We have now reached problem territory with the Chicago Blackhawks, with many fans reaching for the panic button after a 6-2 shellacking at the hands of the Central Division-leading Dallas Stars last night on the United Center ice. Usually I wouldn’t share that sentiment, but it’s clear we have something different and troubling on our hands.
The Blackhawks have been known for their March swoons under Joel Quenneville, and this season has been no different. But what has been different is the Blackhawks don’t just look disinterested in the month before the playoffs start … they look downright bad. And there aren’t really any fixes in store for their current issues.
The defense continues to be abysmal, with Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson pretty much serving as the only two reliable blueliners in their own zone. Brent Seabrook looks tired and has made take bad lines to the puck/his opponent an art form of late. Michal Rozsival is just there, which is fine for a sixth defenseman, but an obvious problem when he’s essentially a No. 4.
The Trevor van Riemsdyk and Erik Gustafsson experiences are essentially failures at this point, as neither guy is effective on either side of the ice right now. Gustafsson looks tentative after multiple benchings, and it shows in his play. Meanwhile, the guy who probably should’ve been benched all along in TVR is the most lost defenseman the Blackhawks have hosted since maybe 2011 or 2012. Meanwhile, Christian Ehrhoff — who might offer a small improvement to the unit — can’t get ice time just because.
But we can’t let this all fall on the defense. General Manager Stan Bowman went all in on the offense at the trade deadline because he didn’t like the defenseman market (a fair assessment). Tomas Fleischmann has been the best of the transactions, which is not something Blackhawks fans should enjoy hearing. Fleischmann was brought in to be a Michael Frolik-type role player, and he’s having more of an impact than either Andrew Ladd or Dale Weise.
Weise has been fine, but entirely unimpressive. Maybe with more time alongside Teuvo Teravainen, Weise will improve. But considering Q’s penchant for blenderism, we can almost guarantee those two will be split soon. Ladd, on the other hand, has just been invisible. Since a fine first few games with the Blackhawks, he and Marian Hossa are doing their best ghost impressions around one of the league’s best centers in Jonathan Toews. That’s pretty hard to do.
The second line, which was producing all of the Chicago offense for much of the season, has finally gone cold. Artemi Panarin, Artem Anisimov and Patrick Kane have been caught being too cute way too often during this recent stretch of suck, and it’s cost them and the team on the scoresheet. As a single positive, guys like Andrew Shaw and Richard Panik have looked good on the fourth line and were pretty much the only reason the Blackhawks weren’t shut out the last two games.
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I honestly have no complaints about the goaltending, as neither Corey Crawford nor Scott Darling can buy any sort of assistance from the team in front of them. Darling still makes mistakes in the net, but he’s looked a lot more assured during his recent run of starts than he did prior. Crow can’t come back soon enough as, despite his slight fall in play before his upper-body injury, he’s still carrying this team 75 percent of the time.
Now, let’s talk about the flipped switch. I know I’ve thought about it during this recent run of struggles, and I’m sure many other fans have too. You know how it goes: Once the playoffs start, the Blackhawks will “flip a switch,” wake up and start playing infinity times better right away.
Sometimes, it almost seems like they can do that. They’ve had the talent in the past to achieve it, and Q usually juggles the lines just to the point where he finds something that works, contributing to the switch flipping. Here’s the thing, though: I’m not sure the Blackhawks have a switch to flip this season.
That might go more so for the defense than the offense, but it’s still really hard to become a screaming banshee through the playoffs with little to no defense, no matter how good the goaltender might be playing behind it. Guys like Toews, Kane, Hossa, Teuvo and even Shaw and a healthy Marcus Kruger have shown the ability to stand out come playoff time, regardless of what happened in the regular season. And that usually brings along the rest of the offense, in this case guys like Ladd, Anisimov, Panarin and the rest. Ladd has also been there before (two Stanley Cups), so we shouldn’t disregard his “switch” ability. But these guys all look out of sorts and like they’re pressing to the nth degree. How much is a “flipped switch” really going to matter?
And that defense … sure, Seabrook could be skating really slow and taking bad lines to things because he’s saving up for the playoffs, but it certainly doesn’t look that way now. It just looks like he’s feeling the effects of playing a ton of games over the past three-plus years. You can see it on Keith and Hjammer too, and that could really hinder their playoff performances, especially when it comes to them playing 30-plus minutes a game (it’ll happen). Rozsival kind of had a switch in the 2015 postseason, but it only goes so far, as he’s not any sort of generational talent. Ehrhoff has been around the block as well, so who knows how he could show up in the playoffs if he actually gets a chance.
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And then there’s Gustafsson and van Riemsdyk, who at this point deserve the Brandon Bollig playoff treatment. Considering you need all your defensemen for at least 15 minutes a game in the postseason, that isn’t a good look.
This isn’t to say the Blackhawks can’t do their “switch flipping” act once the playoffs roll around, but the way the roster is currently constructed, and with Q’s struggles to effective manage it, that doesn’t look as likely as in seasons past. The talent and chemistry aren’t as readily available as they have been in the past, and Q seems somewhat baffled at what to make of the unit Bowman has given him.
So … it could come down to Crow carrying the show again. Just like most of the regular season.