Blackhawks News

Chicago Blackhawks’ Growing Pains Can’t Be Excuse

By Colin Likas

The annual circus trip has not gotten off to the best of starts for the Chicago Blackhawks. In what would certainly be considered the weaker half of the six-game run, the Blackhawks managed just a 1-1-1 record, falling last night in Vancouver to round out that mark.

Defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson had several noteworthy quotes after Friday’s overtime loss to lowly Calgary, and they apply to what I’m about to discuss. Among his tidbits (all courtesy Chicago Sun-Times’ Mark Lazerus:

“It’s not a bad thing, getting three out of four points. But the way we’ve done it is not the way we want to get it.”

“We just don’t play good enough on the road. We’re different. I don’t know, we don’t have the same pace as we do (at home).”

“We have to find a way to get that on the road. If we keep playing like this for the rest of the road trip, we’re not going to get points.”

Hjalmarsson isn’t a go-to guy for quotes, and I honestly couldn’t tell you why after that display. He’s a reporter’s dream. He’s also absolutely right with regard to the way the Blackhawks have been playing.

While the Blackhawks are 8-2-1 at the United Center so far this season, they’re a motley 3-6-1 on the road, among the worst traveling marks in the league. For a team with the talent of the Blackhawks, that isn’t going to cut it, especially when most of the Central Division is running away from the Blackhawks while earning points night in and night out.

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Now, the Blackhawks do have an easy excuse, if they want it: roster turnover. This was the excuse in 2011, when the Blackhawks lost some major depth pieces and their Cup-winning goal in a salary cap purge. Some comparisons have been drawn between those Blackhawks and the 2015-16 version. The thing is, this team is far more talented. It’s just not all clicking yet.

This is where Hjalmarsson’s comments come in. Hjalmarsson, we sometimes forget, is one of the core guys. When he says something, he’s speaking for the locker room at large. And the Blackhawks know there isn’t any excuse that can cover their lack of success on the road.

Yes, there are young guys trying to get a foothold on this team. Yes, the lines are changing on almost a game-by-game basis. Yes, some guys are tentative on the ice because they aren’t sure when Joel Quenneville might relegate them to the doghouse for a few weeks. This is where that core comes in, and it’s why this excuse doesn’t fly.

Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Hjalmarsson, Corey Crawford, Marcus Kruger, even Artem Anisimov. These are the guys that need to step up while players are still fitting into the Blackhawks system, and while the youngsters like Marko Dano, Tanner Kero, Teuvo Teravainen and Trevor van Riemsdyk — even guys like Artemi Panarin, Ryan Garbutt and Trevor Daley — are finding either their NHL or organizational footing.

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Kane and Anisimov have taken the charge head on from an offensive perspective, and they’ve both been generally acceptable on defense as well. Toews looked good last night with some odd linemates, but he’s been inconsistent and seemingly on edge so far. Keith was obviously injured, and Seabrook stepped up in his time out, but the defense these two lead has been sketchy at best. That’s not entirely their fault, of course, but they’re still expected to show the way on the blue line. Hossa has gone through stretches of invisibility, while Kruger hasn’t been his normal stout defensive self. And while Crow has kept his team in a fair number of games so far, he’s also had a few stinkers at times when the Blackhawks need a stout showing in goal.

There’s one more person we need to bring up here when talking about the core stepping up: Coach Q himself. We fans aren’t hockey experts, but it would appear Q isn’t playing his best lineup right now. While some of the line combos looked good at times last night, that was against a decent (at best) Vancouver team. Besides the second line, which has managed itself, everything else is like a “throw things at the wall and see what sticks” situation, which doesn’t look good on the coach when the team is struggling. On-ice time management has been strange, especially among the young/new forwards who are trying to prove something to the coach (for example, Dano played just 5:45 last night). And, of course, there’s the Brandon Mashinter ordeal, as we have another “gritty” guy playing five minutes a night and providing nothing of benefit to the Blackhawks.

The Blackhawks could see some changes soon, as they’re reportedly shopping Daley and some of the young blueliners may get another crack at the lineup soon (Erik Gustafsson, Viktor Svedberg, Ville Pokka). That would just mean more change and more youth, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, it puts even more of an onus on the Blackhawks core to perform at a higher level moving forward.

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This isn’t the time for excuses, as Hjalmarsson recognizes. Hopefully, the other veterans in the locker room realize this as well. It’ll help the Blackhawks turn around their road woes faster than making excuses would.