While the town buzzes about the rise of the Bulls and the nation mourns the fall of the Heat I think it best that we give credit where credit is due and heap some praise and foreshadow some potential pitfalls between now and June on the only reigning champions in our midst. In what most would deem a disappointing season until the last nine games, I can only equate it to another recent disappointment in all of our lives – the 2011 Academy Awards.  In tribute to a show that everyone had high hopes for going in, but within the first quarter of the production the viewers realized that something just wasn’t right and the chemistry was not working, I present to you the 2011 Chicago Blackhawks season by Best Picture nominee…

127 Hours

Ranking 25th in a 30 team league at anything usually means there’s quite a bit of room for improvement.  The Blackhawks currently fill that position on the penalty kill with a mind boggling 78.8% kill rate.  They can make a 2 minute Tripping penalty seem like they’re short-handed for hours (see how this is going to work?).    The interesting thing is that aside from Brent Sopel, Niemi, and a little bit of Kris Versteeg, the players have not changed on the unit all that much.  Still taking the ice a man down are Toews, Hossa, Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson, and Bolland, but the results could not be more radically different.  This time last year the Hawks penalty kill unit was at the top of the league and teams would try just about anything to sneak one past them to no avail.  This year the roles have been switched as the powerplay, which was inexplicably futile despite all the firepower last year, is clicking on all cylinders at a league leading 26.6% rate.  Go figure.  When it all boils down, success in the spring is determined more by your success rate when a man down rather than a man up.  They now have less than twenty games to get the penalty kill ship righted or their run in the tournament won’t quite mirror last year’s efforts.

The Social Network 

Perhaps you’ve heard some of the chatter about Mr. Patrick Kane’s off ice transgressions by now.  Guess who cares about the extracurricular activities of a 22 year old millionaire?  Not this guy.  Anyone in his position not doing everything Patrick is accused of (and then some) falls into the ‘Not Partying’ status of life (unless your last name is Toews – then you’re cool).  During a recent trip with my buddies we came to the conclusion that the only two options for a Facebook status should be ‘Partying’ or ‘Not Partying’.  Everything else is irrelevant and Mr. Kane is locked into ‘Partying’ status and should not apologize for it.  When it affects your production on the ice then there’s reason to talk, but ever since the All-Star game Kane has been ripping off points like the blouses of young Chicago socialites.  Keep up the good work Patty, and remember, you can basically get away with murder as long as you keep producing in the public’s eye.  Just ask Kobe Bryant.

The Kids Are Alright

After purging the roster this summer and making long term commitments to just about everyone whose sweater you might ever consider purchasing, every Blackhawk fan knew that we are in for a steady influx of talent on the 3rd and 4th lines with each Greyhound that rolls in from Rockford.  Well, thanks in large part to the dearly departed Dale Tallon and wunder-child GM Stan Bowman, that’s not the death sentence it is for many franchises in every sport.  Whether it’s Bryan Bickell becoming a regular contributor or swapping Cam Barker for Nick Leddy, it seems like each kid that arrives has potential to contribute at a major league level.  Pardon me while I knock on wood.  Keep in mind that in the years to come as names like Kopecky, Brouwer, Pisani, etc. head on to new destinations, just know that their name plates will be replaced with those of Morin, Beach, Pirri, Kruger, Lalonde, Olsen….  In reality there’s going to be an issue with not having enough spots in the lineup for all of them but these are the kind of problems organizations like to have.

The Fighter

John Scott vs. Kevin Westgarth.  My favorite moment of the season, your favorite moment of the season, the people who do get paid to do brain scans on former athletes after they die’s favorite moment of the season.  Basically everyone wins.

Inception

Coming into this season everyone in the media, in the league, in the player’s inner-circles screamed from the hilltops that this year was going to be different.  The chemistry was going to be different, the other teams are coming for you because you have a bulls-eye on your back, etc.  We all were there for it so I’ll save the rehashing of the message but the fact remains that the idea seemed to not sink in for the first 60 games or so.  The Hawks were the definition of a .500 club winning two and losing two with no discernable rhythm to their game. 

The foundation of any good organization is having a system in place and fitting players into it to ensure it keeps running year after year – see the Steelers and Patriots in football, Twins & Cardinals in baseball, and Red Wings in hockey as exhibits A-E.  Remember, as fans we’re cheering for the logo on the front, not the name on the back.  In the last few years the Blackhawks have adopted the Red Wings philosophy in a number of ways, but on the ice you’ll recognize a distinct, puck possession, free-wheeling style that is light on bruisers and high on talent.  You build out from the mobile, active defensemen; add skilled forwards that can skate, pass, and create; and find a competent goalie that will play for the league minimum.  Sounds simple right?  The thinking is that if we have the puck then the other guys don’t, and without the puck they can’t hurt us. One of the strengths of last season was the Hawks led the league in fewest shots against per game.  Without the puck you can’t hurt us. 

Well imagine everyone’s surprise when the Hawks then gave up 41 shots to the Avalanche on opening night.  The turnover in the lineup served as a convenient excuse but the team had lost its way, strayed from the organization’s philosophy.  It’s taken 60 games but from an outsider’s perspective it seems as though this year’s collection of players has finally bought back into the core mentality.  The top is still spinning…

Winter’s Bone

Despite the three previous paragraphs one cannot help but acknowledge that injuries have played a part in delaying the chemistry everyone kept saying the Hawks need to develop.  It’s pretty hard to learn your role on a team when you’re skating on the first line needing to produce in 20 minutes of ice time on Monday and by Friday you’re back on the fourth line looking to provide a spark during the 6 minutes you’re allowed to hop over the boards.  Marian Hossa has missed 20+ games with various ailments, some accidentally inflicted by his own teammates, Kane has been out 10+ with either ankle/knee issues, the flu, or just a wicked hangover – you be the judge – Bolland was hurt, Hendry is out for the year with a knee injury he sustained right as he was welcomed back to the regular rotation, and the list goes on.  In hockey injuries are part of the game, but the Hawks definitely have had their share so let’s hope that bug has passed and the boys can build their own chemistry without any further interruptions.

Toy Story 3

This isn’t really about the team per se, but more so about their resident boy toy Patrick Sharp.  Patrick, you’re strikingly handsome, we get it.  Chicago Magazine told us so.  If he didn’t lead the team in scoring right now (34 goals as of this writing) I’d have a lot more vitriol behind these words. 

Two weeks ago The Wife was at a charity event where an evening with Patrick Sharp – he takes you and a friend out to dinner and gives you a bunch of signed memorabilia – was one of the items up for bid.  Now mind you, she and I have had open dialogues about how she would leave me without a second thought if Mr. Sharp were to ever wink at her.  Let’s just say his wedding this past summer eased a lot of tension in the household.  The evening with Patrick Sharp ended up costing the winning bidder $4,500.  Luckily for me, that wasn’t my $4,500 but by all accounts it was damn near close.  Patrick, on behalf of Blackhawk Nation, keep scoring goals and we’re all good but take your tiger beat looks someplace else.  You’re a hockey player, get a visible scar or something for the sake of all of us husbands in the stands.

 Black Swan

Let me just say that Marty Turco has been the consummate professional this season accepting his role as the backup goalie with grace and dignity.  So this title is a bit deceiving as I’d like to take a moment to thank Marty for not being the black swan on this team.  He came here to be the stabilizing veteran goalie looking to win a Cup on the hottest young team in the league.  Well things didn’t go quite as planned and he followed his predecessor’s model of the experienced guy giving way to the upstart kid and not creating waves.  As already noted, chemistry is a tricky thing and it’s taken the Hawks the better part of ¾ of the season to find it thus far, and the goalie situation could easily have gone a long way to being another hurdle in that quest.  I’m in favor of the model the organization is following where you don’t pay goalies because you can always find another.  I believe the Hawks will rely heavily on goalies in the years to come that fit Turco’s profile of a savvy vet looking for a chance to win, but this is not Marty’s year and I think it should be noted just how well he’s done in recognizing that as well as the fans and organization have.

True Grit

My biggest fear about this Hawks team is their lack there of…  While I give credit to Stan Bowman for getting something for his players that they had to move (see the NBA Summer 2010 for an alternative of how these player departures can go), but while he received talent in return, what he did not get back was an equivalent amount of grit.  Grit wins hockey in the spring.  Players like Ladd, Byfuglien, Versteeg, & Sopel had more grit than you can shake a stick at and that just has not been replaced this year.  The Versteeg trade is perhaps the best example where we moved a guy who while talented skill-wise, had accepted his role as a third line grinder and penalty killer whose scoring was just gravy in Versteeg; and in return we received Victor Stalberg who appears to have the speed and talent of a top 6 forward but the team needs him to grind out shifts on the third line because we’ve already got a full crew of scorers. 

As constituted this Hawks team would not beat last year’s Flyers Stanley Cup Finals lineup.  If you recall they brought a physical presence to the United Center that the Hawks had not dealt with in the Western Conference and it gave the Hawks all sorts of problems.  It wasn’t until Byfuglien laid out Chris Pronger in game 5 that the momentum of the series really switched (it was tied 2-2 at the time) and the Hawks realized the Cup was there for the taking.  We don’t have that guy who’s going to knock Pronger down this year.  Bickell could but he’s decided he’s a skilled player that just happens to be big rather than a big player that happens to have skill.  Ryan Johnson isn’t knocking anyone over but he will try.  He’s a step in the right direction.  No one knows how the next few months will play out with injuries and matchups but until this team gets some more grit, they won’t be the last ones standing at the end talking to Mr. Bettman.

The King’s Speech

On a cold February afternoon in St. Louis, the Hawks were slow out of the gate and fell behind 0-2 to the host Blues.  Joel Quenneville was back in a suburban Chicago hospital fighting internal ulcer bleeding and the team was amidst one of their classic runs of games where they won a game, lost two, won another, lost, and then won the afternoon before in a shoot out against Pittsburgh.  The team needed a spark and by all account Jonathan Toews – aka Captain Serious – delivered.  Reportedly – which he downplays – he lit into the team in the absence of their head coach and they in turn came out to win the second period 4-0 and the game 5-3 overall.  The Captain spoke and took control of the team and its destiny.  The team went on to win the next 6 games afterwards to compile an eight game winning streak and threw the Hawks back into the middle of the playoff standings.  The conversations about the team went from “will they make the playoffs” to “can they overtake the Wings for first place and home ice” in the course of eight games, due in large part to a leader fulfilling his role.  Did I mention that in that time span Toews lead the league in points and was named the NHL’s first star for the month of February?  He’s also in the middle of conversations for the Hart (the NHL’s MVP) trophy now too.  Yep, he’s that good and that must have been some speech in St. Louis.

So that’s where we stand as the Hawks and the rest of the league make their final push towards the playoffs and finish establishing their roles and building chemistry.  Like the Oscars, I’m not sure that this year is going to go down as one of the all time greats but then again we may look back in a few years and realize that this year produce enough memorable and defining moments (Toews leadership going to the next level & The Social Network defining a generation) that we’ll remember it more fondly with time than we do while living in the moment.