CHICAGO -- When it rains, it pours.
The loss of star forward Patrick Sharp for up to a month comes at a time when the Chicago Blackhawks are playing some of their worst hockey, losing their last four games. Although, coach Joel Quenneville did like his team’s performance in a 3-2 overtime loss Sunday to the Detroit Red Wings, so maybe they are trending in the right direction.
But then came the Sharp news.
It’s still not completely clear how he was injured, but Quenneville didn’t dispute the notion Sharp, who was busy at the time scoring his 20th goal of the season, was hit on his left hand by Jiri Hudler. Quenneville also didn’t dismiss the idea that Sharp hurt it further when he fell to the ice later in the period.
“He could have,” Quenneville said after practice on Monday. “Hard to say.”
At the end of the day it’s of little matter how it happened, just that it did. Sharp’s production is going to be missed to say the least. Obviously, there are two ways the Hawks can fill the void until he comes back: within the organization or outside.
From the outside
The loss of Sharp doesn’t change anything for general manager Stan Bowman: he still needs a center for his second line. But does it change the urgency for a trade? It’s doubtful.
If Sharp was lost for the season or until even late March or early April it would make sense for Bowman to overpay now and get a top six forward. Again, preferably a center. But all teams lose key players, in fact the Hawks are fortunate to be as healthy as they’ve been. See the Pittsburgh Penguins for real health issues.
If Bowman picked up the phone now you better believe the price would be sky-high for any of the available good forwards. Other teams have no urgency to trade with the deadline still six weeks away and they know Bowman’s predicament: he was short at center and possibly wing before Sharp’s injury and he’s even worse off now.
On the other hand, if the Hawks were looking to add anyway why not do some due diligence and see if one desperate team would be willing to part with a player for the right return. There’s little doubt Bowman is at least making those cursory calls. In fact, he’s been doing it all along.
The Carolina Hurricanes might be that team. As of Monday they were languishing in 14th place in the East, 11 points behind the final playoff spot and just one point out of the cellar. They have several free-agents-to-be who the Hawks might be interested in, including former Hawk Tuomo Ruutu.
Ruutu was a first-round pick in 2001 and played for the Hawks until 2007-08 before he was traded for Andrew Ladd. Ruutu may have underachieved with Chicago, but most of his years were spent before the new regime took over, easily an excuse for any Hawk at the time. And he’s on pace to match or exceed his career high in goals. He has 14 in 43 games on one of the worst teams in the league.
Ruutu is gritty and can play center or wing. He could play the left side when Marcus Kruger returns and move to center when Sharp is healthy. Or he could take over the second-line center position right away and be what Marian Hossa needs next to him. He’s not the truest of playmakers, but he’d free Hossa from all the defensive responsibilities he’s endured playing with the rag-tag group of centers the Hawks have employed between top gun Toews and third-line guru Dave Bolland.
Ruutu’s salary cap hit is $3.8 million, so it’s in line with what the Hawks can spend while still having some money left over for a defenseman and maybe another forward. But here’s the catch: he won’t come cheap.
As documented previously, a trade in January with little desperation from the opposing club -- though Carolina undoubtedly would like to save some money -- is going to cost. Think a top prospect and a first-round pick to start. It may even cost an NHL player as well, or two top prospects.
Does Bowman have the gumption to lay it on the line like that? He’s going to have to make a bold move soon enough and he could make or break his reputation during this trade market. Smart money says he’ll do it because he’s been preparing for it since the offseason when the Hawks deemed the free-agent class of centers not worthy of their money, not after Brad Richards signed with New York at least.
If there isn’t an immediate trade then the Hawks will have to fill Sharp’s loss from within…
Playoff hero Ben Smith gets another chance with the Hawks as he will take Sharp’s roster spot when they take the ice next on Tuesday against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Smith should be given a chance to play with the top six forwards, but it sounds like Jimmy Hayes might get first crack.
“Hayes might get a better opportunity,” Quenneville said. “He’s been really good for us in every game he’s played.”
Kruger isn’t expected back for several more days and Quenneville liked how his top line -- Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Viktor Stalberg -- played against Detroit, so expect Michael Frolik to remain at center on the second line with Hossa and Hayes on the wing.
Smith will probably start on the third or fourth line but may see time at center as well. From here on out, now that they’ve gotten their feet wet, performance will dictate who gets the quality minutes among the young players. Andrew Shaw also is part of the mix.
How would a Smith-Shaw-Hayes line look? The Hawks haven’t had to go with a new youth movement in quite some time, but the injuries are not surprisingly adding up after a healthy run.
At the end of the day the Hawks need both a trade and help from within organization to achieve their goals, and the loss of Sharp just intensifies those needs further.