Every 10 games I will give you an assessment of how the Chicago Blackhawks season is evolving. After the first 10 games they were 5-4-1 and Joel Quenneville said that record accurately reflected their play. After 20, they’re still hovering around .500 at 9-9-2 and his assessment stands up. Here are 10 things to know about the first 20 games:
10. Lining up: Seemingly, the only line combination Quenneville hasn’t tried is Marty Turco at center and Corey Crawford on defense. Otherwise, just about every forward has played with each other and, thankfully, the most radical of lineups -- with Patrick Kane on left wing -- lasted the shortest amount of time. In game 20, Quenneville may have finally settled on his best combination, though he probably found it a week or two ago, at least for his top line.
Jonathan Toews centering Kane and Viktor Stalberg has made an impact, even if it hasn’t always shown up in the box score. Stalberg has emerged as a winger who can handle the load and Toews and Kane remain better together than apart. Dave Bolland has finally returned to his No. 2 center role he was initially penciled in for when he signed a five-year mega contract two offseasons ago. He should center Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa for the near future. With Troy Brouwer’s fall from grace, Quenneville has finally put his best six forwards—at least on paper—together, and that’s the way it should be. The third and fourth lines can alternate some depending on who is playing well, but these lines should stick.
9. The difference: After talking to scouts and league personnel they stressed the Hawks were a different team. That was no surprise. The roster turnover was well documented. But they meant the Hawks were different as in they were going to have to win in different ways than a year ago. Replicating the puck possession dominance of last season may simply be impossible to do. Their plus-9 shot differential was a special statistic that doesn’t happen every year. Currently, the Hawks are plus-2 in that category, which is closer to most teams in the league—even the good ones. Once the Hawks accept they are different, it might go a long way to figuring out new ways to win.
8. Power up: If the Hawks are going to be a more “ordinary” team during five-on-five play then they have to make up the difference somewhere. Despite a brief slump near the end of the latest 10-game segment, the Hawks' power play is picking up the slack. It ranks third in the NHL, converting at a 25.8 percent clip. That makes sense. The Hawks may have lost some depth but they have enough star power to put five on the ice that are as good as anyone.
Quenneville had Kane, Toews, Keith, Sharp, and Tomas Kopecky on a dangerous first unit but when that went a little stale -- as did the games of Keith and Kopecky -- he changed it up. Brent Seabrook and Marian Hossa played with the top unit in game 20 against Anaheim, and it paid off to the tune of two goals. Simply put, if the Hawks fall far from a top-five ranking with the man advantage, their season is in danger. The power play has to continue at its current pace, and the No. 1 unit has plenty of pressure on it to succeed since there are no Kris Versteegs or Andrew Ladds to pick up the slack on the second unit.
7. Mentally speaking Part I:The first 20 games provide more evidence the mental part of professional sports is just as important -- if not more so -- than the physical part. Sharp got off to a hot start because he said he gained confidence from playing well in the Stanley Cup finals. Hossa said he felt as relaxed as ever after getting the championship monkey off his back, and he proved it with a fast start. These were already star players who needed an extra confidence boost, and when they got it, they took it with them to the start of the next season.
6. Mentally speaking Part II: The mental aspect can work against a player as well. Niklas Hjalmarsson openly and honestly admitted he wanted to live up to his much publicized four-year, $14 million deal by, in part, providing more offense. He’s struggled on both ends showing a minus-9 with zero points for his efforts. And then there is Duncan Keith, an admitted big believer in nurturing the mental side of the game. His struggles are confounding as yet another player beginning a major contract with a lot of pressure. In fact, it’s the longest in team history. He’s been beat to the net, his pocket’s been picked, and his defensive coverage around the Hawks' net has been suspect. But he has chipped in on offense with 12 assists. Expect a turnaround sooner rather than later, but not before a few sessions with his guru, Hawks mental coach, Dr. Jim Gary.
5. Stuck at home: One major problem the Hawks are having is getting out of their own zone. One scout said it was their “biggest problem.” Without a dominant puck possession game, the Hawks have had to play in their own end more than last season and the results so far don’t tell a positive story. Too many goals have been given up around their net with coverage being poor at best. It’s hard to blame them, this group of defenders hasn’t had to play tough minutes in their own end in quite some time. They are slowly getting better at it, but at what cost? Tight games have slipped away in the third period due to these breakdowns. Improvement has to happen, and fast.
4. Bucking the stats: There are certain traditions in the NHL -- even since the rule changes after the lockout -- that have always held true for good teams. Score first and you’ll win the majority of your games. Take a lead into the third period and wining much more than just the majority should be the norm. The Hawks are not following those trends. When they score first they’ve won just 46 percent of their games. That’s 26th in the league. It gets worse: When they lead after two periods they win 60 percent of the time, which ranks 29th in the NHL. For perspective, half the league -- 15 teams -- haven’t lost a game when leading after two periods.
3. The competition: Some may have predicted a resurgence in St. Louis, but not many thought the Hawks would have to fight Columbus for divisional superiority. Detroit is off to a predictable start having a healthier roster than a season ago and Nashville will always hang around. Incredibly, the Hawks have played exactly five more games than all four other Central division teams yet are in the middle of the pack in points, just three ahead of last place. One or two more games played wouldn’t be a big deal but that’s a potential 10 more points for all those teams. That’s a huge deal. Simply put, the Hawks have to reassess their goals. Making the playoffs will be a dogfight, almost simply by the mathematics of it all.
2. United ugly: Teams can win on the road in the NHL, but what the Hawks have allowed to happen at home is almost criminal. What’s the best attendance in the league supposed to mean if it doesn’t help win some home games? The Hawks aren’t in a rebuilding mode. They proved their home dominance a year ago and so maybe this is the best sign they are a different team: seven home losses already as opposed to seven at the United Center all last season. They say they are being too cute at home, so get ugly. Fancy doesn’t win games. Hard work does. That will give the crowd something to cheer for and return the roar to the west side in some tight third periods. It's been a meow so far.
1. Coaching: This is where Quenneville earns his new paycheck. No surprise there. Not many Stanley Cup winning coaches will have to say good-bye to 10 players and then work in a new group while also dealing with a fan base that expects a return to the promised land. After all, it was general manager Stan Bowman who stressed the core was still intact and having that was more important than anything.
Of course, he was right, but teams don’t win championships without becoming teams. Quenneville has some work to do in getting players to accept roles as he did last year. It is starting to come. Jack Skille is understanding what he needs to be in a third or fourth line role. Bryan Bickell and Troy Brouwer are being more physical than earlier in the season when scoring goals may have been on their minds. Quenneville was a master at getting it done from Versteeg to Dustin Byfuglien last year. Now, he has to do it all over again. Though some may disagree, it is slowly starting to come together, but no longer is it early. Quenneville has to stress exactly that: We’re a quarter of the way done with the season and a rough start needs to turn into a successful middle or it will be a quick end.