If you’re a Chicago denizen with a pulse, you probably woke up this morning from what you thought was a bad dream (scratch that, a nightmare!), only to grab a copy of RedEye and realize it wasn’t: the Green Bay Packers (spitting sound) yet again humiliated the Chicago Bears on their home field in a game with significant playoff ramifications. After all the cursing, crying, head banging, teeth grinding, and knife sharpening, you, like everyone else, are left with a lot of questions. How could this happen again? Why do the Powers That Be hate the Bears? Where did they get those referees? My bar tab was how much? Then at the end of your five stages of grief, you’ll finally ask an important question that luckily, has a positive answer: So when do the Blackhawks play?
I’m glad you asked, because the Hawks actually play the Los Angeles Kings tonight at the Madhouse on Madison, and while the Bears season is prematurely over (again), the Blackhawks have a whole other half of a season left to play. Understandably, up until now you’ve had to divide your attention between the Hawks and the goings-on at Soldier Field, but now that the latter consists mainly of cleaning out lockers, you can focus on our boys in red, white, and black. So how did the Hawks fare during the first half of the season? Another good question and the best way to answer that query is by naming Blackhawks players and facets that have stood out during the front nine of the 2013-2014 NHL season in what I like to call the Season Median Awards. These distinctions I feel summarize nicely where the Hawks are at the season’s halfway point, so without further ado, I give you the Season Median Awards…
Best Player at the Halfway Point: Patrick Kane
This shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone. To say Kaner is playing lights-out this season is speaking with an indoor voice. In 41 games, Kane has 23 goals and 30 assists, and the Hart Memorial Trophy is seemingly his to lose. It’s funny when you think back to post the 2010 Stanley Cup when Kane seemed so content to sit on his tail feathers that trade rumors were milling around Chicago, that now, after bringing the Cup back to Chi-town a second time in 2013, Patrick Kane is playing the best hockey of his career, currently sitting at second in the NHL with 53 points. My how the turn tables have…turned.
Biggest Breakout Player: Brandon Saad
Anyone that watched a handful of Blackhawks games last year knows Brandon Saad is a good player, but the way he’s been playing this season indicate we’ve barely seen 60% of his full potential up until know. Many analyst and amateurs a like brand Saad as the next Marian Hossa, so it’s fitting Saad is second on the Hawks with 36 takeaways, behind Hossa’s team leading 47 so far this season. Like Hossa, Saad isn’t flash n’ dash forward, but uses his great ice vision to put himself in the right place at the right time and seal the deal with equally impressive stick-handling. Even though he’s primarily been skating on the third line, Saad is consistently producing (29 points thus far this season) and at 21 certainly has a very bright future ahead of him.
Most Special Specialist: Marcus Kruger
On a roster full of superstars, Marcus Kruger has long seemed to have trouble carving out a niche over the past few years, but with the departure of Michael Frolik, Kruger has been thriving on special teams and at the dot. While the Blackhawks Penalty Kill has been the subject of much criticism this year, Kruger is putting up great stats when the Hawks are a man down. He’s 60.5% on short-handed faceoff wins and is also leading Blackhawks forwards with 40 blocked shots. PS – Kruger’s 57.8% faceoff wins at full strength is 6th in the NHL.
First Half’s Renaissance Player: Kris Versteeg
Probably the biggest development of the first half of the 2013-2014 was the return of former Blackhawk Kris Versteeg, who was traded in the midst of the roster purge after the 2010 Stanley Cup win. After his hiatus from Chicago, Steeger has settled in quite nicely on the second line with Patrick Kane and Michal Handzus, tallying 15 points in 22 games. Versteeg has always been an anchor of balance and consistency for whichever line he’s playing on, which is probably why a team like the Blackhawks wanted him, considering managing their ridiculous roster depth is an obstacle in of itself. Welcome back Steeger!
Biggest Clunker for the Most Cash: Bryan Bickell
Buyer’s remorse doesn’t begin to cover it when we talk about Bryan Bickell’s play in the first half of the 2013-2014 season. His 17 points during the playoffs last year earned him a four year, $16 million dollar contract, but the Blackhawks might as well have invested in Lehman Brothers. Not only did Bicks miss 14 games with a lower body injury, but he only has 41 shots on goal so far this season. With his big body, the Blackhawks especially need Bickell to return to his winning ways of camping out on the crease and putting pucks in the net against big-bodied Western Conference teams like the St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks.
With the Hawks rolling Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, and Patrick Sharp on their first line, you respectively have the Brains, the Muscle, and the Face, of a titanium operation that so far this season netted a combined 51 goals and 64 assists. With Towes’ on ice leadership, Hossa’s mechanics, and Sharp’s sniper-shot, there’s not a defensive pairing in the NHL right now that can stop this trio.
Most Improved Player: Nick Leddy
Most improved is a bit of a misleading label here, because Nick Leddy has always been a solid defensemen. What the most remarkable attribute about Leddy is that his improvement has been so steady and measurable over the past few years, and this season is no exception. Leddy is especially making his presence felt on the power play, tallying three man advantage goals. This is probably due to one quality of Leddy that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. His coast to coast skating ability with the puck helps the Hawks generate tons of offense. Leddy has always struck me as the second coming of Brian Campbell, so stay tuned…
Biggest Goon: Brandon Bollig
Like John Scott before him, Brandon Bollig seems to only be on the Hawks roster because of head coach Joel Quenneville’s affinity for big players. However, unlike previous big-bodied Hawks players, like Dustin Byfuglien, Bollig lacks the finesse and vision to get in front of the net and deflect in goals. Failing that, Bollig has become the Hawks enforcer, which is great from a morale standpoint, but does more harm than good when you’re PK is so bad. Bollig’s 61 penalty minutes (22nd in the NHL) shows he needs to adopt more of a cloak and dagger technique if he wants to continue to be the Hawks muscle; otherwise he’s more of a liability than an asset.
Most Glaring Deficiency: Penalty Kill
Speaking of the PK, the Hawks penalty kill in the first half of the season has been the franchise’s black eye this season. At 76%, the Hawks PK is 28th in the NHL – ugh! Things are far from hopeless however. One thing successful special teams require is chemistry, and the Hawks as of late seem to be getting that from penalty killers Marcus Kruger and Michal Handzus. Though they’ve only been paired together recently on the PK, they’re having a great deal of success, including a short-handed goal against the Philadelphia Flyers. They’ve got a whole other half of a season to cement their dynamic so it’ll be interesting to see what develops.
Hawks’ Biggest Nemesis: St. Louis Blues
At the conclusion of the first half of the season, there are few teams the Blackhawks haven’t beaten. If the Hawks lost an outing, they came back with a vengeance in their next game, and settled the score with practically any team that denied them a W in an earlier meeting. The one exception in the first half of the season is their Central Division rival, the St. Louis Blues. The Hawks are thus far 0-1-2 against the Blues, losing each game by a goal. Credit must be given where it’s due, the Blues are a good squad that’s been playing great this season, but the Hawks need to figure out how to beat this team, because there’s a good chance these two franchises will cross paths in the post season. The Hawks play the Blues two more times in the regular season, so they’ll have more than enough opportunities to show St. Louis why they’re the reigning Stanley Cup champs.
All things considered, at the halfway mark of the 2013-2014 NHL season the Blackhawks are right where they need to be. The few problems they have are very fixable, and they have a whole other half a season to figure them out. So here’s hoping the New Year sees the Blackhawks making the right resolutions.
FOR THE DAGGER!