific guy has emerged. What we are hearing is that Stan Bowman is without question looking to upgrade his roster. The only question is in what capacity…

If I were in Stan Bowman’s position, I’d go hard after a top-four defenseman. Give up your first-round draft pick and a higher prospect if needed. If that’s still not enough, then I’d turn my focus to someone like Ladd, Boedker, Staal, or Loui Eriksson. Ideally, Bowman will be able to acquire a d-man and a left-wing that can both assume big roles from here on out. Do not, however, expect a top-four defenseman AND a left-winger of the same caliber as the names above. They can only afford to go in big on one position.

A lot can and probably will take place regarding the Blackhawks over the next five and a half days. Anything can happen at any time.

Andrew Ladd back to the Blackhawks?

130107_gq_trout_aThe NHL’s trade deadline is fast approaching (February 29), and with that inevitably comes an endless amount of trade rumors. Some are legitimate while most others are not. With regards to the Blackhawks, their name has begun surfacing more and more in recent days as their need for another defenseman and left winger grows.

Before we get to talking about the Blackhawks, here is a bit of a better understanding of what is taking place around the league right now.

With Dustin Byfuglien having signed a five-year contract extension on Monday with the Winnipeg Jets, he is officially off the trade market after having been discussed as one of the top candidates to get dealt at or before this year’s trading deadline. Because the Jets have chosen to heavily invest in their top d-man, it likely means that more dominos will begin to fall around the league. Most teams were holding out on making any deals until it became clear whether or not the Jets would be willing to deal away Byfuglien or their captain, Andrew Ladd. With Byfuglien set for a nice pay raise next year, odds are that we’re looking at an Andrew Ladd trade somewhere between now and February 29th. Ladd is an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, making him a perfect “rental” piece for a contending team.

Possibly as a result of Byfuglien’s new deal, the Maple Leafs and Senators completed a trade Tuesday morning that most notably will send Toronto defenseman, and captain, Dion Phaneuf to Ottawa. So there goes another possible defenseman off the market.

Now back to the Hawks.

I’ve said it on here multiple times, and it’s really no secret at all, but the Blackhawks would love to add a true left winger who can play on the team’s top line with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa. The team could also really use one more solid defenseman to avoid having to rely on the likes of Michal Rozsival and/or Rob Scuderi on the third d-pairing come playoff time.

I had personally been wondering about the possibility of this move happening, but Monday it was brought up by Jay Zawaski of 670 The Score in Chicago: Andrew Ladd to the Hawks.

Ladd played about two and a half seasons with the Hawks from 2008-2010 before becoming a salary cap casualty after winning the 2010 Stanley Cup. He is familiar with the Hawks’ system and Joel Quenneville, and would have virtually zero trouble fitting in with the team. He’d also be a near perfect fit on the Blackhawks’ top line with 19 and 81.

Ladd can score, he’s relatively quick, he brings size, and he can play a very physical game. His ability to combine size, speed, skill, and physicality is rare and would tremendously improve the Blackhawks’ forward depth from top to bottom.

The big question is how exactly could the Hawks pull this off?

Well for starters, it may not be as hard as it seems from a cap perspective. See Jay Zawaski’s article for more details on that here. According to Zawaski and capfriendly.com, Ladd’s remaining salary for this season would come out to a salary cap hit of about $956,000. This means the Hawks would have to shed about $100,000 in cap space to accommodate Ladd, which wouldn’t be hard to do at all.

The bigger problem is coming up with a return that would satisfy the Jets. Ideally, Winnipeg might end up being intrigued by the possibility of Bryan Bickell simply needing a new home to find his game again. If so, the Hawks could send Bickell and maybe half of his remaining contract to the Jets along with a high draft pick. If you recall, it was Klas Dahlbeck and the Hawks’ 2015 first-round pick that got them Antoine Vermette at last year’s trade deadline.

If Bickell is a no-go for the Jets, the next best scenario would be Winnipeg asking for a top prospect like Mark McNeill, Ryan Hartman, etc., along with a first round draft pick. However, I still wouldn’t count out the possibility of the Jets wanting someone like Andrew Shaw and a draft pick instead. Personally, I wouldn’t include Shaw in a deal if I was Bowman. Doing so would help the Hawks’ first line, but it wouldn’t add any depth to the bottom six.

The other area of need for the Blackhawks is defense, and some would argue that they should target a d-man before another forward.

Edmonton Oilers v Vancouver CanucksGoing off the logic used by Jay Zawaski while discussing a Ladd trade to the Hawks, a guy like Dan Hamhuis of the Vancouver Canucks could be a great fit on the Blackhawks’ blue line. Like Ladd, Hamhuis is an unrestricted free agent after this season, which is about all the Hawks can trade for, and his remaining salary for this season is nearly identical to that of Ladd’s. If the Hawks were to pursue a trade like this prior to one for Ladd, hypothetically, they would again only need to shed a little over $100,000 from their salary cap.

Could both trades take place? Theoretically yes, but it would be difficult and I’ll leave Stan Bowman up to figuring out how to make that all work.

I will reiterate that this is all speculation. None of this has been reported by any NHL analysts. I’m simply trying to figure out a trade or two that would really help the Hawks.

Other names to keep an eye on as possible targets of the Hawks should be Mikkel Boedker (AZ), Kris Versteeg (CAR), and reliable defensemen with expiring or inexpensive contracts.

Keep in mind that Stan Bowman has had a habit of dealing with other teams/GM’s that he is familiar with or has dealt with before. He has completed multiple trades with Florida and Toronto in recent years, and has dealt with Vancouver (enter Dan Hamhuis…) and Arizona (Boedker) within the last couple of seasons. Also, Kevin Cheveldayoff, the current GM of the Winnipeg Jets, used to be the Assistant General Manager under Stan Bowman with the Blackhawks. There is great familiarity between both parties there, which may or may not make an Andrew Ladd trade easier to execute.

Keep an eye on the Blackhawks from now until February 29th. It should be an exciting few weeks.

Another Blackhawks Stanley Cup will require a trade

NHL: JAN 03 Senators at BlackhawksTuesday night’s game between the Blackhawks and Hurricanes in Raleigh will be the last game that the Hawks play in advance of this upcoming weekend’s All Star Game. With a win, the Blackhawks would head into the break with a record of 34-15-4 (72 points), which is a lot better than I would have predicted back in October. While their record and recent 12-game winning streak indicate this is one of the NHL’s top teams, I’m here to dampen the mood just a bit.

To better understand where I am coming from, here is a look at the current line combinations for the Blackhawks:

Shaw-Toews-Hossa

Panarin-Anisimov-Kane

Desjardins-Dannault-Teravainen

Panik-Rasmussen-Sekac/Mashinter/McNeill

As things stand right now, the top two lines are good, with the second line being arguably the best in the NHL. The problem lies within the third and fourth lines.

Depth is one of the single biggest keys to winning a Stanley Cup. Look at any team in recent years who has hoisted the Cup at season’s end and you will notice that they all got quality production from all four lines. When it gets to be mid-May and the playoff matchups get tougher and tougher, teams need their bottom two lines to contribute. Relying on your top six forwards to do all or most of the scoring simply will not work. Look no further than the 2014 Blackhawks who saw their season end in overtime of Game 7 in the Western Conference Final at the hands of the eventual Stanley Cup champion L.A. Kings. That team had three quality lines, and that was it. Had they had a fourth line, they would have defeated L.A.

Getting back to this year’s Blackhawks, they are getting sporadic and limited production from their bottom six forwards. They traded for Richard Panik and, more recently, Jiri Sekac to try and help with this problem, but that won’t be enough.

If the Blackhawks really want to become a serious Stanley Cup contender this season, it would be in their best interest to trade for a left winger that can play on the top line with Toews and Hossa.

Andrew Shaw has done a nice job since being promoted to the “Lottery Line,” but he’s not your long-term solution. Acquiring a more skilled left winger who compliments the games of Toews and Hossa would allow Quenneville to move Shaw down to the third line with Dannault (who will likely stick as the third line center from here on out) and Teravainen, creating a much more threatening line in terms of offense.

Shifting Shaw to the third line would then move Desjardins down to the fourth line, where he belongs, alongside Panik and Marcus Kruger. Kruger should be back for the playoffs assuming he does not suffer any setbacks. Getting Kruger back under these circumstances would give the Hawks four lines that possess the potential to do damage to their opponents. Again, that is crucial come playoff time.

As for who exactly Stan Bowman should target to play with Toews and Hossa, I am not really sure due to the fact that I don’t have inside information that lets me know which players are being dangled as trade bait by which teams. But, I can say with certainty that this hypothetical player must be skilled offensively, yet responsible and trustworthy defensively. If he is not the latter two, Quenneville will not play him.

Keep in mind that any trade that takes place would require some salary cap maneuvering by Stan Bowman, which may or may not include trading away someone from the NHL roster.

So while the Blackhawks are definitely a good team, they are simply too top-heavy at the moment. Adding a left wing who can play on the top line would instantly give the Blackhawks some much needed scoring depth. And heck, while Bowman’s at it he may as well try and upgrade the defense as well. That’s a whole other conversation, however.