Even though it’s perhaps a bit premature, myself and I’m sure many other Chicago denizens are still Monday morning quarterbacking about or beloved Chicago Blackhawks’ season and speculating what changes need to be made for the Hawks to return to the promised land that is the Stanley Cup Finals next year. One thing about your team making a deep playoffs run is that you can witness how it operates in a variety of circumstances and gain a very clear assessment of its strengths and weaknesses. That being said, here are the top six changes I wish the Blackhawks make this offseason:
#6 – Make Antti Raanta the Official Backup Goalie
You’d think this would be a no-brainer, but you never know given the degree of stubbornness that can be present behind closed doors in the Blackhawks front office. We all know Raanta aka Rant filled in beautifully for Corey Crawford when he was hurt during the regular season and given the suggestions milling about that Crow looked gassed by the Western Conference Finals due to the amount of starts he had to shoulder in the regular season aren’t going to go away anytime soon, Rant seems to be primed to step into a more prominent roll next season. Raanta stood and delivered when needed, proving he’s more than a serviceable goalie at the NHL level, and that’s what he needs be to help the Blackhawks return to the Stanley Cup Finals. Yes Raanta’s got plenty of development ahead of him, but in the immediate future, he only needs to give Crow a breather once and a while during the regular season. The only thing standing in his way at this point will be Coach Joel Quenneville’s willingness to let Rant develop as opposed to going out in the free agency to get another useless veteran goaltender (i.e. Nikolai Khabibulin).
#5 – Figure the Lower-Line Center the %#*$ Out!
Winning face-offs is critical when it comes to winning games, especially if you’re a puck possession-oriented team, like the Blackhawks, we get it. The Hawks got lucky snatching veteran center Michal Handzus before the 2013 playoffs considering how much he produced. It may have been foolish to think Handzus could continue such production through the entire next season, given his age and the speed the Hawks need to play at to succeed, but hey, nothing wrong with being optimistic. What was wrong was keeping Handzus in the line-up game in and game out when it was clear he was dragging down the rest of his line with his slow play. Acquiring Peter Regin seemed like recognition that Zus wasn’t working out, but he barely touched the ice. Yes the Hawks need a reliable lower line center, but it needs to be admitted that patch jobs like Handzus and Regin just aren’t going to cut it. Therefore there are two options to solve the problem at the dot: Either pony up the draft picks and/or dollars and go out and get a long-term solution at center via a trade/free agency, or focus on grooming current Hawks players for the position. The latter seems to be the best option considering the tremendous potential Marcus Kruger and Ben Smith showed at the center position this season. It’s just a question of pulling the trigger and sticking to your guns. This has been a lingering problem for far too long, and it needs to be solved now.
#4 – Add Some Lean and Mean Mass
One of the theories as to why the Hawks fell short this year is that their opening series against the St. Louis Blues took too much out of them. Rivalry aside, the Blues are a big physical team that likes to dish out the body work. So are the Kings. When it comes to playing physical teams, the Hawks take their licks, but then eventually push back and let their speed and skill carry the day. Nine times out of ten this works, but unfortunately the tenth time happened during this year’s Western Conference Finals. There were too many instances where the Blackhawks just got outmuscled by the Kings in front of the crease, along the boards, etc. and it ended up costing the Hawks the series. Don’t get me wrong, the Blackhawks are a flash and dash squad, and so shall they remain, but they need to add a few gritty, hard-nosed players, because right now Andrew Shaw is the only one really towing that line. This problem isn’t lost on Hawks GM Stan Bowman either. Why else would a player like Brandon Bollig get a three year contract extension? With the departure of Dave Bolland, the Hawks need a new Rat. Meaning they need a new shutdown forward that can harass and intimidate other teams’ top players and neutralize their impact in games. However, being a shutdown forward not only takes size, but smarts as well, and as of now Bollig and Shaw spend too much time in the penalty box to indicate they have both. Again, the answer lies in either hitting the free agency with a long term signing in mind, or looking in Rockford’s direction, which is quite replete with able-bodied forwards (i.e. Jeremy Morin).
#3 – Find Nick Leddy a Real Partner on the Blue Line
This year was not the best for the Hawks defensively speaking; finishing the regular season at 14th in the NHL (FYI – the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers were in the top three). Say what you will about the Hawks top two D lines, but by and large they get the job done. It’s the Hawks’ third defensive pairing of Nick Leddy and Michal Rozsival/Sheldon Brookbank that needs a tune-up, and not just because this was the line on the ice when the Hawks season ended against the Kings. I’ve often likened Nick Leddy to the defensive equivalent of Brandon Saad: a young player that came up in the Hawks’ farm system that just seems to get better and better with each year. The problem for Leddy has been his blue-liner partners have been more a burden than a compliment to his talent. While a smart defenseman, Rozsival’s age has caught up with him and caught him out of position far too many times, and Brookbank is for the most part just a space-filler. Leddy has tremendous potential and needs a blue line partner that will help him reach it by keeping up with him, especially during his patented coast-to-coast clears. While defenseman take longer to develop, the Blackhawks again may want to look no further than the IceHogs, namely at players like Stephen Johns and Viktor Svedberg, who while young and just starting their careers, are two big blue-liners that at the very least would help keep the crease clear, which was a glaring problem for the Hawks during the Western Conference Finals.
#2 – Make Brandon Saad a Core Player
While locking up Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews for-ev-er has understandably been the toast of contract talks within Blackhawks circles as of late, another Hawk that should be locked up for the long term is Brandon Saad. Saad is entering the final year of his contract, but I say why wait? Saad had a tremendous season, and only seems to be getting better and better with each year. At a mere 21 years old, given his superior two-way play, Saad is being touted as Marian Hossa’s heir, and that’s saying something. Hossa is still humming along just fine, but him being on the back nine to 40 have many wondering how much gas Hoss has in the tank. His inevitable retirement will leave a tremendous void of talent on the roster, and who better to fill it than Saad? While Kane and Toews get all the recognition as being the Blackhawks foundation, given his age and potential, it’d be quite prudent to mix Saad into the Hawks’ cement as well.
#1 – Commit to the Indian’s Youth
In case you haven’t picked up on the underlying theme of this wish list, I’ll spell it out for you right now by highlighting a specific transaction that occurred this season with the Blackhawks. At the beginning of the season, many were speculating (myself included) that this would be Hawks’ rookie Brandon Pirri’s breakout year. Yet by midseason he was traded away in favor of bringing on veteran forward Kris Versteeg. Needless to say we all know how things turned out from these moves. Pirri’s departure shocked many, and coupled with Coach Q’s stubborn unwillingness to give Jeremy Morin a legitimate chance to gain his feathers on the Hawks, even while Michal Handzus struggled mightily, points to a disturbing tendency that hopefully will be addressed and ameliorated in the offseason, and that is the lack of investment in the Blackhawks’ young players. The Hawks have one of the best farm systems in the NHL, yet time and again this season the Blackhawks management opted for solving any perceived deficiencies via the trading block. Perhaps the Blackhawks front office has become spoiled by the likes of Kane and Toews, but they need to remember that rookies in the NHL usually aren’t going to hit the ice the first time and set the world on fire. The Blackhawks have plenty of success stories of players coming up through the farm system and eventually making significant contributions at the United Center (Saad, Leddy, Shaw, etc.), so there should be faith that the system works. Furthermore, it needs to be understood that the Hawks don’t need any “veteran presence” for guidance anymore. The bulk of the players on the roster have at least one Stanley Cup under their belt, not to mention an Olympic medal or two. It’s a classic case of the students becoming the masters, so time to bring in some more pupils from Rockford.
The good news is most if not all of these issues can be solved in-house. Here’s hoping these wishes come true in the offseason.
FOR THE DAGGER!