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Chicago Blackhawks Would Improve With Two Key Moves

By Colin Likas
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It’s surprisingly easy to complain about your favorite sports team even when it’s having success. You don’t think Carolina Panthers fans are 100 percent thrilled with their team’s 14th win of the season, do you? The Panthers did blow a 35-7 lead against the New York Giants on Sunday, after all. Golden State Warriors fans were likely frustrated with their team on occasions during its lengthy unbeaten run to start the NBA season.

The Chicago Blackhawks didn’t start their 2015-16 season nearly as well as those two squads, but their record indicates success of late. The Blackhawks have moved into third place in the cutthroat Central Division with 44 points in 35 games. They’re 7-2-1 in their last 10 outings, have won three straight, reached 20 wins Sunday against San Jose and became the first team to 14 home victories this season.

And yet …

We know the Blackhawks aren’t perfect. Far from it. They’ve had to rely heavily on the likes of Corey Crawford and Patrick Kane, as well as guys like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson. Sure, those are the guys who are supposed to carry a team through stretches of any season. But they’re more or less carrying the team through the entire season right now.

It’s not just those five guys doing work, of course. The forward lines seemed to be meshing quite a bit better lately before Marian Hossa missed Sunday’s game with an upper-body injury — one that will keep him from Tuesday’s game against Dallas as well. You could point to some good things coming from all four lines prior to last night. And even though the defensive corps is anything but deep at this point, it’s not as though the non-Keith/Seabrook/Hjalmarsson guys aren’t trying.

And yet …

Look, Joel Quenneville likes two things that tend to drive Blackhawks fans up a wall: playing veterans who are well past their prime, and playing a “grit guy” who skates five minutes a night and occasionally fights (poorly). On Sunday, you had to look no further than the third-pairing defensive tandem of Michal Rozsival and Rob Scuderi for the former, and to Brandon Mashinter for the latter.

To be fair, Scuderi was essentially dropped on Q’s doorstep last week, and the Blackhawks have no other forwards in the pressbox at this time when someone (in this case Hossa) goes down.

To be ever fairer, that doesn’t mean all three of these guys need to dot the lineup night in and night out. There are solutions to keep them from weighing down a lineup that is still trying to coalesce into a more-confident and more-consistent group.

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Let’s start with the defense. It’s no secret Trevor van Riemsdyk has struggled in his sophomore season with the Blackhawks, but Q is essentially riding him as the fourth defenseman because he’s still better than Rozsival and Scuderi (and the benched-unless-a-comet-hits-someone David Rundblad). You could send van Riemsdyk to Rockford for a conditioning stint and call up a youngster in his steed, but that isn’t fixing the biggest defensive issue.

No, that would be the combination of a 36-year-old Scuderi and a 37-year-0ld Rozsival. The two can hardly move, and they have to rely heavily on positioning and stick presence to do their jobs even half decently. There’s a huge reason why this is problematic in today’s NHL: Opponents can beat that method of defense with one arm tied behind their backs. The league is filled with speedy forwards who are strong stickhandlers. They can get in position faster than Rozsival and Scuderi can, or they can beat the defensemen to where they’re supposed to be.

Case in point, Joe Pavelski pretty much pretended Scuderi wasn’t even near him in getting in Crawford’s grill for San Jose’s third goal Sunday. And Scuderi really wasn’t there. Not until the play was over, anyway. Q has to see this as a problem — he’s not an idiot, despite the flack he receives on this site and from other outlets. But he also probably feels he has no other choice but to roll with these two until Stan Bowman can come through with a trade for a capable No. 4 D.

Therein lies the issue: Q has options. Remember how strong Erik Gustafsson looked in his stint with the Blackhawks earlier this season? Viktor Svedberg had decent moments, and though he isn’t very fast, he’s arguably a better option than either Rozsival or Scuderi right now. What about Ville Pokka, the guy who is pretty much leading the somewhat-barren Blackhawks defensive prospects line but who hasn’t gotten a sniff with the big club? They’re all options in Rockford, and they can all be moved up.

How could the Blackhawks do this? Apparently, Marcus Kruger isn’t yet on injured reserve for whatever reason, even though he’ll be out four months after wrist surgery. So, put Kruger on IR, watch his salary get temporarily taken off the books and call up one of the aforementioned three young defensemen (preferably Gustafsson, in my opinion). Then, you can roll Gustafsson every night and rotate Rozsival and Scuderi, who can’t play a full schedule of games anyway. That’s what the future holds at this point, as Q doesn’t trust Rundblad and Bowman can’t just make a No. 4 defenseman appear with a snap of his fingers.

Would it make the Blackhawks defense perfect? Far from it, but it’d be an improvement. Anyone who can actually move and adapt to what opponents are throwing at them is an improvement over the Rozsival and Scuderi types.

Dec 3, 2015; Ottawa, Ontario, CAN; Chicago Blackhawks left wing Brandon Mashinter (53) and Ottawa Senators right wing Chris Neil (25) jockey for position on a face-off in the second period at the Canadian Tire Centre. Mandatory Credit: Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports

Now, on to the second issue. This is one that isn’t as strikingly problematic as the defensive issue, but it’s one that bothers me more personally. With the “veteran on defense” bit, Rozsival has been the tried and true response under Q. Sure, there have been guys like Chris Campoli and Jassen Cullimore, but Q really didn’t have other options in playing those guys on the blue line when he did. But the “grit guy” bit? That’s been a rotating door, and holy guacamole is it frustrating to see.

John Scott. Brandon Bollig. And now Mashinter. The last of those three is probably the most offensively capable, but that’s like saying Keith Jones is the least annoying between him, Pierre McGuire and Mike Milbury: It really doesn’t mean a whole heck of a lot. Mashinter scored his first career NHL goal recently, and that’s nice for him, but what is he actually bringing to the table? He can’t even get close to 10 minutes a night — he couldn’t even crack five on Sunday — and he generally misses the passes sent to him and then gets to the net as fast as he can at whistles to see if there may be a scrum he can butt into.

Meanwhile, the Blackhawks have guys like Ryan Hartman, Vincent Hinostroza, Marko Dano and Tanner Kero who have shown flashes with the big club this season — and guys like Mark McNeill, Kyle Baun and Jeremy Morin alongside them — who are sitting in Rockford actually producing on offense. Yes, I know not all of these guys play wing, but that’s not the point. The point is this: The Blackhawks are wasting a forward roster spot because Q like his own personal flavor of roster balance.

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The one good thing to come out of Hossa’s ongoing injury/rest period: It may force the Blackhawks to call up someone who isn’t just a waste of space on the ice like Mashinter. That could easily be Dano, but it could be some of the other guys I mentioned in the previous paragraph as well. I think the Blackhawks would make this move before they’d call up a young defenseman.

If they decide to make both moves — even if Hossa isn’t going to be out past the Dallas game — it’d be great for team production. It’d force the Blackhawks to send someone down (Mashinter) or expose someone to waivers (Rundblad), but it’d be worth it for the good of the team.

The Blackhawks are an alright squad at this moment. But they could be better, and not all of their room for improvement comes from on-ice action. Some off-ice changes are required as well.

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