With huge losses in Marian Hossa, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Artemi Panarin the Blackhawks will need to recapture the grit to that once turned their franchise into a perennial cup contender
It became clear Friday when the Blackhawks parted ways with a 25 year old 30-goal scorer and a three-time Stanley Cup winning defenseman that the Blackhawks are in no way shape or form willing to get comfortable. GM Stan Bowman has been rewarding players with long-term contracts that include no-movement clauses who have had high achievements in the past, but it seems some have become complacent in the time that matters most.
Everybody thought there wasn’t much Stan Bowman could do with the current roster, but surprised us again.
Let’s take a moment to look at what the Blackhawks are losing and what they have to gain.
What we are losing
Losing a player like Marian Hossa will be monumentally noticeable. We all will remember him for his breakaway half-slap shots, his ability to circle the offensive zone without defenders even touching the puck, and his famous power-moves to the net from next beneath the circles. But we will mostly miss his high hockey IQ and his ability to make a creative play. His fundamentals were already off the charts but his creativity set him apart from others. When the Blackhawks were down in the game and nothing seemed to be getting by the opposing goaltender, Hossa always found a way to change it up. That is what the Blackhawks will lose in Hossa, the creativity that separated the ‘Hawks from many other great teams.
The same goes for Niklas Hjalmarsson. Hammer was the best at clearing his own zone and chipping pucks up the ice on his backhand before taking a sacrificial hit. He had an underrated shot from the point and would also surprise us with a big hit every once in a while when the team needed a jolt. The Blackhawks will miss Hjalmarsson’s shot blocking undoubtedly, but his reliability is what will be missed the most. It wasn’t too often that Hammer turned the puck over in his own zone. He always made the safe, smart decision and played Joel Quenneville’s system to a tee. The Blackhawks will need to find more unselfish team players like Hammer to fill his shoes going forward.
A lot of people liked the Artemi Panarin trade for Brandon Saad because Panarin seemed to disappear in the playoffs. This is probably the biggest reason for the trade, but let’s take a second to give credit to a kid who showcased the best line in hockey the past two seasons. Panarin easily has a top-five one-timer in the game and has some of the best vision as well. I’m not sure if we’ll ever have two wingers on the same line as deadly as Kane and Panarin, but the Blackhawks do need two-way players going forward. The Blackhawks are losing high-end skill, a great passing forward, and one of the biggest smiles on the team. Panarin helped make the Blackhawks into a high-flying point machine and hopefully Kane can find other partners to keep that up.
The opportunity to get nasty
Earlier in the year, I wrote an article about how the Blackhawk’s bottom-six will be an indicator as to how well they will do in the playoffs. There has been mostly a strong focus on Panarin’s disappearance, the slowdown of Brent Seabrook, Johnny Oduya, and Brian Campbell, as well as Jonathan Toews ineffectiveness. But the bottom six didn’t get much of the heat considering they don’t get paid as much and the bar is set low.
I happen to disagree with this.
Finding chemistry on the 1st line left wing took such a priority this year that the bottom six lines were never solidified. They were trying everything and anything to get someone who could fit that spot, but never bothered to consider the impact of the 3rd and 4th line chemistry. The bottom-six was not producing and you need them to in the playoffs when your first two lines get cancelled out by other team’s top defensive units.
This year will be different. With the pending loss of Marcus Kruger, the penalty kill will have a new look as well as the bottom six. There are now three assistant coaches whom I believe were brought in to specialize in getting these units back up to speed.
One line I would really like to see next year is Ryan Hartman, Vinnie Hinostroza, and John Hayden. Hartman and Hinostroza grew up together so there is definitely some chemistry already there. With the addition of Hayden, this line could become the bruising, grind-it-out line that Joel Quenneville needs. Hinostroza’s speed and pass first mentality will help the ‘Hawks get the puck deep and enable Hartman and Hayden to force turnovers with a heavy forecheck.
The Blackhawks had this type of bottom six in 2010 with guys like Troy Brouwer, Andrew Ladd, and Ben Eager. They’re not goons, but they’re not top six guys either. They give a boost of energy to the team through hard work and grit. Today’s Blackhawks have evolved from that 2010 dump-and-chase team to a possession team, but they could have used some of that old strategy last year facing a Nashville, a team that forced them to get the puck deep.
To me, the best part about this shake-up is that the Blackhawks are finally getting their young guys into the lineup. I think the former-Blackhawks retread theme is over and they are finally ready finally retool. There is no question the Hawks are taking a step back, but only to catapult themselves into a cup contender again in the near future. There are a lot of names to like in the prospect pool and their development is essential. Let’s hope they learned a thing or two from the great players that just departed.