Blackhawks

Hawk Talk: Coasting to the Finish

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Hawk Talk: Coasting to the Finish

Friday, March 26, 2010
7:06 PM

By Brett Ballantini
CSNChicago.com

Its time for some unsurprising, yet still sobering news about the Blackhawks: In the second half of the season, they just havent been very good.

Choosing the slightly arbitrary (but telling) midpoint of Game 45the meltdown in Minneapolis, when the Blackhawks turned a 5-1, third period lead into a 6-5 shootout loss to the Minnesota Wildits clear just how pedestrian the Hometown Heroes have been for the balance of 2010.

Taking the ice at Minnesota on Jan. 9, the Blackhawks were 31-10-3, playing at an extraordinary clip. Their .739 points percentage then would be better even than the current Capitals, and that includes Washingtons long winning streak and significantly weaker Eastern Conference schedule.

Counting the Wild setback and running up to the worst loss of the season last night at Columbus, the Blackhawks have gone 15-10-4 having played about three-quarters of this second half of the season. That record, translating to a .586 points percentage, is deceiving, because the league average stands at .559, and the percentage for the current No. 8 seed in the West, the Detroit Red Wings, is .596.

Thats rightat the clip the Blackhawks have been playing since Game 45, they wouldnt even make the playoffs in the West.

Theres a lot to point fingers at when trying to explain how a team that started out so well has taken such a poor turn.

Some reasons are perfectly legitimate. Olympic fatigue, which has affected some players (Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook all carry minus ratings since the break) and not others (Patrick Kane has remained a scoring threat and has played even, Marian Hossa has been a plus player and the teams most dangerous scorer). Injuries to the blue linefor a couple of games the Blackhawks were absent three of their top five defensemen in losing Seabrook, Brian Campbell, and Kim Johnssonhas played a role.
But the more significant issues that have set Chicago into a slump have little to do with outside forces and more to do with whats reflecting back in those dressing-room mirrors.
The Blackhawks power play catches a lot of flak, and its preposterously impotent given the firepower of this Chicago team, but overall it ranks 11th in the league at .187, nothing that should set anyones hair on fire either way.

Team defense has been shambolic since the Minnesota meltdown, and particularly bad since the huge road trip the team shoved off on just one week later. Seabrook was at plus-22 and 20 points heading into action vs. the Wild, and in 27 games since is a minus-five with just four points. His partner, Keith, has shouldered a massive minutes load all season longat 26:43 per game hes ate the second-most minutes of anyone in the leagueand these days hes skating in mud, reaching with stick rather than throwing the body. Niklas Hjalmarsson, currently No. 3 on the defensive depth chart, is playing in his first full season. Hes battled injury on and off, which might be a harbinger of dangerous things given his primary value as a defenseman isnt in puck possession or speed but toughness.

The goalie messdenied all season long by analysts too quick to point to goals allowed as an end-all of netminder performancewas resolved by Cristobal Huet backing out of the competition last night. But overall, the condition of the Chicago net is worse than ever. Yes, Antti Niemi shows signs of getting back on the roll he was on early in the season, where it wasnt far-fetched to consider him a Calder Trophy candidate. But if his three-game run of great play (including two shutouts and discounting five garbage minutes last night) is exception and not rule, the Blackhawks are in trouble. Niemi had just five games saving less than .900 of shots in his first 14 leading up to Jan. 9something thats happened in 10 of 16 games since. (If you trim away his last four games, wiping his last two shutouts off the board, hes failed to stop at least a .900 rate in eight of 12 games.)

Niemi was an above-average goalie in the first half of the season, and below average since then. Right now, his .912 save percentage puts squarely in the middle among NHL netminders. If he can maintain that level of playand his recent run indicates thats a fair expectation, increased workload with Huet out of the picture or notno Blackhawks fan will be howling about his performance in the crease.

But speaking of the goaltending, it may be time to levy a little criticism Joel Quennevilles way. For all the success the team has had this seasonits important to remember that the team still leads the Western Conference, for crying out loudseveral of his decisions and tendencies have been suspect. Seems Q might coach a bit passive-aggressively.
He trusts his team, and the leadership in the dressing room. In Toews, he has one of the strongest young stand-up players in the game policing the team. But to have waited a couple of dozen games to lay into his faltering defense, as he finally got around to doing only on the Blackhawks recent mini-road trip west, seems a matter of too much trust.
And on the flip side, there is Quennevilles almost-nightly Line-o-Rama, wherein the mentor pounds the randomizer button a period or so into the game when things arent quite clicking. Last night, Troy Brouwer was punished for an early mistake leading to an odd-man rush and found himself demoted to the fourth line.

That kind of haste to stir lines up is not productive for the Blackhawks. Were not talking about a San Jose Sharks club, which boasts a clear superstar line, and lets the rest of the schmoes fall as they may. Chicago is constructed as a deep offensive team that needs production nine, or even 12, down. The top line of Toews-Kane-Brouwer has been aces. The second line, Dave Bolland centering Hossa and Patrick Sharp, has clicked. The so-called checking line, with John Madden centering Kris Versteeg and Andrew Ladd, has been scoring goals at a one per game clip since its formation. To jumble all of them up whimsically is counter-intuitive for the Blackhawks.

So, theres blame to pass around given the Blackhawks second-half slump. With two-thirds of their remaining nine games left against non-playoff teams, there is still room to get healthy, build momentum and make a deeper run into the playoffs than last season.

The days are dripping short on the season. Sunday marks the start of potentially the most exciting stretch of hockey in Blackhawks history. But as presently constituted, the Hometown Heroes are closer to a heartbreaking upset than a stirring Stanley Cup run.
Lets hope that with the title belt card already played, Coach Q has one more, sustainable, trick up his sleeve.

Brett Ballantini isCSNChicago.com's Blackhawks Insider. Follow him @CSNChi_Beatnikon Twitter for up-to-the-minute Hawksinformation.

2019 Blackhawks development camp: Day 3 thoughts and takeaways

2019 Blackhawks development camp: Day 3 thoughts and takeaways

GM Stan Bowman and head coach Jeremy Colliton met with the media before Wednesday's on-ice session to discuss a variety of prospect-driven topics.

Here are some of the highlights from their availability, in addition to thoughts and takeaways from Day 3 of Blackhawks development camp at Fifth Third Arena:

1. What the Blackhawks are looking for this week

It's easy to get caught up in prospect camp and put stock into on-ice performances, but that's not what the Blackhawks are doing this week. In fact, the on-ice portion is just a fraction of what these players have on the agenda.

"The big thing for us is to watch these kids, how much they can absorb," Bowman said. "We're throwing a lot of information. These are long days for them to have. Seminars in the morning then they come over and do on-ice work, then they do off-ice work and at the beginning of the week we have a cooking demo for them to learn how to prepare food. So at the end of the day it's a full day for them."

Colliton also brought up a valid point about prospects being at different stages in their summer training. Some players are skating for the first time since their seasons ended and are shaking off some rust. Some have already been training for months. Some players had long years because of deep postseason runs. So yeah, this week is not about evaluation.

"We gotta be careful," Colliton said. "This is a snapshot. At training camp and Traverse City it’ll be a much easier job to evaluate how close anyone is."

2. Early impressions of Kirby Dach

The Blackhawks did extensive research on Dach before drafting him No. 3 overall. On the ice, off the ice, analytics, you name it. But they're finally able to spend some time with him under their own roof and see his habits, how he carries himself, etc. and the early impressions are strong from the coaching staff and management.

"It's hard not to notice his skill level," Bowman said. "He's a big guy but he's got really soft hands, he's got that long reach and he's got a quick stick. He's pretty tricky with the puck. He's got the ability to hold it out so that guys can't poke it away and if they try to get it he can pull it through. He's got quick hands. And I think that's what you notice. He skates well for a big guy.

"These are all things that we liked about him when we drafted him but when you get him here and put him up against guys that are a couple years older, he's able to do some special things with the puck. He's got all the excitement to be on the ice, he's a competitive kid, he's focused, but he's enjoying himself and he's got a combination of attributes that we wish everybody had."

Said Colliton: "It’s tough not to notice him out there. Big, big kid who skates really well, got a lot of skill, makes a lot of things happen out there and seems to have a great work ethic and be a great kid. ... He’s been impressive, for sure."

3. Adam Boqvist turning pro?

When we talked to him on Monday, Boqvist made it known that he wanted to turn pro as quickly as possible and felt ready for it after one season in the OHL with the London Knights. And it seems like the management group is ready for that to happen, also.

"We're probably leaning towards that," Bowman said. "I don't know that we've made any declarations that's what he's going to do. In talking to Adam I think he wants to take that next step. It's probably looking like that, but nothing's been determined for sure."

4. Blackhawks accepting of Ian Mitchell's decision

After his sophomore season at Denver, Mitchell had a decision to make: turn pro or return to college for another year? 

The Blackhawks felt like he was ready to take the next step. Perhaps Mitchell felt so too, but returning to school for one more season, in his eyes, allows him to hone his craft even more and become a better all-around, consistent player before making the jump. That's why he made the decision to go back for one more season, and the Blackhawks are accepting of that.

"You got to give him credit," Bowman said. "He feels like there's unfinished business and I think he's committed to the team and committed to his teammates. He wants to lead that team and he wants to be, in his words, a difference-maker every night. I thought he had a great season last year and selfishly we think he's ready to be a pro. On the other side of it, you got to be where you are. So if he feels the right place for him is Denver then you want to be committed to that and you want him to lead that team and you want him to continue to improve.

"I think what we're looking for him to do is build on that and become a dominant player like he wants to be. Yeah, we would love to have him as a pro right now but I think he's going to be a pro pretty soon. So let him focus on his path. He has to believe in what he's doing and it's not for us to try to talk him in and out of things. Wherever he is, we're going to support him. But he's ready to be a pro right now. With a year in college as a dominant player he'll be even more ready to be a pro."

5. Looking for the next Collin Delia?

The Blackhawks brought six goalies to development camp. Two of them are draft picks — Dominic Basse and Alexis Gravel. The other four are here on invites: Devin Cooley, Stefanos Lekkas, Mareks Mitens and Zackarias Skog. They don't have to look far to see that an impressive showing could turn into a contract.

This is exactly how Delia caught the attention of the Blackhawks.

"We did this a couple years ago with Collin Delia and now look where Collin is," Bowman said. "I think that's the message to these players is you're here for a reason because we think you've got skill and potential as a goalie, and we want to see how you perform this week, how do you take feedback, what's your work ethic like and then we're going to follow them.

"It's not out of the realm that a couple years from now these guys could become Blackhawks. They're not all going to fall into that category but if they show well and they impress us, I think Collin came back two years in a row and then we signed him so these guys are here to try to impress us and show us that they could become Blackhawks."

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Jeremy Colliton on Blackhawks offseason additions and how he plans to handle Crawford-Lehner workload

Jeremy Colliton on Blackhawks offseason additions and how he plans to handle Crawford-Lehner workload

It's mid-July and the Blackhawks' roster looks very different from when it ended the 2018-19 season. GM Stan Bowman has added an influx of new faces this summer, whether that's been in the form of trades or free-agent signings.

Now it's up to Jeremy Colliton and his coaching staff to decide how they want to map out the lineup. They might have an idea of how they want to utilize specific players, but the real competition starts in training camp and that's exactly what the organization wants.

"Yeah, we’ve done a lot," Colliton said before Wednesday's on-ice session at development camp. "We’ve really increased the depth in our group, everywhere. In goal, on defense, up front, we have competition throughout the roster for roster spots, for roles. I think we have more versatility to our team, we have defenders who can play either side, we have guys who want to kill penalties and defend and take that role, we have forwards who can play different positions, kill penalties, play against good players. So we feel that’s what we were missing to our team."

"We’ve added a little bit of physicality and an edge, which we need to have that dimension. We have to win games in different ways, and I think if you compare the roster now to the one we ended with or the one we had when I first came in November, I think we can win in different ways and we’re prepared to have an excellent season, hopefully."

One of the main storylines to follow during the 2019-20 season will be how the goaltending workload is divided between Corey Crawford and Robin Lehner. You have a two-time Stanley Cup winner and Vezina Trophy finalist to share the starts with, and Colliton expects it to be a healthy battle among the two veteran netminders.

"There's going to be competition, certainly," Colliton said. "But I think you look at the teams that have had success, there has been a share — some sort of split. It's not 60, 70 games one guy's taking. Those games that maybe traditionally the backup is playing, we need to win those too. So now whoever is in the net, we're going to get an extremely high level of performance. And if we happen to be unlucky with injuries, we have some protection there too."

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