Let’s face it Hawks fans, for our beloved Chicago Blackhawks the year 2014 has thus far, well been underwhelming. After a roaring 2013, in the New Year the Hawks are a mere 2-1-4. Call my standards high, but nabbing 8 points out of a possible 14 during a seven game stretch, most of which were on your home ice, is unacceptable for a Stanley Cup-defending Blackhawks team that lost little in the way of roster depth from last season. Don’t know if it’s the usual midseason lull, or the distraction of the upcoming Winter Olympics, but for whatever reason, our boys in red, white, and black are not just not clicking like they used to earlier in the season.
I’m no offensive guru, but I do know that chemistry between lines on any hockey team is critical when it comes to success. I know Coach Joel Quenneville is well aware of this too, and here’s hoping he does his usual line shuffling when the Hawks aren’t humming, which has thus far been all of 2014. With a team as deep as the Blackhawks, balancing all that talent in the optimal way can be a challenge. It’s a great problem to have, but it is a problem.
So let’s break it down. Needless to say the first line triumvirate of Marian Hossa – Jonathan Toews – Patrick Sharp and the defensive pairings are working out beautifully, and other than Lehman Brothers, Inc. I’ve never been one to break up a good thing. The lower lines however are another story. Again, I’m not a lines master (puns intended), but here are some minor adjustments that I think will go miles for the Hawks, because they’ll play into each players’ strengths and potential far better than the current set-up:
Okay, I know Pirri is still languishing in Q’s infamously deep doghouse on the Rockford IceHogs because the defensive side of his game is lacking, but there’s no question Pirri is the only one outside the first line that can not only keep up with, but cater to Kane and Saad’s gameplay. Yes, Pirri was supposed to be rookie of the year and Q thought different, but I request/beg Q-stache to reconsider. Let’s not forget that in 24 games, Pirri amassed six goals and five assists, certainly nothing to sneeze at, especially for a rookie. More importantly however, both Michal Handzus and Marcus Kruger, though talented in their own right, have forced Kane and Saad to function at a fraction of what they are truly capable of. Furthermore, against slower, bigger-bodied teams like the St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks (two teams the Hawks need to learn how to beat), the Blackhawks need to rely on their speed to get the W, and the current line set-up is keeping two of the fastest Hawks players in the carpool lane. Lastly, a Kane-Saad-Pirri line is a known quantity. Earlier this season all three players were on the same line and all three were inking up the stat sheet on a regular basis. Many Hawks fans were scratching their heads when this trio was broken up in the first place. So Q, it’s time to admit Pirri learned his lesson and bring him back to the big league to get the band back together and let them thrive once more.
I’ve never been a fan of Brandon Bollig, but that’s probably because he’s never been able to find a role for himself other than goon enforcer, in the same vein as former Hawks player/blemish John Scott. However, I feel this is easily ameliorated by placing his with other goons, but goons that can show him how to score. Bickell and Shaw are goons at heart, but they have proven they find the back of the net when it matters. A Bickell-Shaw-Bollig line would be an instigator/enforcer/shutdown line so epic Marvel would launch a comic strip entailing their exploits. Why? Well you got big bodies with a penchant for agitation that would be a nightmare for the top lines of opponents, far more so than the notorious Bryan Bickell-Adam Burish-David Bolland line was for the Blackhawks in the 2010 playoffs, when they gave the top lines of the Vancouver Canucks and the San Jose Sharks absolute fits. Furthermore, a gritty, big-bodied Bickell-Shaw-Bollig line would, could, and should thrive with the shot-happy defensemen of the Blackhawks because they’re board bangers and crease crammers. Tip-in and deflection goals would be this lines’ bread, and blue line specials their butter, just as long as they can stay out of the penalty box.
Okay, Steeger wouldn’t be too happy with the further demotion, but let’s be honest here, Versteeg, Kruger, and Smith are quintessential utility hockey players: they’re typically put on any line that needs an auxiliary and they do their job and then some. Also, these three Hawks have the same grade in speed, agility, grit, puck handling, physicality, and shot accuracy: B; well beyond a passing grade, but certainly not at the head of the class. All three of these players are currently skating on hodge-podge lines with other Hawks forwards of varying abilities. Together though, I feel these like-minded and like-skilled players would skate incredibly lock-step and flourish. Furthermore, Kruger and Versteeg, both having experience playing on the top two lines in their career would have a distinct advantage over the typically novice fourth stringers of other teams they would often be matched against. Steeger’s veteran expertise I feel would also do wonders for the development of Hawks fledgling Ben Smith, and let’s not forget the damage Kruger can do at the dot. As a potential bonus, there’s no reason to think this utility line’s chemistry wouldn’t translate well to the penalty kill. Suffice it to say there are too many benefits to not get these guys together on the same line.
Odd Man Out
Yes, unfortunately these lines leave out Michal Handzus. At the beginning of the season, I wasn’t too high on Handzus, but then he started putting in great penalty kills and a few goals, so I gave him another shot. Now that we’re past the halfway point of the season, Handzus’ performance has yet again hit a valley, and this time the coaching staff, as well as Zus himself, are taking notice, hence his demotion to the third line for a few games as of late. Given the veteran’s age, and the fact he’ll be representing his native Slovakia in the Olympics this upcoming February, I just can’t be confident he’s going to have gas left in the tank to continue skating at the level the Blackhawks’ lines require. Everyone one knows Handzus won’t be back next season, but he certainly won’t doing anyone any favors by sticking around for the rest of this season for, let’s face it, nostalgic reasons. And it’s hard to justify his roster spot when the Hawks have such a great crop of promising players waiting in their farm system. We appreciate what you did for us in 2013 Zus, but it’s time to bow out with grace and let the next generation of Blackhawks aspire to your legacy.
To sum it up, this is the depth chart I feel would make the Blackhawks already solid team chemistry even more formidable. One thing I like about Coach Q is he’s not afraid to stir the pot, so here’s hoping he reads this post and makes a 30-something boy’s dreams come true!
FOR THE DAGGER!
Tags: Andrew Shaw Ben Smith Brandon Bollig Brandon Pirri Brandon Saad Bryan Bickell Chicago Blackhawks Dave Bolland Joanthan Toews Joel Quenneville Jonathan Toews Kris Versteeg Marcus Kruger Marian Hossa Patrick Kane Patrick Sharp