Hockey

VS

 

Records: Panthers 20-7-4 (44) Hawks 14-13-5 (33)

Puck Drops: 7:00 Both Nights (Tue/Thur)

TV/Radio: NBCSN and WGN 720

You Sure Do Got A Purdy Mouth, Boy: Litter Box Cats

 

Not much has changed for these two teams in the week that’s passed since they last met, other than the Panthers racking up 2 more points and the Hawks attempting to divide by zero. The Swamp Cats split with the Preds, and then lost a one shot against Tampa Bay on Sunday, giving up 3 goals in the 3rd when they’d had them on the ropes in the first two periods. The loss Sunday puts the Panthers 4 points behind the Bolts in the division, back with Carolina.

Sergi Bobrovsky was in net for both losses, as he continues his streak of uneven play. The win came on the shoulders of a 2-0 Chris Driedger shutout of Nashville, which while admittedly not a difficult thing to do, is still more than Bob has been able to accomplish of late. While the numbers between the two tenders continue to drift further apart, Coach Q still seems reluctant to turn the reigns over fully to Driedger, content to let Bob work things out on his own.

On the forward end of things, after I wrote about Aleksander Barkov last week, he proceeded to drop 9 points in 5 games, so at least for once it seems like I knew what I was talking about. 6 of those points came against the Hawks, who seemed completely unwilling or unable to do anything at all to slow him down in the slot, and he absolutely did not miss his chances.

The line centered by Barkov continues to be an unholy terror since Q added what apparently was the missing link in Carter Verhaeghe. The trio of Barkov, Verhaeghe and Anthony Duclair has been carrying the play at even strength at over a 63% clip. Add in a total of 19 points over the last 5 starts and you can see why Q is a fan. The speed and creativity that Barkov possesses compliments the North/South games of Duclair and Verhaeghe. Once they’re in your zone, they’re extremely hard to remove, especially when they’re backed up by Mackenzie Weegar and Aaron Ekblad on the blue line.

As for the Hawks, they continue to get beat down by the March schedule, dropping both games in Tampa last week. They couldn’t solve Andrei Vasilevskiy, and much as they’ve done all season the Bolts capitalized on every mistake the Hawks D made. Both Kevin Lankinen and Malcom Subban were given the chance to right the ship, but neither were able to do so, both being aided and abetted by the D in front of them. That brings the March record to an unsightly 2-6-1, and into a standings tie with Columbus, who’s managed to take 2 in a row from Carolina in the last week.

The reason behind the points drought is more of the same, as the Hawks are unable to carry the play for any extended length of time at 5 on 5 (with the 1st two periods last Saturday being the exception, more on that in a bit). When the power play suddenly runs dry and the goaltending has regressed to the mean this is what you get. We’ve spoken at great lengths about where the deficiencies lie with this Hawks team, and with Kevin Lankinen no longer able to paper over the possession issues things become even more glaring in the light of day.

As grim as it seems now, the Hawks are almost out of this Hell Month, and critical games against the Jackets, Stars and Preds await on the other side. We’ve reached the spot in the season where pretty much every point is desperately needed by the Hawks. They’ve allowed their lead to slip to the point where there’s no more margin for error at all, and for a young team like this we will really get to see what they’re made of. There’s definitely a spark there that shows at times what this team could really be.

There was a period in the game against Tampa this past Saturday when the Hawks looked like the possession monsters of old. The advanced stats bear this out, as in the 1st period the Hawks topped the CORSI list with a 58% share, and then went hog wild in the 2nd with a 69.57%. Sadly, Vasilevskiy was up to the task, and the Hawks entered the 3rd down 3-0. It’s something we haven’t seen since the 2nd game in the 1st series against the Jackets where the Hawks ended up with almost a 59% share for the entire game.

There have been flashes this season of the Hawks being able to carry the play for extended periods of time against higher quality teams like Carolina and Tampa. They key here is doing it on the regular against all of them. If a majority of the beat writers are correct, and this young team truly is “buying in” to what Colliton is selling then they’re going to have to show it now. Florida is a solid team from the blue line out, but Bobrovsky has been mediocre at best. If the Hawks can keep the play in their end at all, he’s ripe for the picking. We know that the Hawks D is paper thin, so the forwards absolutely have to convert when they get the chances. Time is running out, show us what you got.

 

Let’s Go Hawks

 

Everything Else

One of the more ironic things about Chicago sports is how often the teams in this town get referred to as “storied franchises” despite most of them not really having great stories. Run down the list and not a single of the major sports teams in the city have won more than six championships in their given sport, and only the Blackhawks and Bulls have shown any level of world dominance style success in anyone’s recent memory (the Cubs may get there, but please don’t try to convince me they’re already there).

I am normally an overly optimistic sports fan when it comes to my teams, so it’s been kind of a weird juxtaposition for me to hold the belief that my favorite teams are “destination teams” for players while also realizing they don’t quite have the history to back up that belief. Add the fact that the various ownership and management groups of the Chicago franchises don’t have the best track records – especially among fans – and maybe Chicago sports franchises have a reputation they haven’t quite earned.

Which is why I was intrigued by this poll posted on Twitter by Cheer The Anthem last week:

It’s a very clouded question, because outside of Theo/Jed, Chicago’s  sports teams really have very questionable front offices. GarPax chased an elite player in Jimmy Butler out of town rather than ever making a real effort at building a championship team around him, so I’m not in the least bit surprised that they were low on the list. Even as a White Sox fan I was surprised Rick Hahn finished so high, because the question was referencing the last three years, and not just one. Hahn couldn’t build a winner around Chris Sale, Jose Abreu, Adam Eaton, Jose Quintana, and other young, controllable players, so one year of very good trades only makes up for so much of that.

Honestly, I voted for Ryan Pace, not because I think he’s done an incredible job with the Bears in the last three years, but because he’s the only GM on the list who has his team essentially where he expected to have them three years ago, and the Bears seem to be headed in the right direction. Again, I’m an optimist.

But honestly, I think the fact that Stan Bowman won the vote there is kind of laughable. Now, I know the list isn’t exactly stuffed full of incredible GMs, but Bowman has been damn near pitiful over the past three years. Second City Hockey has made posts tracking the major moves Bowman has made over the past three years, so I went back and reviewed those lists (see them here – 2015, 2016, 2017), and basically rated them as either Good, Whatever, or Bad using entirely my own opinion. This was actually pretty easy, and I think most people would probably agree with my evaluations.

For brevity I won’t post my rating for every single transaction, but here’s how it shook out – 2015 had seven good moves, seven whatever moves, and eight bad moves, so I’d chalk that up as a “whatever” year that leans a bit toward bad. The good moves included signing Artemi Panarin, the Brandon Saad trade, and re-signing Anisimov. The bad moves included the Brent Seabrook extension, Patrick Sharp trade, and the David Rundblad extension. Seriously, the Seabrook extension was so bad, even when it was signed. The nearly $1-million raise for an aging player, plus the max term, and the full NMC, all when StanBo wasn’t even negotiating against anybody. Just embarrassing, and it clearly hasn’t aged well.

The moves made in 2017 were mostly “whatever” moves, and I didn’t actually rate anything as bad. The two moves that I consider especially good were the Scott Darling trade and Panarin/Saad swap. The Darling trade was pretty much masterful work, because to get a third round pick for a guy that otherwise would’ve walked for free is a really good move. The other big move of the year, the Hjalmarsson/Murphy swap, I graded as Whatever, which is probably bad, but Murphy has been fine this year and there is time for that move to pan out. And Stan started 2018 off right with a pretty good deal on Wednesday night, swapping Richard Panik for Anthony Duclair, making his team younger and faster while also saving cap space.

In the middle of all of that was 2016, which rated out with four good moves, four bad moves, and eleven whatever moves. But don’t let those numbers fool you, 2016 was awful for Bowman, and really could end up proving as the year that ultimately un-did all that he had built up here in Chicago. The best move he made was trading Andrew Shaw for two draft picks, one of which became our Special Boy Top Cat. The next best move was trading Jeremy Morin for Richard Panik. Panik hasn’t been awful, but that move is hardly anything to write home about. I also rated re-signing Q as good, so if you wanna take that out since it isn’t directly roster related, there’s only three good moves. But the bad moves were very, very bad.

Starting with the Andrew Ladd trade, which basically undid most of the goodness of the original Brandon Saad trade. Marko Dano hasn’t quite delivered on some of the promised potential, but I think his game was well suited for the Hawks’ style, and there’s a chance that had he been afforded more playing time with the Hawks in Chicago, he’d be a serviceable-or-maybe-good forward for them now, and probably at least better than the likes of Tommy Wingels or Lance Bouma. Plus the Hawks also gave up a first round pick in the deal. From the moment it was completed, it was a trade that was going to need a Cup to justify it. But Ladd brought them basically nothing worth mentioning down the stretch of the season and the Hawks were bounced by St. Louis in the first round. Little did we know this might have been the first domino that started the downfall of the Hawks “dynasty.”

Then there was the Philip Danault trade, which basically made the eventual overpriced Marcus Kruger contract extension not just necessary, but really Stan’s only option if the team was gonna have any semblance of a checking line in 2016-17. Trading Danault – who was already a very promising defensive forward with the potential to be Kruger 2.0 but with a bit more offensive upside – and other assets for Tomas Fleischmann and Dale Weise proved to be another big mistake. Weise and “Flash” were supposed to provide enviable forward depth for the Hawks as they prepared to go on a run to repeat as Cup champs. Instead they, like Ladd, didn’t provide much worth mentioning and were gone in the summer. Danault has gone on to be good bottom six forward for the Habs, with 22 points in 42 games this year and a CF of 54.56%. Ho hum.

But the real killer came in the summer with the trade that might end up defining Stan Bowman’s time as Blackhawks GM even more than his rebuilding of the team for the two Cup wins, at least in the minds of most of the hooligans who write words on this website. We always knew trading Bryan Bickell was going to be hard, and definitely was going to require some sweetening. It shouldn’t have required sweetening in the form of Teuvo Teravainen. Teuvo isn’t exactly a generational talent, but he’s been very good for Carolina over the past year and a half. He posted an encouraging 42 points in 81 games last year, and has been on a tear this year with 33 points (11G, 22A) in 41 games. He’s also posted a 55.69 CF% this season. That kind of production and possession dominance would be huge for the Blackhawks this year, but instead we have to watch the NHL Twitter account continually tweet videos of the original Very Special Boy do good things for the fuckin Hurricanes. AND I JUST GOT A TEUVO JERSEY LIKE A 10 MONTHS BEFORE THAT. I will not forgive Stan for this.

Now, every GM is prone to bad moves, and probably even prone to a series of them from time to time. Peter Chiarelli has chased bona fide stars away from his teams more times than we can count, and Jim Benning has only made like one good deal so far during his tenure in Vancover. But what Stan Bowman did in 2016, in essentially two trades, was plant a fucking iceberg in the path of the Titanic ship he had built. Again, imagine what this team would look like with Teuvo and Danault in tow instead of Wingels and/or Bouma. That kind of legitimate forward depth would help make up for a lot of the shortcomings on the Hawks embattled blue line, and probably have them closer to being a contender than a last place team.

And look, I don’t mean to say that Stan is a bad GM in general, because he isn’t. He did manage to retool his 2010 Cup winner into a team that was basically the best in the NHL over a 3-year stretch from 2013-2015, so maybe he can still do that here. And at least some of his bad moves were only made necessary because the Loonie went to shit, and took the NHL’s salary cap with it. But there isn’t much exciting talent in the pipeline, and the best players on his NHL squad are declining much too quickly for anyone’s liking. And he put himself in this position.

So don’t go telling me that Stan Bowman is the best GM in Chicago over the last three years. He literally took a Stanley Cup Champion and stripped it down to what is currently barely better than a last place team, all while thinking, as far as we can tell, that he was making his team better. He just about slammed his team’s championship window shut while trying to keep it open. At least his last name still carries some weight in the NHL.

Everything Else

Box Score

Natural Stat Trick

Corsica

This is going to sound strange. But strange is what we deal in around these parts. The Hawks really weren’t that bad tonight. In fact, for the first two periods, they were pretty good. It’s just that whenever something can go wrong for the Hawks right now, it’s going to horribly. When you have to lean on you backup goalie for three straight games, he’s probably going to let in a softie. So there’s the Caps’ second goal, which changed the outlook of the game. Still, you’d like to see a team like this respond a little better than giving up another one 29 seconds later, but we’ll get to that. Toss in a power play that can’t hit a bull in the ass with a snow-shovel right now, some players that are being asked to do the wrong things, and you get what looks like an ugly loss. The time for consolation is running out quickly. Hockey remains weird, and because of that there’s no guarantee that things will bend back the way that the Hawks play really suggests it should.

-While the second Caps’ goal–The Fels Motherfuck is on a real streak this season–appeared to be the game-changer, really it was the power play in the 2nd period when it was still a 3-1 game. Actually it was two of them. And the Hawks power play didn’t do anything. Like it’s been doing, or not doing I s’pose, all season.

What’s most frustrating is it’s obvious to everyone, and it must be obvious to the players, that the coaches have no idea where to go. Every power play the Hawks try something different. First we had Kane on a point, though moving down to the right half-boards with Saad on the left. But what good does having Saad on the left do? He’s a left-handed shot. The next power play saw Kane on the other side with Schmaltz where he was. A third power play saw the Hawks move two guys below the net.

We see this every game. The Hawks have new personnel or a new look or both on every chance. It doesn’t suggest that they’ve got a lot of plans. It suggests they don’t have any plans, and that translates to the players. If the coaches have no confidence in what they’re putting out there, why would they? And it’s costing them points, because for the most part at evens, the Hawks are where they need to be. Yes, I know, but it’s true.

-The new lines were… well, the new lines. It’s hard to get a read after one game. Toews’s line looked exactly like we thought, didn’t have a role. Schmaltz made some things happen with Top Cat, but they also could get overpowered down low in both zones.

-The problems are still on defense. All of Forsling, Rutta, and Franson got exposed in ways that the coaches simply refuse to see. Rutta and Forsling cannot handle anything but lower competition, but found themselves out against Backstrom’s line a lot of the night. And the Hawks seemed happy to have it that way. And ti’s not the first time we’ve seen that, because Tyler Seguin’s line spent two games making them look like Glass Joe. The Hawks best d-man right now is Connor Murphy, and it’s about time the Hawks start treating him like that.

For the Caps third goal, which made this hill really steep, came from Franson’s inability to recognize danger and his Snuffleupagus-like feet. Keith had pinched down the boards and no forward had covered for him. But Franson has to recognize that, instead he was sinking down into the offensive zone. So when the go-route was thrown for Wilson, he’s never going to catch that. He needs to be a free safety there. He was also slow getting back into position for the Caps’ 5th, trailing Kuznetsov.

You simply can’t keep asking Franson to take anything more than third pairing assignments, if that. The Hawks haven’t discovered gold here where no one else could see it. Three teams have decided that Franson is no better than a #7. There’s a reason for that. Stop thinking you’re geniuses. You’re not.

-While the Hawks certainly controlled the possession game for the first 40, most of it was pretty much restricted to the outside. This is where the annoying “Annette Frontpresence” discussion always rears it’s ugly head. I don’t know that the Hawks lack guys who can get to the net. Panik can’t buy one right now. Anisimov is Anisimov. Bouma and Wingels are what they are. You would think Saad would be another, but he isn’t really, is he? Most of Saad’s goals seem to come on the rush or elsewhere. He doesn’t score as many tips and rebounds as you feel like he should. And this was the problem the Hawks had with him the first time.

It’s an ugly scoreline for sure. And the 3rd period wasn’t pretty. There are serious problems here, but a good portion of it is the Hawks own making. Things have to turn sharpish, but it’s there. At least I think it is.

 

 

Everything Else

Behold, the next stop on this crazy train through the Blackhawks’ so-called defense corps is upon us! Today we take a look at the only remaining Swedish defenseman that dons the Four Feathers, or at least the only one worth giving half a shit about anymore (if Gustafsson and Svedberg still do anything for you, I am truly sorry). Gustav Forsling went from fourth round pick to impressive prospect, meaning Jim Benning couldn’t wait to trade him back when he was convincing himself that his ’96 Camry of a team was a Porsche. Now a year into his NHL career, we’ve seen that there is still some work to do for Gustav. Let’s dig in.

2016-17 Stats

38 GP – 2 G, 3 A, 5 P

48.5 CF%, 58.1% oZS%, 49.1 dZS%

ATOI: 14:49

A Look Back: Forsling clearly wasn’t great last season, but it could’ve been a lot worse than it was. Not being able to break 50% of the shot share is obviously a concern, especially when starting nearly 60% of his shifts in the offensive zone, but it’s no secret the Blackhawks overall were not the possession monster they’ve been last year, so that ended up being only a -2.9% CFrel for Fors. As a 20-year-old adjusting to a new country, new ice size, and a whole new level of competition, I will take that as a starting point, because the assumption is it should only improve from here.

Strangely, one of the most encouraging aspects of last season for Fors was the fact that he accepted his demotion to Rockford. He had a clause built into his ELC with the Hawks that if they tried to demote him from the NHL squad, he could opt to go back to Sweden in play there instead of accepting a demotion to the A. I try not to read too much into this shit, but the fact that he went down there instead of taking his rock and going home shows me that he realizes being in the Hawks system is important. It may have taken some convincing from the Hawks at some point, but at least it happened. Forsling is no doubt the Hawks best prospect on the blue line, so having him in their hands to develop somehow is important. He also was pretty good for the Hogs, putting up 1 goal and 7 assists in 30 games.

For a while when I watched video of Forsling, I almost saw him as Duncan Keith-lite. I have since come down from that high. But for better or worse, I see a whole lot of Nick Leddy in him now. Forsling’s play last year was about what you’d expect from a young player adjusting to all of the change that comes at the NHL level. He looked lost at times, made some mistakes with the puck, and yet still was able to show some flashes of his skill. If you remember when Leddy first came up, he was a lot like that. In fact, Leddy’s rookie numbers are eerily similar to Forsling’s; in 46 games he put up 4 goals and 3 assists, and compiled a 50.3 CF% (-5.3 CFrel%) with a 62.2 oZS%.

The Leddy saga ended poorly for the Blackhawks, as they ended up having to trade him for a dude named after a dance and a wet sock or two. Forsling can end up being the same type of player as Leddy, which in reality is badly needed on this Blackhawks team, because Keith isn’t what he once was and Kempny can’t provide all the speed by himself. The concern is that Q might fuck it up again, like he did with Leddy before and Kempny just last year.

A Look Ahead: This season is going to be hugely important for Forsling. If he can take the next step toward the potential that had Vancouver fans mad at ol’ Jimbo when they traded him, he could be a key part of this Blackhawks blue line. There’s obviously things to improve upon, but with a year under his belt and as he continues to improve and grow, one would hope the next step would come rather easily.

He’s likely to make the NHL squad out of training camp again, and he’ll probably get placed on third pair and tasked with bum-slaying, if there is still such a thing in the NHL. Who his partner would be is anyone’s guess (it could even be YOU!) but one would hope Q isn’t stupid enough to look the gift horse that is Cody Franson in the mouth during training camp. Franson isn’t anything special, and certainly not a savior, but he’s better than anyone the Hawks have outside of their top four, including Forsling, and has a good offensive game. He could be a great partner for Forlsing to grow alongside in those third line minutes.

Alternatively, he could get paired with Seabrook because Q wants some sort of bullshit balance, and those two will likely get their faces punched in for 15 minutes a night. I can already see Forsling running all over the blue line to try to cover for his partner while Seabrook falls over to pick up a jalapeño so he can adorn his nachos. Let’s just hope we don’t have to see this one.

I know it hasn’t quite been our MO thus far to be uplifting about these blue liners, because the outlook is bleak. But Forsling still has potential, and is still extremely young. As much as it may sound like a hyperbole, he could end up being a huge impact player this season for Chicago. If he takes the next step and ends up being a serviceable NHL defenseman, the blue line situation will look slightly less bleak. If he doesn’t, we might just get to see how many minutes Duncan Keith can play consecutively before shitting his pants and dying.

Statistics via Hockey Reference

Photo via CSN Chicago

Previous Player Previews

Corey Crawford

Anton Forsberg

Duncan Keith

Connor Murphy

Michal Kempný

Brent Seabrook

Everything Else

When McClure kicked off this little escapade on Tuesday by previewing Corey Crawford, he called Crow the Blackhawks’ most important player. I am not here to argue with that sentiment. But when it comes to the 18 gentleman playing in front of our favorite Rise Against fan, defenseman Duncan Keith is and has been the straw that stirs the drink.

2016-17 Stats

80 GP – 6 G – 47 A

50.7 CF% – 52.8 oSZ%

25:37 Avg. TOI

Everything Else

Box Score

Natural Stat Trick 

Hockey Stats

So let’s burn a couple things off the top here. After watching these things for a while now, 3-on-3 OT is just as much of a gimmick as the shootout so we’re just going to list them as a tie with the joke qualifier from now on. At least I will.

Second, any point gained where the Hawks are missing their top center, a top-4 defenseman, and their starting goalie should be viewed as a point gained. It feels like a certainty we’ll look back on these in a couple months and marvel that the season didn’t get away from them.

That said, the Hawks faced a team also missing their top center, a very productive winger, a wiener tucker, and going with their backup, though he’s played better than the most handsome man in the world, and couldn’t pull off two points. It feels like opportunity lost. Will it matter in the end? Probably not.

Let’s clean it up:

Everything Else

Box Score

Natural Stat Trick

Hockey Stats

For most of the previous years, we used to have a good chortle about the first game at home after a long road trip. The beaters would drone on and on about how tough of a game it was, but the Hawks usually always aced it just as they usually did with long road trips. Tonight we saw something of what they meant, as the Hawks were certainly not very good. They ran up against a Panthers team that was certainly inspired though kind of in every direction after the firing of Gerard Gallant. But as we’ve seen, teams that can match the Hawks for speed do give them some issues because there isn’t much of a Plan B with them right now, and there certainly isn’t without Toews whatever form he’s in. The trick only got harder without Anisimov for most of the 3rd period. But as it’s been all season, Crawford held them in and together, and they were able to hold on long enough to win the skills competition for two points. The luck will run out at some point, but that could be at any time.

Let’s get to it.

Everything Else

A couple of months ago, I wrote a post here mentioning all the things I like about Joel Quenneville. It felt necessary, because I spend a good chunk of my time complaining and pointing out perceived flaws, such as lineup management and sometimes getting caught cold by the opposing coach. Or at least trying to illustrate all the ways the roster he’s been given covers up some mistakes.

Watching the Penguins and Bruins eat it the past two nights, I’m reminded of one of the bigger points of that post: The Hawks’ attitude.

These things are impossible to measure or quantify, but I can state pretty confidently that Boston’s meltdown and “message sending” (defined in other circles as “dick measuring”) didn’t help their cause in Game 7. It looked a lot like a team that had run out of answers against a team it really should have been beating. It looked like a team that was terrified it was going out, which is what they looked like again when they played a very timid Game 7.