By JESSE ROGERS
Every 10 games (or so) I’ll give you an assessment of the Blackhawks. We’ve hit the Olympic break with a quarter of the season left to be played before the highly anticipated playoffs begin. Here are 10 more things to know about the first 60 (ok, 61) games of the 41-15-5 Blackhawks:
10. Deal me In: Unless Nick Leddy doesn’t exist or Kim Johnsson retires tomorrow, Stan Bowman pulled off one heck of a trade in his first major move as general manager. I don’t think I’d be out of line to say it would have been a good deal if Cam Barker had been traded for one OR the other player. To get both was a steal. Now, Barker was the third pick in the draft (Andrew Ladd was the fourth) in 2004 after Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin, so there is some pedigree there, but he wasn’t exactly lighting the hockey world on fire. Bottom line, they traded a minor contributor for this particular Hawks team for one who will be a major factor for the Hawks down the stretch. In two games, already, Johnsson played on both special teams and played well enough, in general, to help the Hawks win both. Plus, he scored a goal. Nice job, Stan.
9. The Defense (needs) Rest: I know there will be a contingent of fans who want to see the Olympic Hawks eliminated from competition as soon as possible. Who could blame them? Especially when it comes to Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. The defense, in general, hasn’t played its best since embarking on the January eight-game road trip. More time on the ice is probably not what the doctor would be ordering for the Hawks’ stars at this point in the season. It’s why the trade for Kim Johnsson was so critical. I’d be shocked if Seabrook and Keith’s minutes don’t decrease after the Winter Games. Look for Johnsson to pick up the extra time.
8. To the Beach: It wasn’t that long ago people were wondering if the Olympic break was a bad thing for Hawks momentum. Now, it would be hard to make the case it’s not needed. It may not matter for teams not interested in winning the Cup. Those teams aren’t expected to play at a certain level night in and night out, but the elite teams have set the bar high. The Hawks in 2006 didn’t need an Olympic break; this team does. When they get back, it’s all about getting ready for the second season. Players already have been told no personal appearances around town after March 15 in preparation for the long haul. Look for the possibility -- if Canada, Slovakia, or the U.S. gets to the gold medal game on Sunday, February 28 -- of the Hawks telling anyone playing in that game to skip March 2 against the Islanders and take an extra day. They’ll need it. It’s what Mike Babcock did with his Swedes when they won gold in 2006.
7. The Hoss: I can’t remember if I’ve included Marian Hossa in my past 10-game assessments, and I don’t care. He’s so good he deserves more ink. Now leading the league in shorthanded goals and still averaging nearly a point a game, Hossa is rounding into shape. Remember, though he got a late start, each of the last two seasons he played longer than any Hawk and now he has the Olympics. I expect a sharper Hossa on breakaways and shootouts down the stretch, and his total package will be complete.
6. Hidden Stats: Despite missing on Sunday, Jonathan Toews leads the league with seven shootout goals. The Hawks are tied for second most shootouts in the league with 13. They’re 8-5 in those games, including their last three wins…The Hawks are on pace for only 288 power-play attempts after getting 360 last season … Through 61 games, Duncan Keith has spent more time on the ice than any other player in the NHL. He’s played 1,633 minutes and 59 seconds. That’s 1:48 more than Jay Bouwmeester, who’s played one more game.
5. Wishes come true: Troy Brouwer won’t say it, but he has to be thinking it. Life was good on the top line until Joel Quenneville changed things up and put Patrick Sharp with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Now Sharp has taken off. There isn’t a winger in the league who wouldn’t want to be playing with the two 21-year olds. Their chemistry is uncanny. Now Quenneville has to find the right combinations for his other lines, especially for Marian Hossa. Injuries have thrown a wrench into the process, but all should be healed and ready after the break. The competition for playing time should be fierce, and Quenneville isn’t letting anyone off the hook.
4. Doggy House: In the two games before the break, Joel Quenneville benched two players: Tomas Kopecky for taking an unsportsmanlike penalty and Kris Versteeg for “the way he was playing,” as Quenneville put it. We haven’t seen much of a dog house with the head coach this year, but this is the time of year when things begin to change. Playing time is doled out not by salaries but by performance, at both ends of the ice. It’s good to see Quenneville not mince words or use double talk in showing his displeasure. Of the Kopecky penalty, he simply said, “We have to be smarter.” I think Q meant “he” more than “we,” but the point was made.
3. Human Energy: This may fall under the next 10-game assessment, but I couldn’t help myself. There is a ball of energy putting himself through a “mini training camp” in Madison, Wisc., as you read this. I would hate to be the first opponent Adam Burish hits in his expected return after the Olympics. He’ll be taking out five months of frustration on whoever it is. Perfect time for an energy boost to his line and this team. I remember saying and writing that we would be able to judge his loss in hindsight a lot better than predicting it. It’s not like we knew the Hawks would be missing X amount of goals or assists. He’s the quintessential intangible, and I think the jury is in. He was missed.
2. Goalie Talk: It hasn’t gone away, in fact it’s flared up again. Antti Niemi started the final four games before the Olympic break but only the final one raised eyebrows. With back to back games and a two-week break, it would be more than understandable if Joel Quenneville let each goalie have a game. It’s why his claim he was just going with the “hot” hand rings hollow. It may have been true, in part, but it certainly seems it was a test for Niemi. Can he handle a playoff type workload? They won all four games, but three were by shootout--something they don’t employ in the postseason. But shootouts are about pressure, and Niemi is 5-1 in such situations this year. One thing, in my opinion, has emerged: Niemi is more likely to bail out his defense after a mistake than Huet. That could be the deciding factor. Barring a trade, March will tell a lot about who plays in April. Five months have not given us the answer. The final month better. That leads me to …
1. Stat of the Year: I’ve had a season long theory that it isn’t as easy playing in net for the Hawks as you might think. They give up only an average of 24.4 shots per game, easily the lowest in the league. There are times when half periods go by without the Hawk’s goalie seeing a shot. And then they are asked to make a big save. Both Antti Niemi and Cristobal Huet, along with just about any other goaltender, will tell you, it’s a very hard thing to do. That’s been the case, anecdotally, forever in the NHL. Thanks to the Elias Sports Bureau, I’ve come up with evidence to back up the idea that more shots is better than less when it comes to winning. This is eye popping: When a team allows 40 shots or more in a game this season, their record is 89-31. That’s right, 89-31. When they allow 20 shots or less, that record is only 51-44. Counterintuitive? That’s an understatement. Now, an easy case can be made that the record when allowing 40 or more shots is misleading. When teams have the lead, especially in the third period, they tend to play in their own zone more and give up a good number of shots, though maybe not great scoring chances. But that latter record, 51-44 when allowing 20 or less, is very telling. Those 18 shot games are tricky. If the Hawks trade for a new goalie, he will have to get used to this style. Unless some obvious stud comes on the market, I’m for letting the two they have fight it out in March and the winner gets April and beyond. And don’t worry, I had them run those numbers three times.