The NHL’s trade deadline has passed.  Teams have made their moves for better or worse, in a last ditch effort to load up for a deep playoff run or to sell of their spare parts for future draft picks and lottery tickets.  Base on your team’s actions this past week you can get a feel for where their ownership and management teams feel they are at and where they want to be.  It’s ideally a reality check where each organ-i-zation takes a look at their cards and in the immortal words of Kenny Rogers, decides whether to hold ‘em or fold ‘em.  Unfortunately Blackhawk fans, I think Stan Bowman and Mr. Rocky Wirtz have made the decision that we’re playing for next year from this point on.

Don’t get too worked up now because I will guarantee you that everyone in the Blackhawks front office is expecting the team as currently constructed, to not only make the playoffs, but also advance at least a round or two.  This is not a case akin to that of the Columbus Bluejackets mind you, where they decided to blow the whole thing up and start over (yet again in Columbus’ example).  The Hawks have a lot of good “pieces” in place.  You won’t hear an interview with Stan Bowman or Coach Quenneville where they don’t talk about their “core” players and their faith in them. 

For the uninitiated, the Blackhawks core consists of Toews, Kane, Hossa, Sharp, Bolland, Keith & Seabrook.  Each of these players have at least three years left on their contracts that initially were five years or more in length when signed.  These are the guys whose jerseys you own, who are the face of the franchise, and whose names should be at the top of several statistical categories throughout the league if everything goes according to plan.   

Players such as The Nicks (Hjalmarsson & Leddy) and Corey Crawford are paid handsomely for what they may become someday, but they certainly are not cornerstone pieces at this time.  The rest of the team is a combination of savvy veterans here for leadership and their own personal shot at getting their name on Lord Stanley’s chalice (O’Donnell, Brunette, Emery & Mayers), mid-level guys trying to prove they belong (Stalberg, Bickell, Frolik, and Montador), and kids just happy to be here and have a shot at making a name for themselves (Shaw, Hayes, Kruger & Olsen).

While a solid compilation of players, and a good mix from the various buckets of NHL stereotypes, there is something lacking with this year’s squad.  Even prior to the trade of John Scott on Monday (the league’s pre-eminent fighter), the team lacked a general sense of toughness and grit that Stan Bowman spent the entire summer trying to acquire.  As talented as they are, neither Sharp nor Kane are going to win a one-on-two battle for the puck in the corner, and for as hard as it is to knock Hossa off the puck, he does not do much knocking in return. 

The league has certainly changed in the past ten years moving away from the Broad Street Bullies mentality to one of more finesse and skill, however as recent champs have shown (see Boston last year and the Hawks circa 2010) you still need to have a physical presence to be playing in June. 

What about Detroit you ask?  Aren’t they the team the Hawks try to model themselves after most closely?  They haven’t been physical since the days of Joe Kocur and Bob Probert in the early to mid-nineties.  You’re right in thinking that but there are distinct differences in the organizational philosophies.  Despite all of their skill in the offensive zone, when it’s all said and done, Detroit wins year after year because of their defensive prowess.  Since the day Steve Yzerman hung up his pursuit of Art Ross (scoring) trophies for Selke’s (best defensive forward) Detroit has always taken care of their end first and let the scoring take care of itself.  That’s why Brett Hull and other scoring veterans over the years (Hossa included) had to leave their egos at the door when they arrived in Detroit and adapt to the defensive game plan if they wanted to win a ring.  The Redwings have also had at least two power forwards on their roster at all times whose sole purpose on the team is to stand in front of the net and score “dirty” goals off of rebounds and deflections which add up over the course of a season.  Tomas Holmstrom and Johan Franzen couldn’t out skate a number of high schoolers today, but they’re also not afraid to get slashed, hacked, and take a puck off the back of the knee to ensure the team’s success.

I say all of this because the Hawks as currently construed are in somewhat of a no man’s land in the NHL today.  They’re all flash and sizzle but none of the overall team grit or unified commitment to defense where sacrificing pretty plays for pure and simple results is the currency.  The Hawks are like the Phoenix Suns of the NHL only the rest of the league has figured out how to shut down their fast break offense. 

So let’s take a look at where Stan Bowman found himself coming into this past week.  He had a team that he had constructed that as of a month ago was vying for first place in the Western Conference, if not the entire league.  They were giving up a lot of goals but able to overcome that by putting one more puck in the net than the opposition on most nights.  All year long they’ve been short a true second line center.  Jonathan Toews is all that you can ask for centering your first line, but Dave Bolland excels in a shutdown role of the opposing team’s top line as opposed to creating and scoring as a second line center should.  Marcus Kruger is young and growing at the position but he too appears to be more of a defensive #3 than an offensive, creating #2.  Without a proper #2, the pivot on the second line has been a black hole that either sucks up a valuable piece that is more valuable elsewhere (i.e. Sharp or Kane) or forced a good player like Bolland or Kruger to play in a role at which they do not excel.  I think coming into the season Stan figured the second line center position would either resolve itself over time or it would be something they would address at the trade deadline.  As of this writing, neither of those scenarios have played out.

The other weakness the team faces day in and day out is on the blue line.  For a number of reasons, some explicable and some not, the young defensive core that won a Cup in 2010 has not continued to improve as expected.  Duncan Keith won the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman after the Stanley Cup season and hasn’t even been considered for an All Star Game since.  Call it exhaustion, call it boredom after a season that included a Gold Medal, the Cup, and the aforementioned Norris, regardless of the problem, Duncan Keith has regressed.  He remains in the top five in the league in ice-time so Coach Q continues to lean on him heavily, but something just isn’t right there.  With his regression Seabrook has had to carry more of the load than he’s capable of on both ends of the ice and its showed in his play as well.  Meanwhile, we’re all learning that Hjalmarsson’s game is modeled more after Sopel (shotblocking and conservative defense) than Campbell (offense and puck moving) which I think comes as a surprise to many of the Hawk’s powers that be.  I’m a Nick Leddy fan as much as the next guy, but even his growth seems to have stalled this season. 

Much like in business, if you’re not growing then you’re dying, so while this Hawks team continues to get by with their flash, the rest of the league has learned that there’s not enough substance behind it and have forced the Hawks to play out of their element.  Nashville and their disciplined defensive trap system would be the absolute worst matchup that they Hawks could draw when the playoffs arrive.  You’ll notice that when the Hawks are able to string together wins there’s a common theme of recommitting to the defensive end as a team as the reason for their success.  As the losses pile up it’s always due to the number of sloppy goals they let in (a symptom of crappy team defense). 

With those items outstanding, Stan was faced with a dilemma: do we mortgage the future to add pieces to this group and make a serious run now – or – do we hold onto our cards to fight another day?  What has not been said in all of the above is the fact that the Hawks have a minor league system that is the envy of the rest of the NHL.  While a bit heavy on forwards, names such as Brandon Saad (stellar 18 year old winger), Mark McNeill (a future #1 or #2 center), Brandon Pirri (another potential #2 center), Kyle Beach (a true power forward whose star has begun to fade but still has promise), Jeremy Morin (speed and size winger), Kevin Hayes (Jimmy’s younger and more skilled brother), and Ludvig Rensfeldt (another big Swedish center), are all going to be expecting a shot with the big club before too long.  Given the core that is already in place, the Hawks are not going to have room for all of these players as well as Jimmy Hayes, Andrew Shaw, and Marcus Kruger who are up already.  There is no lack of assets to be traded, but my gut tells me Stan was given an option and he chose to hold his cards for a few more months since the team as constructed is not ready to win despite whatever pieces they added today. 

Names like Jeff Carter (an ideal #2 center), Antoine Vermette & Paul Gaustad (both options better than any existing choices on the current roster) moved between teams this past week for parts no greater than what the Hawks could have offered.  Solid defensemen like Hal Gill, Tom Gilbert, Pavel Kubina & Marek Zidlicky also changed teams without the Hawks being involved.  A rumor circulated that Stan Bowman turned down a Brandon Saad for Nicklas Grossman deal with Dallas (which I whole heartedly agree with for the record) but I think this serves as a microcosm for how this trade season went.  I’m guessing the Hawks could have gotten better, and probably even pulled off a blockbuster deal if the other teams were willing to dance, but when it was all said and done Stan Bowman valued to potential of his prospects over the possibility that this team could turn around their fortunes and make a serious run into this spring and summer.  Johnny Oduya is a fine piece to add to your defensive corps, but he’s more of a trade for the sake of a trade player as opposed to a final piece to put a team over the top in this humble writer’s opinion.   

Again, I’m not calling this a death sentence.  I think there’s a lot of talent in the locker room with the Indianhead on the floor these days.  I think this season will truly boil down to the skill of one of the biggest names on the team that hasn’t been mentioned much above.  It’s going to come down to how good of a coach Joel Quenneville really is.  If he can get these guys to commit to defense the way they did on their recent four game winning streak, they can hang with the best of the best.  If however they get back to their free-wheeling ways of trying to outscore their opponent and thinking that pretty goals count more than those scored off of rebounds and deflections, there’s a chance they don’t make it out of the first round, if not miss the playoffs entirely. 

There was something special about that team in 2010.  Whether it was a collection of the right guys playing together at the right time in their careers and capturing magic in the process – or a solid organizational philosophy that came to fruition that spring and is waiting to do so again, we’ll just have to wait and see.  Personally I think the general lack of action on Monday afternoon said there’s faith in the plan and they’re going to stay at the table, but some hands are unfortunately meant to be laid down, and the best poker players are the first to recognize when they’re making a losing bet.