35 games into the 2011-12 season, the Blackhawks hold out on top of the standings looking down. They currently hold more points than any other team in the league, and have scored more goals than any other team as well. Sure, they have a few games in hand on a some other teams, but these stats are still worth celebrating over, and celebration there has been. However, the year has not been all cheers of jubilation. This post intends on breaking a few things down, dissecting the year up to this point, which is pretty darn close to halfway through. (Warning: This gets lengthy)
The Hawks are 8-1-1 in the last 10 games, making for a pretty spectacular December. The only loss this month cam against the Pens, which is still fresh in our minds and we all know how that game ended. Not too long ago only 5 points separated 1st and 11th place. Today, that number is 12. This stat would lead me to believe that the Hawks are improving, among other things.
Some teams have improved with new coaches, others have dropped below early season production, some have gotten caught in the purgatory of just good enough, and a select few have started realizing their skill level without any big changes in the system.
The Hawks goals for is at 118, a reason to cheer. They have 102 against, bringing their differential to a whopping +16, not so great, but okay. Pay no attention to the outstanding differential of the Bruins holding in at +48. The teams to be looking at right now are those in the West. Vancouver and Detroit have impressive differentials at +32 and 33. Nashville and Dallas have negative ones, and we have often looked at this stat as maybe the most telling of all here at PowWow.
The Hawks have allowed 40 more goals than the Bruins and they have done that with 3 games in hand. This is where the reason to stop celebrating starts, and the complaining begins. But where to point the finger? We could easily throw it at the defensive end, maybe the need for trades, or has it been goaltending? Lets take a look closer.
The Hawks have 2 players in the top 5 of scoring, and 1 player only a goal away from the top 10. There is no other team with that kind of numbers from that many players. Hossa is at the top of +/- leaders, and Kaner is 1 assist outside of the top 5 for assists. This tells us that our core players are producing in the ballpark of what their salaries suggest. Plus, they have contributed to a bountiful amount of clutch goals, especially lately.
This is from the top 2 lines though. Bolland has 8 goals which is okay, but is at a -8, and his linemates seem unable to hit the backside of a barn with the puck, let alone a hockey net. Lets give Bolland the benefit of the doubt. He plays regularly against top lines night after night, and has looked injured for 90% of play so far. Frolik has 5 goals and is a -6, while Bickell is a -9 with 4 goals. Here is where some of our woes start. The 3rd line is not even close to having the dynamic expected before the season started.
2 guys not mentioned yet who have been moved around between all of these lines are Stalberg and Brunette. Both are producing enough to be happy about in the area of scoring, but Bruno is a -10 right now. Granted, he logs a bit of PK minutes. In a short time, Ben Smith racked up a -6 plus/minus. Reasons for pause.
Stalberg is on his way to a 20 goal season and a points production well beyond his paycheck. His recent performance on the 3rd line, serving as a catapult for scoring where it has been rarely seen is a great sign of his growth this year. This growth is instrumental in the Hawks greasing out the kinks from the season's start.
Just for the record, is anyone complaining about Carcillo and Mayers as far as individual efforts are concerned? I for one have been pretty happy. They seem to be doing the jobs they were placed here to do.
Add to the mix a guy like Kruger who can come out of nowhere and fill his role pretty darn nicely and one begins to wonder. Where is the inconsistency of the Hawks production through the season coming from. Besides Frolik and Bickell, I think we can be pretty happy with offensive, individual efforts.
I know, I know, the obvious reaction is to then look to the players on defense. However, nothing has really changed from last year in this area, and defense really wasn't the issue then. And sure, some of them started out rough, but I think it has something more to do with preparedness. Lack of cohesion between the offense and defense. For all you Campbell lovers out there, could this be the result of his loss. Did Campbell fill some some most important role and now has exposed this giant hole in the Hawks overall system of play?
It is my opinion that Leddy filled those shoes, and if not fully, then to a good enough extent to negate the argument that Campbell's loss is the cause of the Hawks concerns. Plus, he is more aware of his and the teams defensive needs. Leddy is more effective in his own zone than I remember Campbell being. The difference was Hjalmer, who often covered for Soupy.
Could it be that what we saw through the better part of the first half was the repercussions of ill paired defensemen at the beginning? Things do seem to be evening out since the right changes have been made. There has still been a few breakdowns of communication amongst the pairs, but I believe that this will begin to fade as the season progresses and everyone gets more used to each other. This only points to the need of nailing down that 6th D-man. Rolling 2 players is okay, but 3 is just adding to the confusion.
Game to game, the Hawks have pulled wins out of late 3rd period heroics by the core, effectively winning more than a handful that should have been lost. They also like to give up early leads, they dominate to great extents at times (as seen in the recent Pens game), showing a ridiculous ability to generate explosive offense at the push of a button, and a complete lack of ability to hold leads when playing back. The stat that shocked everyone was how many times the Hawks had given up the first goal and yet stand at the top of the league.
The Hawks play a certain type of game very well, and they need to have an excuse to play that game. This excuse had been absent against struggling and underperforming teams. It often never shows up within a game, and it has often fallen on Captain Toews to be that motivator to win. Against Eastern teams, the Hawks seem uninterested at puck drop, and it becomes a guessing game as to whether or not they will attempt a win as the game progresses. Sometimes, the hole is to deep, and others, the excuse never comes.
Is this something that a trade can fix? Would finding a replacement for Bickell make everything better, or is the answer in Rockford? I think little things will get better with subtle changes in the roster, much like a bandaid, but it does not house the ability to change the greater issue.
I recently read an article from ESPN that spoke to Q's 600th win. It spoke of Q as a player's coach. One of the main reasons for such a statement was the amount of time off Q likes to give his team. Since everything is alright in the standings, the team gets frequent days off, and allows other players to miss practices on occasion. When the Hawks got a beat-down against the Oilers, they enjoyed their Vegas trip days after. Now I am not saying the players did not deserve that little vacation, but the article did spark a few concerns in my head.
It is my opinion that the constant issue with the Hawks is in their readyness from game to game. Could this article give added evidence to that view?
The article also pointed to the use of the 3rd and 4th lines which are not filled with the same level of talent as the top 2. In order to be ready for the playoffs, the 3rd and 4th lines are going to have to eat some of the top-lines' ice, resulting in a rested and healthy core. For this to happen, the Hawks need to get better at getting leads and protecting them, which requires a greater level of preparation and then defensive practices.
There also needs to be a greater level of synergy.
I realize that this post has gotten a little out of hand, and will therefore take up this topic again at a later point in time. We didn't even touch on goaltending yet. I look forward to hearing your responses to this point so far, which will undoubtedly have an effect on my response to this long-winded post in a couple days.
Cheers, and Happy Holidays!