After going winless in their past eight games, in which they were outscored 35 to 15, one has to question whether the Chicago Blackhawks are a legitimate cup contender.
The Blackhawks started the season scorching hot, getting points in nine of their first 11 contests, and they were 29-13-6 before this most recent losing streak.
So what has gone wrong in Chicago?
Well there isn’t one answer to that question. There are a number of serious problems in Chi-town that need to be addressed immediately if they have any chance of making a run at their second cup in three years, a point also made this morning by Tyler in his piece “3 Things The Blackhawks Must Do Immediately.”
I perceive there to be three glaring problems that must be resolved through trade or internally. The three problems are:
- Killing Penalties
- Depth on Defense
Problem 1: Killing Penalties
The Hawks rank 28th in the league in Penalty Killing, ahead of only the Leafs and the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets. That isn’t good company to be in. Their percentage is only 77.5%, which for all those math majors means they get scored on 22.5% of the time when shorthanded.
Why is this happening you might ask? Well for one they don’t have too many gritty forwards that show proficiency in the art of the PK.
Their best penalty killer is arguably David Bolland, and while he’s pretty good, he’s only one man. The Hawks also use Marian Hossa, and although he has been a decent penalty killing forward throughout his career, he’s getting older and doesn’t seem to want to block shots anymore. Having forwards that are willing to take one for the team is critical to success when a man down.
I wouldn’t want to throw myself in front of a slapshot, but the Hawks need to find someone for their first PK unit who is willing to make that sacrifice. The player who would be likely to fulfill that role wouldn’t be as valuable an offensive threat and would be more inclined to deal with some bumps, bruises, or whatever the result might be.
Problem 2: Depth on Defense
The second problem ties into the first, which is a lack of depth on the blue-line.
On paper the Hawks are thin beyond their top-3 defencemen. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are undoubtedly top-2 defencemen on just about any team in the league. Niklas Hjalmarsson and Steve Montador, in theory, are a good 3rd and 4th pair. But both are currently out with injuries so who does that leave?
Nick Leddy has done a great job stepping up for the Hawks given his inexperience. The 2009 16th overall pick has logged over 22 minutes per game at the tender age of 20. His numbers are decent with 26 points in 56 games, but he still has a long way to go from a defensive standpoint since he’s second last on the team in plus/minus at a minus 10. The Blackhawks need more defensive-minded defencemen.
Looking at the remaining three healthy blue-liners there’s Sean O’Donnell, who will turn 41 this year, Sami Lepisto who has only played in 13 games this season, and Dylan Olsen who just turned 21 and is lacking in NHL and post-season experience.
Obviously it’s one of the biggest issues facing Chicago and a need that they can address through the trade deadline if they hope to be competitive enough to challenge for The Cup. Unless this issue is resolved, don’t expect any deep runs in the Windy City in 2012.
Problem 3: Goaltending
Now that third problem, goaltending.
Corey Crawford seemed like a godsend in his rookie year, stealing the number 1 job away from veteran Marty Turco. Now he has been struggling mightily with a 2.99 goals against average and a save percentage below .900. Ray Emery hasn’t been much better, posting very similar numbers with a 2.81 GAA and .901 save %.
Now these stats could be inflated by the lack of defensive depth and poor penalty killing in front of them, but a goalie needs to be your best penalty killer, and frankly neither one has been working out lately.
Chicago can either wait this one out or make a move for a veteran presence between the pipes in the form of a Evgeni Nabokov or Nikolai Khabibulin. Both current Hawks goalies still boast winning records, but when the scoring dries up the Hawks don’t have much of a shot at putting notches in the win column.
How Can Chicago Fix Its Problems?
What the Hawks do have is young talent up front that could make for some juicy trade bait in the coming weeks. Michael Frolik and Viktor Stalberg could attract some of the missing pieces they need to put the team back on the right track and give them the ability to compete down the stretch. Both players are young and under contract through next season.
The Hawks also have some room to move under the salary cap. According to Capgeek.com they have $4.8 million dollars to work with, which means they might not need to trade anybody off the current roster and could trade away some draft picks instead.
Some players that are on the trading block and could fill their holes include Paul Gaustad from Buffalo and Hal Gill from Montreal, two solid penalty killers that are likely going to be sold by the deadline since they are Unrestricted Free Agents on July 1st of this year.
The Hawks will more than likely make the playoffs. They have enough fire power to get them at least that far. Their longevity once they get there will be questionable unless they can make something happen soon.
Questioning whether Chicago will make the playoffs would have sounded foolish two weeks ago, but with their recent slide combined with the parity in the West, its not horribly inconceivable. They currently sit 6th in the Western conference, five points up on 9th place Calgary, who are sitting in front of a bunch of solid teams that have the capabilities to make a late season run.
The Hawks don’t have an easy schedule in front of them either. Out of their remaining 26 games, 18 of them are against teams that are currently in a playoff spot. Nine of those games are against division rivals who are ahead of them in the standings, which presents them with an opportunity to make up ground but makes for tough match ups as well. Those games are going to be crucial for the Hawks and will make or break their season.
Joel Quenneville and Blackhawks management have their work cut out for them from here on in. Only time will tell whether the Blackhawks will be able to turn their season around and look like the team that was so dominant at the beginning of the season.
Also see: With Chicago Blackhawks Losing Streak At Eight Games, Here Are 3 Things They Must Do Immediately by Tyler Juranovich