There have been glaring weaknesses in this new Blackhawks team through six games. The defense has been suspect, opponent shots on goal totals have been way too high, and too few players have developed any type of chemistry or consistency. Individually, there have been a few disappointing moments: New goaltender Marty Turco hasn't been on the same page with his defensemen, John Scott is horrifically slow, and Jordan Hendry and Nick Boynton have failed to give us any reason to think they can play every night.
And yet these Blackhawks that so many are concerned about are also 3-2-1 after playing some damn good hockey teams.
How'd that happen? Well, some would argue that Marian Hossa (9 points) and Patrick Sharp (5 goals) have done it single handedly. That may or may not be true. But the bottom line is, the Hawks have won a few games they shouldn't have, starting with last night's game against Buffalo. Great teams overcome adversity and win games regardless of the circumstances, and the Hawks have done that.
Considering the lack of consistency and strength of schedule through six games, the Hawks could easily be two or three games worse than what they are. Instead, they find themselves tied for second most points in the Western Conference.
The inconvenient truth that Hawks fans try to ignore is that Brian Campbell may be one of the most important players on this team. He is not the best player or even the best defenseman on the Hawks, but his skill set is essential for them to click as a unit. His absence was noticeable last season in March and through the first half of the Nashville series as the Hawks struggled to get the puck out of the defensive zone and move up ice. Some of the same patterns have been seen through six games this month. They simply don't look like the same dominant, puck possession hockey team without #51 in the lineup.
Niklas Hjalmarsson, Campbell's usual defense partner, might miss Campbell more than anyone. He has looked lost at times trying to skate with 19-year old Nick Leddy and veteran Nick Boynton. The usually reliable defenseman has registered 0 points and a -4 rating so far this season. His +/- is second worst on the team behind Patrick Kane.
The good news: Things will not stay this way all year. Campbell is healing as well as expected, and barring a setback, should be in the lineup in the next couple of weeks. Campbell's eventual return, and today's demotion of Nick Leddy, should leave a healthy defense unit that looks similar to this: Keith/Seabrook, Hjalmarsson/Campbell, Boynton/Hendry/Cullimore. Enter Brent Sopel for Hendry or Cullimore and that's the exact same defense that took the ice for Game 6 in Philadelphia. Not bad.
Campbell's return will not just add speed and reliability on the back end, but it will make things simpler for 3rd pairing players that have been forced to log heavier-than-usual minutes in his absence (Boynton, Scott, Hendry). The Hawks will once again have the best top 4 defense group in hockey, and the 3rd pair will have to simply survive each shift, just like last year.
Around the time that Campbell returns, the rest of the team should be starting to come together too. Besides the Hossa/Toews/Kopecky line, Joel Quenneville has been unable to find a combination that works. Jack Skille and Viktor Stalberg have shown sparks, but they need a center to consistently play with. Once they do, I envision plenty of production from both.
The Blackhawks' ability to stay afloat despite missing key pieces will serve them well in the long run. Once they get in a rhythm, the speed of new players like Stalberg and Skille will start to pay major dividends.
It comes down to this question: If you were told a month ago that the Hawks would be 3-2-1 through six games while missing Campbell for all of them, Hjalmarsson for two, Kane for one, and with Tomas Kopecky leading the team in assists..... Would you have been satisfied?
The answer should be a resounding YES.
Blackhawks, Chicago Blackhawks, Hjalmarsson, Joel Quenneville, Marty Turco, Stanley Cup Finals, United Center
Brian Campbell, Buffalo Sabres, Chicago Blackhawks, Jack Skille, Joel Quenneville, John Scott, Jonathan Toews, Marty Turco, Nashville Predators, Nick Boynton, Nick Leddy, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Tomas Kopecky, Viktor Stalberg