With the Hawks about to begin their annual "Circus" road trip, now feels like a good time to evaluate how things have gone through 20 games of the 2010-2011 NHL season.
From a team standpoint, here is a cold dose of reality: the Hawks' current record puts them in 13th place in the West if you calculate points percentage. Their point total lands them in 7th, but they have played more games than anyone in the NHL. At 9-9-2, they are on pace for 82 points. That amount wouldn't give them a playoff spot; it would give them a tee time at the local course come mid-April.
While the record through 20 games isn't something many fans were expecting, it should not come as a shock. This team is tired. More specifically, its stars are tired. They all went the distance in the Olympics, they all went through the wear and tear of four playoff series', and they had the shortest summer out of any players in the NHL. To top things off, the wonderful NHL schedule makers gave the Hawks the busiest early-season schedule in the league. This isn't an excuse, but it would be foolish to say it's not a factor. Tired legs can be the death of an NHL team.
Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane have not played like stars. Their numbers aren't awful (14 and 17 points respectively), but they've failed to take over games the way they so often did last season. Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa have been both brilliant and mediocre at times. Sharp has been way too uninterested in his own end of the ice, and Marian Hossa is not playing at 100%. He is a different player than he was in the first three weeks of the season.
Duncan Keith is a minus-6. The same Duncan Keith that won the Norris Trophy as the league's best defenseman last season has somehow turned into a liability in his own end. His poor play even led to a benching, an extreme rarity in his wonderful career as a Blackhawk.
Keith isn't the only usually reliable defenseman struggling. Niklas Hjalmarsson is a minus-9 with zero points. Not exactly great value for that $3.5 million dollar extension he signed this summer.
There is a reason to be optimistic, however. The aforementioned players are all good. Some of them are great. They won't play at an average level for the rest of the season. They're too good for that to happen for 82 games. Right?
Aside from the "core", there are positives and negatives. Viktor Stalberg is my biggest surprise of the young season. He skates hard, his speed is world class, and he is putting the puck in the net (6 goals on 16.7% shooting). Not only are his hockey skills impressive, but he looks like he could grace the cover of next month's GQ. I think the female population of the United Center collectively passed out when he, Sharp and Toews skated together on a line recently.
Unfortunately, Stalberg has been the only new player to really stick out. I love Jack Skille's game. Truly I do. But the kid's hands turn to stone when he gets near the crease. If he could add a scoring touch to an otherwise VERY solid two-way game, we may have something.
Fernando Pisani, Jake Dowell, and Bryan Bickell have all been ok. I would consider Bickell's recent play disappointing considering what he showed early on. He looked like a formidable replacement for Byfuglien in the early going; lately he has been average and even sat in the press box as a healthy scratch for a couple games. I am hoping for and expecting more out of these three as the season continues.
My biggest disappointments so far have been Tomas Kopecky and Troy Brouwer. Frankly, I'm not sure there aren't two Rockford guys that couldn't come up and replace their night-to-night production right now. Brouwer is a peculiar case because he has shown potential to be a very good power forward. His career trajectory at one point compared to that of a young Tomas Holmstrom's, the best net presence in the history of the league. The only thing those two have in common now is the first letter of their first names.
Kopecky, on the other hand, just isn't very good. The notion that he became "a different player" after last year's Olympics is wishful thinking. One of the most overlooked parts of the NHL is how big a factor team depth is; not just for how good a team is, but how much it can make an otherwise below average grinder look like an above average contributer. I think half of the people reading this article could have 9 points through 19 games playing on a line with Marian Hossa. Not only is Kopecky unimpressive, but he is taking away minutes and opportunities from more deserving players (Stalberg!). Kopecky is skating around eighteen minutes a game, much higher than his career average that falls under ten. His presence on the ice for nearly a third of the hockey game is a liability for this team. His minus-10 rating supports that.
There are plenty of things around the NHL worth mentioning as well. First of all, Detroit is back. They have the best record in the league and could pull away in the Central if the Blackhawks have a bad road trip. If the Hawks want to defend their division championship, they'll need a big turnaround, and fast.
As expected, the L.A. Kings appear to have turned the corner. There are currently rumors swirling that the 12-4 Kings may make a move to acquire Jarome Iginla, making them even scarier than before. I said in April that the 09-10 Kings looked like the 08-09 Blackhawks. You do the math to figure out what may happen next.
If the Hawks remain in a fight for a playoff spot, its going to be a very stressful season. There are a lot of teams that should stick around, and the 8th seed may have the highest point total in years this season. The West appears to be pretty strong.
All things considered, the Hawks need to figure some things out before they go too far South. The circus trip is a perfect opportunity. It's a challenge, but it is also a chance for the Hawks to bond as a team and get away from the pressure-packed United Center. Look for a couple of the new guys to have a big trip.
The Hawks have a .500 record, but I don't think they are a .500 team. They have had stretches like this before; they just usually happen in March. If you had to pick, wouldn't you choose an October/November slump over March?
Let's be patient and let them work out the kinks. After the amount of "sky is falling" scenarios the Hawks have turned around since 2007, we owe it to them.
Brent Seabrook, Bryan Bickell, Chicago Blackhawks, circus road trip, Detroit Red Wings, Duncan Keith, Fernando Pisani, GQ, Jack Skille, Jake Dowell, Jerome Iginla, Joel Quenneville, Jonathan Toews, Los Angeles Kings, Marian Hossa, NHL, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Tomas Kopecky, Troy Brouwer, Twitter, Viktor Stalberg