Post Trade Deadline Blackhawks Update

Yes, I’m still alive and well here. I know you’ve been worried. You know who else is alive and well? The Blackhawks. They are winners of seven straight games, and have won their last eight road games, which is a new franchise record. They also sit second in the Central Division while owning the league’s third highest point total (89). In a season that I and many others viewed as a stepping stone toward competing for the Cup again in the next two years, the Hawks have, to this point, shocked me.

Coming into this 2016-17 season, it was well known that the Blackhawks were going to have to play multiple rookies each and every night thanks in large part to the salary cap. As has been the case for the last 7-8 years, the Hawks are tight up against the league’s cap due to the fact that they have to pay high annual salaries to some of the NHL’s best players. The only difference this year, however, is that rather than being able to sign some veteran players to cheap one-year deals, the Hawks were forced to build their depth from within their own organization. Enter the likes of Ryan Hartman, Tanner Kero, Nick Schmaltz, Dennis Rasmussen, and Michal Kempny (signed as a free agent last summer).

You never want to have to place a lot of faith and confidence in a bunch of rookies to help guide your team to the postseason. There is simply too much of the “unknown factor” that comes into play in that scenario. There’s no telling how a rookie or other relatively inexperienced players will handle the pressure of being asked to produce right off the bat. That becomes even more true in the playoffs when the intensity on the ice and in the stands rises to levels that cannot be duplicated in the AHL or junior leagues.

However, the Blackhawks’ rookies have exceeded expectations thus far, and that’s an understatement. Ryan Hartman (15G, 11A) is making this city forget about Andrew Shaw. He’s producing offensively, he has been responsible defensively, and he brings some size and grit that can prove to be quite valuable in May and June.

Tanner Kero, while not a big generator of offense, is becoming Marcus Kruger 2.0. His value on the penalty kill has grown all season.

Nick Schmaltz got off to a slow start back in the fall and was sent down to Rockford to gain confidence and work on shooting more often, and ever since being brought back up to the NHL he has been an entirely different player and now sees time on the team’s first line alongside Jonathan Toews when everyone is healthy.

Heading into the trade deadline, it was clear that the Hawks could have used a top six winger, preferably LW, to play on Toews’ left, but again the salary cap (amongst other reasons) prevented that from happening. While Schmaltz has played well lately, I’m not sure he’s the permanent answer for that top line spot. In the playoffs, you want a guy with some experience to be playing in a role like that.

The Blackhawks did, however, reacquire Johnny Oduya prior to the trade deadline passing. This could potentially be a huge move. With Oduya now back in play for the Hawks, they can roll out the exact same top four defensemen that we saw during the 2013 and 2015 Stanley Cup runs. All of a sudden, the Hawks’ defensive corps is one of the strongest in the league heading into March and April.

So overall, here are some of my key observations as we near the end of the season and the beginning of the playoffs:

  • Depth. The Hawks seem to have it. As I stated, the rookies are all playing quite well and are either meeting or exceeding expectations. Depth, and goaltending, are the single biggest factors come playoff time.
  • Speaking of goaltending…Goaltending. Once again Crawford and Darling are both playing like No. 1 netminders. It’s Crawford’s job without question, but in case of an injury or a sudden drop in his performance, it’s good knowing Darling is there waiting in the wings.
  • Defense. This might be the strongest group of defensmen that the Blackhawks have had in quite some time. Not only do they have an elite top four with the addition of Oduya, but their fifth and sixth d-men (Campbell, TVR, Kempny, Rozsival) are strong and reliable as well, especially when playing bottom-pairing minutes.
  • Richard Panik. Here’s a guy who was hardly seeing ice time with the Maple Leafs before getting dealt to the Hawks last season, and now he’s playing right wing on the first line with Jonathan Toews. He sits seventh on the team in points (17G, 19A). If he can keep up this level of play in the playoffs, that will be huge.
  • Special Teams. It’s obvious, but the Hawks need to be better here. The penalty kill is substantially better than it was at the beginning of the year (especially with Oduya now in the mix), but it can still be better. As for the powerplay, it should be a top ten powerplay with the amount of talent on the Hawks’ roster. To win in the playoffs, you need a strong PK and a powerplay that will make the opponent pay for its mistake(s).
  • And lastly, Health. The Hawks cannot afford to keep getting bit by the injury bug come playoff time. A sidelined Toews, Kane, Panarin, Keith, Hjalmarsson, or Hossa could be detrimental to this team’s Stanley Cup hopes.

I’ll say it again. I’ve been extremely surprised by the Blackhawks this season. I honestly believe that what we’re seeing is a result, to some degree, of getting an entire summer of rest last year. Just look at Marian Hossa for proof. This team is skating with energy and seemingly a full tank of gas right now, which is something we did not see at this same time of year last season. Exiting after the first round last April could very well have been a massive blessing in disguise.

Moving forward, I think this team has the potential to win the Western Conference and play for their fourth Stanley Cup since 2010. I also believe that the Blackhawks could be knocked out as early as the second round of the playoffs. It will all come down to their depth, which right now seems to be good. But, anything can happen, and that is especially true when talking about a team with multiple rookies in its lineup on a nightly basis.

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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.

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.

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.

Patrick Kane on Blackhawks’ training camp roster

10-171460575-smallThe Blackhawks released their training camp roster this morning, and the most notable name on that list is none other than Patrick Kane. Most people questioned whether or not the Hawks would bring him to South Bend this upcoming weekend due to the ongoing sexual assault investigation surrounding Kane, but here we are 48 hours from the beginning of camp and his name is on the roster.

It is a bit surprising that the Blackhawks would do this and risk his presence turning into a major distraction for the team. A logical idea would have been to have Kane conduct his own workouts away from the team until there is some sort of resolution in his sexual assault case. Doing this would also protect the Blackhawks’ image in the instance that Kane is ruled to be guilty. It wouldn’t be the best look for the Hawks to go on record as having had a player attend training in the midst of an alleged rape investigation, only to have said player found guilty. Hopefully that doesn’t end up being the case here for more reasons than one. Regardless, it will be interesting to what kind of reception Kane receives from the fans when the players take the ice.

Some other notable names on the Hawks’ training camp roster include Kyle Cumiskey, Jake Dowell, Jan Hejda, Tomas Kopecky, Daniel Paille, Michal Rozsival, and Lubomir Visnovsky.

We all know who Cumiskey and Rozsival are, although we weren’t sure they’d be invited to training camp, but what about those other names?

Jake Dowell: You may remember him from the 2010-11 season when he was a regular fourth liner for the Blackhawks. He can play center or wing, but doesn’t offer a whole lot other than a physical style of play. He spent the last four seasons splitting time between the NHL and AHL with both the Wild and Stars organizations. At best, the Hawks may keep him and send him down to Rockford.

Jan Hejda: Here’s that veteran, blue line presence the Hawks could really use. Hejda is 37 years old, but there’s still gas left in the tank. He’s a big left handed shot (6’4″) and has always been a pretty reliable defensive defenseman. It wouldn’t be surprising if he makes the team.

10-171460575-smallTomas Kopecky: Yet another familiar name. Kopecky was a pretty important role player on the Hawks’ 2010 Stanley Cup-winning team. He generally saw time at wing on either the team’s third or fourth lines, as well as on the PK. He was dealt to Florida prior to the 2011-12 season and has been there since. He won’t score a ton, but can be a good depth player. Due to his familiarity with the Hawks and vice versa, I wouldn’t be shocked at all if he’s on the opening night roster.

Daniel Paille: Paille (31 years old) has spent his career with the Sabres and Bruins, but really made a name for himself in Boston where he was a key role player for both the 2010-11 and 2012-13 teams that made it to the Stanley Cup Final, with the 2010-11 team winning it all. He’s been a bottom six forward most of his career and can be used on the PK. He won’t put up many points, but contributes in other areas. Like Kopecky, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Paille make the team, however, I don’t think both he and Kopecky will be on the Hawks’ final roster.

Lubomir Visnovsky: This guy is the oldest of the bunch and would definitely qualify as a “veteran” presence on the Hawks’ defense, as he comes in at the ripe age of 39. Don’t let that completely fool you though, as Visnovsky has been one of the game’s better offensive defensemen over the last decade and a half, and the belief is that he may have a year or two left in him. Adding him to the blue line could be a gamble given his age, but it may pay off with his experience and offensive talent. At this point, I’d say Hejda has a better shot at making the team, but time will tell.

So, the major points to take away from the Hawks’ training camp roster:

  1. Patrick Kane will be in South Bend
  2. Some familiar names have been invited back
  3. The Hawks are definitely trying to add a veteran defenseman

Stay tuned over the course of the next 4-5 days for any updates to the roster or the Patrick Kane situation.

Quick hits on the Blackhawks

10-171460575-smallIt’s been a relatively slow past couple of months for the Blackhawks, who seem to be waiting as long as possible before making some final contract and roster decisions. In the meantime, they’ve been waiting for any new details in the whole Patrick Kane case. With training camp being right around the corner, here’s what to look for in the coming weeks.

  • First of all, let’s just get this one out of the way. Patrick Kane’s alleged sexual assault case was set to be heard before a grand jury yesterday, only to have it postponed out of nowhere at the last second. This has led some to believe that Kane and the accuser could be working out a settlement, though nothing has been confirmed. The Blackhawks are surely keeping close tabs on this situation as it significantly affects how they construct their roster heading into this season. As it stands right now, it would be a safe bet to assume that unless the Kane accuser drops this case, he could be missing some games to begin the season. The number is anybody’s guess. That could be determined by A) how this situation unfolds between him and the accuser, and B) how the NHL and NHLPA decide to respond to whatever ends up happening with Kane. In addition, it’s not out of the question that the Blackhawks could decide to enforce their own punishment on Kane depending how the case plays out. Rumors have already begun flying that the Hawks could look to trade Kane regardless of what happens with the allegations. The best way to approach this situation as a fan is simply by letting it play out. Let the sexual assault case play itself out before anything else.
  • Marcus Kruger is still without a new contract. The Hawks seem to be waiting on something before extending Kruger an official contract offer. There’s no question that the Hawks want to keep Kruger on the team for the foreseeable future and are waiting for the right time to make him an offer, but at the same time, they don’t want to let this thing play out for too long.
  • Bryan Bickell and/or Kris Versteeg could get traded quite soon. With training camp knocking on the door, the Hawks will want their roster to be virtually finalized before heading to South Bend. Going back to the Kruger situation, it could very well be that the Hawks are waiting to trade either Bickell and/or Versteeg before making Kruger an offer. Freeing up some cap space would make things a lot easier on the Hawks when offering contracts.
  • If the Hawks can trade one or both of the previously mentioned trade candidates, we might see them not only re-sign Kruger, but also sign a veteran defenseman who could either play on the third d-pairing, or at least offer some competition for guys like TVR, Rundblad, and Svedberg.

The Patrick Kane stuff is what has been and will continue to dominate the Blackhawks’ headlines, but that doesn’t mean other important stuff won’t be happening.

One question I think we all have is if Kane is suspended for a significant amount of time (and the possible terms of any suspension are completely unknown right now), would that have an effect on the Hawks’ salary cap situation? I’ve heard multiple answers to this question, some of which from professional hockey writers and analysts. No one seems to have a definitive answer, which makes the whole situation that much more difficult.

For now though, keep an eye on Stan Bowman. A trade or two could be on the horizon.

Blackhawks are true champions

10-171460575-smallFor the third time in six seasons, the Blackhawks can call themselves Stanley Cup champions. With their impressive 2-0 shutout victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday night, the Hawks have cemented themselves as the greatest NHL team of the salary cap era, and some people are choosing to use the word “dynasty.” Whether or not you agree with that label is a discussion for another day. For now, let’s just focus on how great, fun, exciting, legendary, etc., this team is.

The pursuit of this Stanley Cup victory really began as soon as the L.A. Kings knocked the Hawks out of the playoffs last season in overtime of Game 7 of the Western Conference Final. The Blackhawks were one shot, one goal away from advancing to the Stanley Cup where anything could have happened. Instead, they were sent packing far too early for their liking. A bad taste was left in their mouth, and an even stronger hunger left in their minds to get right back to that same spot and change the outcome. They did just that this go around by defeating the Anaheim Ducks in Game 7 of this year’s WCF.

Once they reached the Stanley Cup Final just a couple of weeks ago, this team knew that they would not walk away empty handed again. They had too much reason and too much desire to let that happen. Essentially, the Blackhawks knew that they would win the Cup this year, only they’ll never tell us that.

As if losing to the Kings last spring wasn’t enough motivation, the Hawks received plenty more of it this year that propelled them to winning a third Cup in six years. They endured one of the toughest regular seasons a team could possibly imagine. Just before Christmas, they lost their assistant equipment manager, Clint Reif, to an all too sudden death. The players and coaches all considered him to be just as much a part of that team as anyone else, and his loss hit the Hawks harder than any of us can imagine. Then not long after, former teammate Steve Montador suddenly passed away, again pushing the players’ emotional capacities to the limit.

This team was already on a mission to win the Cup this year to avenge their Game 7 loss last year. After the deaths of two people extremely close to the team, the Blackhawks were not going to be denied the Cup. They were going to win it for those who would not be there to experience it, and they did just that.

Looking back on this playoff run, it’s really amazing to think about how good this year’s Hawks really were. Take this series against the Lightning for example. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Patrick Sharp combined for three goals in the series, yet they still won in six games. Contributions were made up and down the lineup to get the Hawks another Cup, whether it was Antoine Vermette, Teuvo Teravainen, Marcus Kruger, Andrew Shaw, etc. This was a true team full of champions, and now, that’s just what they are.

130107_gq_trout_aDuncan Keith, the unanimous vote-getter for the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff MVP, put together his best ever stretch of play. He finished the playoffs having played more minutes than anyone else, and it wasn’t even close. Keith finished the postseason with close to ninety more minutes than the next closest player, which is astounding. To add icing on the cake, he scored the game winning goal Monday night.

And how about Corey Crawford? The guy loses his starting job prior to Game 3 of Round 1, only to get it back for Game 6 and never relinquish it. He closed out the playoffs with a shutout to win the Stanley Cup. Had it not been for his early struggles in the first round, Crawford would have had a strong case to be the Conn Smythe winner.

10-171460575-smallAs the seconds ticked down to zero at the end of Game 6 Monday night, it was hard to believe what was happening. For the first time in most of our lifetimes, the Blackhawks were winning the Stanley Cup on home ice in front of their own fans. It was a surreal imagine that I’ll never forget. And although Stanley itself was a little late getting to the party due to sever weather earlier in the evening, it didn’t really matter. The party was on.

Watching Jonathan Toews accept the Stanley Cup from Gary Bettman for the third time, but the first at the U.C., presumably sent chills down the spines of all of Chicago. USP NHL: STANLEY CUP FINAL-TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING AT S HKN USA ILAs Toews then passed the Cup onto Kimmo Timonen, it was tears that took over for the chills. A man who nearly lost his life just a year earlier, who had no clue if he’d ever put on another pair of hockey skates, was holding the greatest trophy in sports above his 40-year old head for the very first and last time. It was truly one of the great moments in Stanley Cup history.

Joel Quenneville solidified himself as one of the single greatest coaches the sport has ever witnessed, winning his third Stanley Cup as the Blackhawks coach. What’s truly remarkable about Quenneville in all of this is that he has now won the Cup here in Chicago with three different coaching staffs. That is a testament to him and to the men he chooses to stand beside him behind the bench.

This year’s Chicago Blackhawks may not have been the best of the three teams they’ve had win the Stanley Cup over the last six years, but they were the toughest. Regardless of what adversity they faced during the regular season and these playoffs, they found a way to overcome it and came out as champions. They started this run five years ago as a bunch of “kids” who were too young and too dumb to realize what they had just done. Now, they are legends who will be looked upon as a modern-day dynasty. For those who just won the Cup for a third time with the Blackhawks, they will forever be the faces of this great organization, and rightfully so. And for a few of them, they’ll be seeing their number hang high above the United Center ice one day, as well as a bronze statue placed outside the stadium for the rest of time.

Enjoy this one, as it may be a while until the Blackhawks ever get back to this point due to imminent salary cap casualties. For now though, the Blackhawks are Stanley Cup champions.