Things starting to click for the Blackhawks

130107_gq_trout_aEarlier in the season, not that it’s late now, the Blackhawks were struggling to win hockey games. They would win one, lose one, win one, lose two, and so on. The biggest reason for that was their inability to score goals. As I said in a previous blog, that trend was destined to hit a brick wall. This team is too talented and gets way too many shots on goal to not be among the league leaders in goals by season’s end. Well, here we are at the beginning of December, the Blackhawks fresh off their annual Circus Trip that took them out west for six games where they won five of those six and have won eight of their last ten overall. Needless to say, that whole goal scoring problem kind of disappeared.

The Hawks’ Circus Trip was bound to be a telling one with regards to this year’s team. Either they would come limping home after getting beat up pretty badly against some of the league’s best teams, or they would come back to Chicago looking like one of the NHL’s best. Fortunately, the latter scenario is the one we are currently looking at as the Hawks get ready to play their first home game tomorrow night in quite some time.

On the six-game road trip out west, there were a handful of things that we learned or continued to see from this team:

  • First of all, Corey Crawford is on pace to be an All-Star this year. He’s currently third in the NHL in goals-against average, fourth in save percentage, and sixth in wins (all among goalies with at least ten games played). He started every game on the Circus Trip (14 straight since returning form injury) and was really good in pretty much every one of those games. I’m seeing no signs of him slowing down.
  • The Hawks’ penalty kill continues to dominate opponents. They rank first in the league with a 91.3 kill percentage.
  • The Blackhawks rank second in the NHL in goals-against per game at 2.00. In fact, the top four teams in that category, and five of the top six, are all in the Central Division.
  • Patrick Kane is starting to be himself again. He dominated the latter half of the road trip. None of this is a good sign for the rest of the league.
  • Going along those same lines, the Hawks’ second line of Versteeg, Richards, and Kane was absolutely dominant over the last three games of the road trip. All three players are playing great at the moment, and we are finally seeing the Versteeg and Richards we were all hoping for.
  • Defensively, the Blackhawks look fantastic. The top two pairs of Keith-Seabrook and Hjalmarsson-Oduya were great out west. The third pairing of Rozsival-Rundblad/Clendening is a work in progress because of the inexperience of Rundblad and Clendening, but they haven’t looked bad. Losing TVR was big, but not insurmountable.
  • The Hawks dominated some of the league’s best teams out west, all without Patrick Sharp in the lineup. He’s due to return sometime very soon.
  • Oh, and remember that whole “we can’t score” thing? The Blackhawks now rank eighth in goals per game and are tied for first in goal differential.

Two stats that I just mentioned, the Hawks’ PK and goals-against per game, often mean a lot more than goals scored per game. NHL teams, especially the Hawks, will get their goals, but if you can’t keep the puck out of your own net, you’re screwed. Last year’s Stanley Cup champion, the LA Kings, finished the season first in goals-against per game. The year before that, the Blackhawks finished first in goals-against per game, and we all know how that season ended. Going back all the way to the 2010-11 season, all teams to win the Cup finished top five in goals-against per game. A huge part of that stat is how good a team is on the penalty kill. If you’re getting scored on while down a man, your goals-against average will rise. Right now, the Hawks’ PK and goals-against per game numbers are incredibly good, and there’s no reason why any of that should change. Come playoff time, those numbers mean a lot more than goals scored.

So the bottom line here is that the annual Circus Trip for the Blackhawks taught us that this team is a force to be reckoned with. It took them a while to finally start firing on all cylinders, but now they are and they look to be one of the leagues top three teams. That’s not to say that they won’t hit some bumps in the road between now and April, but this team appears to be well poised for yet another Stanley Cup run.

Now we just have to wait for April to come around…

Advertisements

Blackhawks-Stars preview

940-toews-jonathan-8colThursday night the Blackhawks will officially open their 2014-15 season in Dallas when they take on the much improved Stars. Already, there are story lines heading this game. Injuries, line juggling, and new faces in the lineup will all have an impact on the Hawks’ season opener.

Let’s start with the injuries. First off, Joel Quenneville said today that it looks like Kris Versteeg will be out around three weeks with a lower body injury. He suffered the injury in practice the other day, but the Blackhawks won’t specify as to how or what happened, per the usual. That stuff is “secretive” in the NHL these days. This is really unfortunate for both Versteeg and the Blackhawks because it appeared during training camp and preseason that Versteeg finally had his legs back under him. Many coaches and players said that he looked like his old self again (the guy from 2010). If that Versteeg is the one that shows up this year, he’ll be a big asset on the team’s third line.

Aside from Kris Versteeg, Michal Rozsival also will be out of the lineup in Dallas it would appear. He suffered an upper body injury during the preseason, but has been skating well in practice and may only miss a couple games. His absence from the lineup is not as crucial as Versteeg’s, but he’s out nonetheless.

In place of Versteeg and Rozsival, expect to see Dan Carcillo and Trevor van Riemsdyk (TVR) in the lineup Thursday. TVR (the younger brother of James of the Toronto Maple Leafs and U.S. Olympic team) unexpectedly made the Blackhawks’ opening night roster and figures to be the Hawks’ sixth/seventh defenseman until Rozsival returns from his injury. He was practicing with Hjalmarsson as his partner this week, while Oduya and Rundbald were the third d-pairing. Once Rozsival comes back, I’d expect van Riemsdyk to be sent back to Rockford. The Hawks likely won’t carry eight healthy defensemen.

If it’s not one of David Rundblad or TVR in the lineup Thursday night, it’ll be Kyle Cumiskey in their place. He is quite similar to Nick Leddy in that he’s a very fast, puck-moving defensemen that likes to be involved in the offense.

As for what lines you should expect to see Thursday, look for them to be Sharp-Toews-Hossa, Saad-Shaw-Kane, Bickell-Richards-Smith, Carcillo-Kruger-Morin. As you can see, it looks like Quenneville has already decided that he doesn’t like the Saad-Richards-Kane trio and will instead start the season off with the second line that owned the Kings in last year’s Western Conference Final. I would anticipate that sometime in the very near future Q will go with Richards centering the second line, but for now we’ll have to wait for that. I don’t understand his reasoning for giving up on Richards with Saad and Kane before the regular season even starts, but it is what it is.

Now, the game itself. Dallas is coming into this season already with a ton of momentum behind them. They ended up shocking a lot of people last season by making the playoffs as a wild card team, and they really did put up a good fight against the Ducks in the first round. This summer, they acquired Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky to really bolster their offense that already consists of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. They’re going to be a tough team to beat on a nightly basis.

940-toews-jonathan-8colI’m expecting the Stars to give the Hawks all they can handle in the season opener, and there’s a good chance that they win the game in front of what should be a very lively, sold-out crowd in Dallas. Remember, these two teams developed some bad blood for one another over the course of last year, thanks to Antoine Roussel and his aggravating style of play. This will be a great test for the Blackhawks right off the bat.

Five questions surrounding the Blackhawks

940-toews-jonathan-8colHeading into this season, the Blackhawks have major expectations placed on them not only from the fans, but from themselves as well. This is a team that looks poised to finish as a top team in the NHL standings yet again and make another deep run in the playoffs. There are, however, a few questions about the Hawks as they prepare for another long season. Here are five questions I have for this team:

  1. Who will get traded? Training camp just started the other day for the Blackhawks, and they are still 2.2 million dollars over the league salary cap. Someone has to go by October 9th when the Hawks start their season in Dallas. Most signs are indicating that it will be either Johnny Oduya or Nick Leddy that gets dealt. Oduya currently has a 3.375 million dollar cap hit, and Leddy has a 2.7 million dollar hit, so if either gets traded away the Blackhawks would be under the salary cap. While trading Oduya might be the more popular thing to do among the fans, the Blackhawks could get a lot more in return for Nick Leddy. Leddy is still just 23 years old and has an incredible amount of talent. I don’t think you’ll find one team in the NHL who wouldn’t take him. If it were up to me, I’d still probably try and find the best deal possible for Johnny Oduya. Trading Oduya means the Hawks will have to find a new “shut down” partner to go with Hjalmarsson, but I’m not overly concerned about that.
  2. Will the new second line work? The Blackhawks finally have what appears to be a true number two center in Brad Richards. The guy used to be one of the game’s best centers, but is coming off a few disappointing seasons in New York and now finds himself already 34 years old. He will be between Brandon Saad and Patrick Kane on the Hawks’ second line to start the season, which on paper looks like one of the league’s best second lines. The question is whether or not those three will find good chemistry between them. We know Kane and Saad can be successful on a line together, but Richards is the unknown. You wouldn’t think that there would be a problem with this line, but you never know until the real games start. If the first day on training camp was any indication, these three won’t have a problem playing together.
  3. Kris Versteeg. Versteeg is coming off a very disappointing 2013-14 campaign in which he notched 10 goals and 19 assists. In the playoffs, he managed just 1 goal 130107_gq_trout_aand 2 assists and routinely found himself either scratched from the lineup or benched for long stretches of the game. He was not the same guy that was traded away following the Hawks’ 2010 Stanley Cup parade. It could be that he was still not 100 percent after having serious knee surgery during the 2012-13 season. This is what most fans are hoping was the case. Either way, Kris Versteeg is going to have to win back the coaching staff and the fans early on this season or else he’ll probably see minimal playing time and become the subject of trade talks. Personally, I’m expecting a good bounce-back season from Versteeg. He was so awful during the postseason this past spring that it’s hard to believe he was his normal self physically. If he hasn’t shown any signs of improvement by mid to late November, then we can hit the panic button on him.
  4. Will any rookies make the NHL team? We all know who Teuvo Teravainen is by now, but what about Brandon Mashinter? Mashinter is a 26 year old winger who has played in 23 career NHL games with the Sharks and Rangers. He is known for his physical presence on the ice (6’4″, 212 lbs) and is not afraid to drop the gloves. Last season in the AHL, he scored 15 goals to go along with 20 assists and amassed 94 penalty minutes in 58 games between Hartford and Rockford. The NHL has seen that “fourth line grinder” position somewhat disappear in recent years, but if Mashinter has some offensive skill to go along with his grit, he may just make the team. Joel Quenneville has already given Mashinter high praise and has said that there will be a place for someone like him on the NHL roster this year. We saw Brandon Bollig in this role last year with the Hawks, and it was excruciating to watch. If Mashinter does make this team, he better have some skill and not just toughness.
  5. Speaking of Teravainen… Will he make the NHL team to start the season? Probably not. Will he be in the NHL at all this year? Most likely. What the 940-toews-jonathan-8colBlackhawks should and probably will do is have Teuvo start the year in Rockford with the Icehogs. This will allow him to better adjust to playing on North American ice and it will give him time to familiarize himself with the center position. In Europe Teravainen played mostly right wing, so the more time he has to improve at being a center, the better. The last thing the Blackhawks want to do is bring him up too early and have him fail as a center, ultimately killing Teravainen’s confidence. They will wait until they feel he can handle that role at the NHL level and then bring him up. When they do bring him up, they’ll probably start him off on the third or fourth line and let him work his way up. This season will be a tricky year for that to happen though, seeing as how Brad Richards will be the team’s number two center (the hopeful destination for Teravainen). If and when Teuvo gets to the NHL this year, don’t be surprised to see him play some center and wing.

Like I said before, the Blackhawks have some serious expectations on their shoulders this year. They’re going to be good, but just how good? How these five questions get answered could help determine where this team will end up. Obviously, there are many other factors that need to be considered when analyzing the Hawks, but I’m anxious to get these questions answered.

Blackhawks sign Brad Richards; NHL update

NHL: Stanley Cup Final-New York Rangers at Los Angeles KingsIt was looking like the Blackhawks were going to let the first day of NHL free agency pass by without making any moves to upgrade their roster. Then out of the blue, they signed Brad Richards to a one-year, two million dollar contract (a great deal for the Hawks). Richards was bought out by the Rangers last week after playing just three years in New York under a nine-year, $60 million deal he signed in the summer of 2011.

The most glaring need for the Blackhawks the past few years has been that of a legitimate second line center. They simply haven’t had one. Somehow, they managed to win the Cup with Michal Handzus filling that role, but they weren’t going to get by with that formula again. Now, I think it’s safe to say they’ve found their man, at least for the time being.

Richards, 34 years old, is not the player he was a few years ago in Dallas or when he was in Tampa Bay putting up 90 points during the season and winning the Conn Smythe Trophy and Stanley Cup. He’s older now, and he’s lost a step in his game like most guys do when they age. The fact is, however, he’s still a good player and is a major upgrade from what the Hawks have been working with over the past couple seasons.

The numbers don’t lie. Brad Richards has had a pretty solid 15-year career up to this point. You don’t put up 91 points in a season twice by accident. He has some elite play-making abilities and is good for a little over 20 goals a year at this point. Placing him in-between Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad on the Blackhawks’ second line will only increase his productivity, and the potential that line possesses is somewhat scary. The bottom line: this is a big signing for the Blackhawks and Brad Richards. He needed a change in scenery from New York, and coming into a situation like this with the Hawks could be a huge lift for Richards, not to mention the team.

Here’s my projected lines with Richards now on the team (he will wear number 91):

10-19-81

20-91-88

11/28-65-29

28/11-16-12/23

Signing Richards adds a lot more depth to the Hawks’ lineup, which is something they lacked this past postseason. The signing also allows the team to let Teuvo Teravainen progress at his own pace without being pressured or rushed. It’s no secret the team sees him as their second line center of the future, but putting him into that role this upcoming season may be pushing it a bit. He needs time to develop and adjust to the NHL before placing him in such an important role. I am now anticipating him starting the year in Rockford and probably being brought up sometime during the season. He may even begin the year on the NHL roster and play wing. Who knows…

In signing Richards, the Hawks are now a little over $2 million above the salary cap limit, meaning someone will soon be one their way out. The Hawks signed d-man Kyle Cumiskey today, which may or may not be an indication that they are about to trade away one of their defensemen. It’s looking like Johnny Oduya, Michal Rozsival, and Nick Leddy are the top candidates to get traded away. As for which one Bowman deals, it’s hard to say, but trading any one of them would solve their current salary cap problem.

In other news, the Hawks re-signed Peter Regin to a one-year, $650,000 contract. A lot of people, myself included, thought he should have received a lot more playing time than he did this past postseason, and now it would appear he’ll be given the chance to prove himself yet again. Keeping him and signing Richards bolsters the Blackhawks’ depth at center, something they’ll need to compete with teams like L.A.

Also, Brandon Bollig is no longer a Blackhawk. I’m not sure why he was given a 3-year contract extension this past season, but at least he’s gone now (nothing against him as a person). Most knowledgeable Blackhawks fans couldn’t understand why Bollig was continuously in the lineup over guys like Peter Regin and Jeremy Morin (also recently re-signed) during this year’s playoffs, and now we’ve finally been granted our wish of him no longer taking away their playing time. Bollig literally was not good at much of anything, so seeing him go is more of a relief than anything.

REST OF THE WEST

The Western Conference dominated the NHL this season, and now, they’ve only gotten better. Here’s how:

Anaheim: Traded for Ryan Kesler and Nate Thompson

Chicago: Signed Brad Richards

Colorado: Traded for Daniel Briere; signed Jarome Iginla

Dallas: Traded for Jason Spezza; signed Ales Hemsky & Anders Lindback

Minnesota: Signed Thomas Vanek

Nashville: Traded for James Neal; signed Olli Jokinen

St. Louis: Signed Paul Stastny

It’s kind of ridiculous when you think about how brutal it is going to be for all Western teams this season. The Central Division was hockey’s best division this past year, and now they’ve only strengthened with Dallas, Minnesota, St. Louis, Nashville, and Chicago all getting better. Colorado will still be a very dangerous team, but they may not get over 100 points again.

Getting out of the West in next year’s playoffs will not be easy for anyone. I’ll say it right now: Whichever team wins the conference will win the Stanley Cup.