Hawks becoming a force

130107_gq_trout_aIt’s been a bit since I’ve been able to write a post on here, but better late than never I guess. Ever since the Blackhawks went out west on their annual Circus Trip, they have become arguably, or maybe not, the NHL’s best team. They currently sit 25-10-2 on the season, which is good for second in the league behind Anaheim. Their goals against average and penalty kill percentage remain at the top of the league, and their goal scoring is among the league’s best. Not a whole lot to complain about with this team at the moment.

All year long, the team defense and goaltending of the Blackhawks have been elite. They rank first in the NHL in fewest goals against per game, second in fewest goals against, and first in penalty killing. Whether it’s Corey Crawford, Antti Raanta, or even Scott Darling between the pipes, the goaltending that the Blackhawks have received has been outstanding and a major reason why this team sits near the top of the league in points. Not to mention that all seven defensemen being used are contributing on both sides of the ice.

Offensively, the Blackhawks rank third in both goals per game and total goals scored. Combine that with the fact that they are second in fewest goals against this year, and you’re left with a league-best +39 goal differential (the next closest is Nashville at +28). The biggest knock against the Hawks’ offense is their inconsistent and underachieving powerplay. They rank fourteenth in the NHL in that category, with an 18.7 percent conversion rate. A team with as much skill as the Blackhawks should be a lot better with a man advantage.

While this season definitely did not start the way that the Blackhawks would have liked, they have completely turned things around over the last month and a half as the numbers would prove. They seem to have that “swagger” back that the 2013 team had in which they always felt they could win any game regardless of the score. Take last game against Nashville for example. The Hawks were down 3-0 about halfway through the second period against the league’s best team when it comes to keeping the puck out of the net. Within a span of seven or eight minutes, the game was tied. The Hawks would eventually win the game 5-4 in a shootout.

It is wins like that one against the Predators (among other factors) that prove this is an elite team that is fully capable of winning their third Stanley Cup in six years. Everything from their goaltending, to their defense, their offense, and their team depth is good enough to be the last team standing come early to mid June. One of the biggest reasons why last year’s team did not defeat the L.A. Kings to advance to the Stanley Cup Final was their lack of forward depth. The fourth line consisted of Marcus Kruger, Ben Smith, and Brandon Bollig. Ben Smith lacked playoff experience at the time, and Brandon Bollig might as well have just stayed on the bench. That line had little chemistry and often sat most of the game forcing the Blackhawks to roll just three lines. This year, however, the Hawks’ most common fourth line is made up of Kruger, Smith, and Dan Carcillo, who I must admit has made Stan Bowman look like a genius for re-signing him. This line sees much more playing time than last year’s and has proven that they can generate offensive chances while being responsible defensively. Joakim Nordstrom, when given the opportunity, has also looked a lot better than he did a year ago and has made the case that he belongs in the lineup on a nightly basis.

The 2014-15 Blackhawks are loaded from top to bottom, offensively and defensively. Their goaltending has been phenomenal, and they have that “feeling” to them that this could be a special spring and early summer. Assuming no major injuries occur, the Blackhawks have to be the favorite to hoist Lord Stanley’s Cup in June.

First things first, however: The Winter Classic.

Side note: With one day left in this year’s All Star Game voting, the six current players who would be elected as All Stars by the fans are Zemgus Girgensons, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Corey Crawford.

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More Blackhawks rumors

130107_gq_trout_aAccording to a report from the Ottawa Sun, Ryan Kesler has made it clear to the Canucks’ management that he wants to be traded to either the Blackhawks or Penguins. I’ve talked on here before about the likelihood, or lack thereof, of Kesler actually becoming a Blackhawk, and now I guess I have to do it again since these rumors and reports keep surfacing.

Vancouver is entering a rebuild mode right now. They traded away Roberto Luongo this past spring, they fired their head coach John Tortorella after just one season, and they are really focusing a lot of their attention on their younger players and prospects with the hopes to build a new, younger and better team in the near future. Ryan Kesler is a 29 year old veteran on that team who wants out. If the Canucks are to trade him, which it looks like they certainly will, Vancouver is going to want good, young talent in return. If not that, then they’ll want a star player who will be a good role model to the younger guys on that team. Enter the names Patrick Sharp, Teuvo Teravainen, and Brandon Saad.

The Canucks will almost positively be seeking one of those three players from the Hawks in return for Ryan Kesler. The question is, is Kesler worth that price?

Odds are it would have to be Patrick Sharp leaving town to get Kesler simply for the money reasons. Sharp is due $5.9 million annually for three more seasons, so trading his contract would open up the cap space for Ryan Kesler and his five million dollar contract. With Ryan Kesler, the Hawks would be getting a 20-30 goals per season center, as well as a former Selke Trophy winner as the league’s best defensive forward. Kesler is also one of the more physical forwards in the league, which makes him that much tougher to play against. He would no doubt be as good of a fit for the Blackhawks’ number two center position as anyone. As for Sharp, the Hawks would be losing probably a more talented player than Kesler (especially offensively), a proven leader, and a two-time Stanley Cup champion and one-time Olympic gold medalist. Not to mention his presence would no longer be in that Blackhawks locker room, and I don’t think it’s any secret how well liked he is among the other Hawks players.

Clearly, it’s a tough call to make if you’re Stan Bowman as to whether or not it’s worth trading Sharp for Kesler. I think one thing the Hawks like about Kesler over Sharp is the fact that Kesler is just 29 years old, while Sharp is 32. This is one of those potential trades that has it’s definite positives and it’s definite negatives.

So what about Teravinen and Saad?

Originally it was believed that the Canucks wanted Brandon Saad as part of any deal that involved Ryan Kesler coming to the Hawks. Obviously, the word on the street is that the Blackhawks said “no way” and those talks ended. The only reason the Kesler rumors have picked up again is because it would appear Brandon Saad no longer has to be part of the deal. Some people have said that in place of Saad, the Canucks now want Teuvo Teravainen, the Hawks’ top prospect. While I’m sure they do want him, there’s no way they’re getting him. Even if the Hawks were willing to part ways with Teuvo or Saad, neither of those players has a large enough contract to open the cap space for Kesler (the cap space would be there right now, but not in two years after the Hawks re-sign Kane and Toews). And there’s no way the Hawks trade Saad/Teravainen and Sharp.

So that leaves Patrick Sharp as being the only real possible candidate to get traded for Kesler. I’m sure the Hawks would gladly trade Seabrook and his contract for Kesler, but I’m not sure the Canucks would go for that. The Blackhawks are looking for ways to get their young defensemen (Clendening, Dahlbeck, and Johns) into the NHL, and trading Seabrook or Oduya would open up that door.

Another name that has really come onto the scene recently is that of Jason Spezza. He wants out of Ottawa, and the Senators appear to be trying to grant his wish. Spezza is another center that would fit perfectly on the Hawks’ second line, and he might even come at a cheaper price. Still, a big contract would have to be moved from the Hawks to get him. I’d say the Kesler thing is a bit more likely than this one.

WINTER CLASSIC

7327531TSN’s Bob McKenzie confirmed yesterday that the Blackhawks will be Washington’s opponent in next year’s Winter Classic. This will be the second time that each of these teams has taken part in a Winter Classic, with Chicago having done so in 2009 at Wrigley Field, and Washington in 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

Personally, this matchup makes very little sense to me from a hockey standpoint. These two teams have zero rivalry between them, and the Capitals aren’t even a playoff team. The only reason Washington is in this game is because they have Alex Ovechkin and they’re an east coast team. The NHL always seems to need an east coast team in these big games just to be “safe” with their TV ratings.

If I’m a west coast team like Minnesota, Colorado, or St. Louis, I’m pretty hacked off at this point. All three of them just made the playoffs, and all three could fill up an outdoor stadium for a Winter Classic. Yet other teams are already playing in their second Winter Classic, some of them not even playoff teams. If you put them (Minnesota, Colorado, or St. Louis) up against a team like the Blackhawks, it would make for a much better game than a Hawks-Capitals one. The Hawks share a “rivalry” with all three of those teams, and the Blackhawks generate large TV ratings, which would make it a “safe” game for the NHL. But what do I know?

Thanks for reading.