Halfway through the preseason, and it’s taken me that and months–perhaps even a year or more–to realize what bothers me so much about whatever “the plan,” the Hawks have here. What can I say? I’m a slow learner, runner, and just about everything else.
Perhaps it’s the surprise at just how little buzz I or anyone else feels just more than a week out from the season starting. From Crawford’s injury to the lack of activity over the summer that would rise above a beer belch, to Connor Murphy’s injury and whatever else, it seems the only thoughts we give the Hawks right now are which tickets we’re going to sell and just how bad they might be. It’s not exactly greeting the season with glee and a hug.
And this weekend, I finally figured out why, at least for myself. All summer, and really last year as well when the Hawks failed to do anything to improve their lot in life (which would have been folly anyway), the line from Madison St. was that the Hawks wanted to keep their powder dry because they had to sign Nick Schmaltz and Alex DeBrincat to long-term extensions and there were other kids they were excited about.
And I started to play that out in my head. And I’m sure next summer sees both of those players get their new contracts. And this season we’ll find out whatever Henri Jokiharju is, maybe. Adam Boqvist has already shown what he could possibly do. There’s Ian Mitchell at Denver. And I guess I get it.
But locking in all those players just locks in the team already have. And that team is already not good enough to do anything anyone’s going to write poetry about. The Hawks are basically holding out to keep this team that will barely scratch out a playoff place if everything goes right. They’re afraid of breaking THAT team up, not the one that actually did do things people wrote things about in a lyrical fashion, because it’s already gone. And I’m not convinced they know the difference.
Because as much as we love Schmaltz and Top Cat, they’re probably second-line players. Maybe Top Cat maxes out as a top-line winger. Maybe if Schmaltz absolutely balls out he’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. But as we’ve seen with RNH, he’s a #2 center on a team that wants to do anything of note.
Maybe two years down the line Jokiharju, Mitchell, and Boqvist have completely transformed the blue line, and maybe that’s good enough to make up for the forward corps deficiencies. Maybe. But how big are those deficiencies when Toews is 34 and Kane is 33? What is Keith at that point?
Nowhere in the pipeline is a true #1 center. We don’t even really know if there’s a #1 defenseman, though at least they can hope on a couple guys. You can’t win without those things. Maybe Collin Delia is a future #1 goalie? How many years is that away?
You can get those types of players through any fashion, of course. The Hawks likely won’t be able to draft one because they’ll never be bad enough to really be in the running for a top-three pick unless the bottom falls out in a way we can’t predict or the balls bounce in a freakish (read: rigged) way. They don’t have the mustard to trade for one, or so it seems.
But there were two franchise-turning players available this summer. The Hawks wouldn’t even put themselves in the room with them. Or maybe they couldn’t. They sure seemed to want everyone to know they weren’t after John Tavares or Erik Karlsson. How often do those types of players become available as the finished product? Why would you not at least attempt to see what it would take? Why would you choose the unknown over the known?
Look at the Bears and Khalil Mack. He’s the finished article. There are no questions. When a generational talent is out there, you go get him. Suddenly, the Sharks are West favorites. Worry about your “possibles” tomorrow. Today is for “definites.” What’s the plan for the Hawks to get those types of players? Is it bottoming out? Sure doesn’t seem like it. It’s not signing one, clearly. It’s not trading for one, clearly. So what’s the plan?
Right now it looks like the Hawks have a plan to build a team that’s a 6th-seed at best for a few years. Boy that’s exciting.
-When Q first started hinting that he was not ruling out Boqvist making the team straight-up, because I’m a cynical sort I thought it was just another thumbed-nose at his GM Stan Bowman. He’s done it before. “Oh, Stan wants this young d-man in Jokiharju to make the team so I’m gonna choose another one BECAUSE I’M JUST THAT SMART.”
But the more I thought it over, the more I want to think that Quenneville just sees the way the league is going and how teams are going to have to be built. We’re not far away from the stay-at-home, conservative blue-liner going the way of Gimbels. Some point soon, teams are just going to dress six or seven d-men who can all move and all play with the puck and make their teams play faster. It’s the only way to counter more and more forward groups that are entirely made up of racing bikes.
I’d like to think Q knows this, and I’d like to think he knows that he really only has Gustafsson and Keith on a good day who can do that. There’s always room for more speed, and whatever the big problems Boqvist might have at the top level he can move and he can play with the puck. He can get the Hawks out of trouble himself. And they need more of it, wherever they can get it and whatever form it comes in.
Which is one reason I’d like to see the Hawks dress seven d-men most nights. First off, they don’t have 12 forwards. Andreas Martinsen or John Hayden or David Kampf or Matthew Highmore will be flanking Marcus Kruger, and no one’s going to give a flying fornication if they only have to use one of them. Meanwhile, when Murphy returns healthy it opens up a spot for another d-man, and while it’s not saying much they’re at least of higher quality than whatever is pretending to be a fourth-line winger right now.
It provides more shelter for Jokiharju. It gives you more flexibility to go offensive or defensive when the situation calls.
The real point is that extra forward spot can be used to give any of Saad, Kane, Top Cat, Schmaltz, Sikura, an extra few shifts per game. Even Toews with Kruger playing wing for a spot. It’s akin to batting your best hitter 2nd. Over a full season that extra ABs add up. Those extra shifts would add up. And really, games and standings can be decided on a handful of goals here or there. Why wouldn’t you give your best players more chances to get them? An extra two or three shifts a night isn’t going to paralyze anyone for a season.
This won’t happen of course, because the Hawks dressed seven d-men once last year and they gave up a touchdown to the Devils. But the case is right there for it.