I thought I’d knock this out today, with two games to end the season and attendance at HockeeNight’s thing on Saturday making Sunday completely useless. So let’s do our full season Atop The Sugar Pile.
The Dizzying Highs
Niklas Hjalmarsson – I named him The CI’s Player Of The Season in last night’s issue. And for me, everything has basically centered around him this campaign. Yes, Duncan Keith is the main cog in the engine, or maybe even the engine himself, that drives the Hawks game. But Keith was allowed to be that this season because Hammer was so good and earning the top assignments. It allowed Keith to dominate lesser competition, and when Keith is controlling the ice everything about the Hawks’ game opens up.
While we can look at almost every other Hawks and find a portion of their season that dipped or had a slump, it’s hard for me to remember a time when Hammer’s game varied 5% either way. The only time he looked vulnerable was lately when he had to be paired with Sheldon Brookbank. But who wouldn’t? Hammer’s poise defensively and with the puck has been startling to watch when you consider where he was two years ago. He never panics, he’s always in position, and his short but assured passes to the middle simple deflate every forecheck and start the Hawks the other way.
Has he been the all around game that Keith has? No. But he’s the best defensive defenseman on the team this year. He might be the best kept secret in the NHL, but I don’t think it’ll stay that way for much longer.
Duncan Keith – It wouldn’t be fair to not include Keith, who shapes more of the Hawks’ game than anyone else. Because he hasn’t had to deal with the toughest assignments, his high-wire high-pressure game has been allowed to flourish. Keith’s assists totals aren’t really the result of great vision and playmaking (it’s why 35 of them are secondary assists), but of turning the play around quickly by pressuring at his blue line or quickly stripping the puck below his goal line and quickly pushing it to the forwards. Especially when he’s stopping the play in the neutral zone, the quick turnaround makes the Hawks lethal. And for the most part, he’s done it all year. His case for a second Norris isn’t quite as strong as some would like to believe, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t be a worthy winner (I’d probably go with Marc-Edouard Vlasic, but that’s just me).
The Terrifying Lows
Brent Seabrook – It’s tired territory at this point, and Seabrook’s game has picked up here lately. Anyone can scream at me about the stats and I know some will. Whatever. The eye-test to me shows a guy who’s been slower than normal and lazy for far too large swaths of the season. The fact that Quenneville wouldn’t deploy Keith against opponents’ best is the biggest indictment, as well as Seabrook playing himself off of Team Canada. It won’t matter if this is a Dave Bolland-like long con and Nacho Seabre brings it in the playoffs. But if he doesn’t, and with Stephen Johns already ragdolling people in the AHL, you could start to wonder just how long Seabs is going to be in town.
Stan Bowman – Still a Stan fan, but this season was not his best work. It started with basically getting the band back together when every other West rival was improving. It continued with providing Q with his blankie of Michal Handzus when it was pretty obvious Stan wanted Pirri to play. It ratcheted up with the superfluous acquisition of Kris Versteeg when this team needed a center and not another wing, and also tying his hands to make any other move. In fact, while I want to pretend Morin’s recent streak proves the folly of using Bollig, it actually pokes more holes in the Steeger acquisition. Oh, and the Bollig extension. Yeah, not the best of times.
The Creamy Middles
Corey Crawford – .926 and 2.00. Those are Crow’s numbers in this calendar year. Did you know that? I didn’t before I looked them up. While he still makes the masses uneasy, it’s hard to argue with those. And that’s over 31 starts, so the charge of “sample size” doesn’t really apply. Sure, they’re skewed under the scope of some bad goals that have gone in lately. But if that’s what he puts up starting next week? We’ll probably be around awhile writing about the Hawks still playing.
Marian Hossa – Hard to believe, or maybe not, but if Hossa scores in one of the final two games it’ll be his first 30-goal season in Chicago. Sure, he was on a pace for about 33 last year if it were a full season, and injuries have made their mark in every year here. But at this point, I take Hossa’s dominance as a given. That’s probably not fair, but that’s what he’s achieved. And this is at 35 after back surgery. It’s funny, I was reading a Lambert article where he mentioned that Hossa is underrated because he’s never been the best player on a team. That’s true. But we don’t underrate him here. A joy to watch.