Fitting how after our beloved Chicago Blackhawks weathered snow flurries to whitewash the Eastern Conference-leading Pittsburgh Penguins at Soldier Field this past Saturday, they’ve faced another flurry of sorts over the past couple days.
For those of you who’ve understandably walled yourself up indoors this winter, subsisting only on takeout provisions from Pequod’s and Irazu and not much else in the way of information pertaining to the outside world, the past few days have witnessed some very interesting developments with the Blackhawks.
In a Tale of Two Brandons, Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman traded Blackhawks/Rockford IceHogs center Brandon Pirri to Blackhawks South aka the Florida Panthers for a 2014 3rd round pick and a 2016 5th round pick and signed Blackhawks forward Brandon Bollig to a three year, $3.75 million contract. I have to admit that I was numbered among the many Hawks fans scratching my head when I found out about this transaction and its apparent backwards logic. Pirri may not be a superstar yet, but everyone was willing to bet money, probably close to $3.75 million, that he certainly could be and has the stats this season indicating as much; while Bollig has just been a goon-for-hire the past couple years for the Blackhawks with stats also indicating as much. So what gives? Why would Bowman make such a seemingly incorrect choice between who to keep and who to jettison between these two forwards?
Well after some reflection, meditation, and inebriation, I realized Bowman’s logic, while yet again clandestine at first glance, has once more opted in favor of the Blackhawks’ long term success, and here’s the short version of the rationale behind this latest transaction: the Hawks are replete with forwards like Brandon Pirri, and are wanting in terms of forwards like Brandon Bollig.
Let’s break it down…Since the mid-2000’s the Blackhawks have been a franchise built around speed and skill. This business plan became especially solidified with the arrival of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, who needed to be surrounded with comparably-skilled forwards to compliment and augment their effectiveness as franchise fixtures, and thus far the results speak for themselves.
However, Kaner and Tazer aren’t really known for lowering their shoulder, and when you have highly skilled players that aren’t physically imposing, you need to bring in players who are to act as, on the most basic level, a kind of insurance policy. The policy is so simple even a gecko can understand it: opposing teams will think twice before taking a run at a star player if they know there’ll be immediate retaliation. However, physical players are more than just investment protection.
We all know that physical players bring to a hockey team a crucial facet usually overlooked: intimidation. Physicality is as synonymous with hockey as well, pretty much every other aspect of the sport. Thus, if you have players who can get under an opposing team’s skin through their physical play, you’ve got an advantage. That being said, the Blackhawks excel in many aspects of hockey, but unfortunately, physicality hasn’t been one of them as of late.
Over the years, the Blackhawks have lost some key agitators and enforcers such as Dustin Byfuglien, Dave Bolland, Ben Eager, and Adam Burish. While these types of players aren’t necessarily going to ink up the stat sheet, they are vital components to any Stanley Cup champions’ roster because they pay their biggest dividends in the post-season; using their physical prowess to irritate, intimidate, and ultimately shut down opposing teams’ star players, as well as allow their more talented teammates to operate by keeping would-be harassers off their backs. At this point Hawks fans have seen this successfully demonstrated time and again and should understand its importance to the letter.
Thus, a physical presence is critical to the success of any NHL franchise, and this fact is not lost on Stan Bowman. Unfortunately, the Blackhawks have been lacking a permanent solution in the intimidation department. Why else would Bowman bring in three different players primarily known from throwing their body and fists around over the past four years? Because unfortunately, we all know how these intended solutions played out…John Scott was a boxer and not much else, Daniel Carcillo’s style of physical play was more a liability than an asset, and Jamal Mayers’ career was on borrowed time when he arrived in Chi-Town. Hence for the Blackhawks, the question of a long-term physical player has remained unanswered.
Consider the following: while currently the Hawks have their share of physical defensemen, like Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson, when it comes to big-bodied forwards willing to throw their weight around, the Blackhawks remain a bit thin in the ranks. Bryan Bickell isn’t really willing to dole out punishment with his 6’4’’ 233 lbs. frame (only 78 hits for the season) and while Andrew Shaw certainly has demonstrated the tenacity and willingness to give opposing players the business (135 hits on the season), at 5’10’’ 180 lbs. he’s only going to do some much damage.
With Bollig however, Bowman is betting that he’s found a permanent 6’2’’ 233 lbs. physical fixture. From the start of his career with the Blackhawks, Bollig has more than demonstrated he’s willing to drop his shoulder and gloves (138 hits this season) in defense and retribution of his teammates (the most notable probably being against Raffi Torres after he blindsided Marian Hossa in the 2012 post season). Lately however, Bollig’s upside has increased since forming solid chemistry with line-mates Marcus Kruger and Ben Smith, and while he’s never going to be lights out on the score sheet, for the first time in his career he’s finding ways to generate offense as well body-checks. That aspect alone likely led to Bowman asking Bollig to sign on the dotted line.
Bollig certainly leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to the high standards of Hawks fans, but the talents he does possess and the ones he will hopefully develop in the next few years will make him a vital, albeit less statistically-tangible asset for the Blackhawks going forward. Bollig certainly knows that despite his new job security, he’s certainly doesn’t have any laurels to rest on, but he has a few years now to find them, as well as silence the naysayers. Make us proud Brandon, and shut us up!
FOR THE DAGGER!