Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Something Old, Something New...

Well, we've been here before... and then again, we really haven't. We're again facing Vancouver, a team we've battled but ultimately owned two seasons in a row, mentally as much as physically. But this time some things are a bit different... while some are very much the ssame.

The past two years we were roughly comparable teams, in terms of regular season success and post-season expectations. This year the Canucks dominated all year, easily capturing the President's Trophy for best record in the NHL, while the Hawks absolutely back-doored their way into the playoff's final spot in the season's final game.

But yet, once again the mental edge seems to be with the Hawks. First off, we're the freakin Stanley Cup champions. It still feels good to say that and it still very much means something. Yes, a lot of guys from that team are gone, but a whole lot are still here, and that counts for a whole bunch. These guys have been through the fires and know they've got what it takes. In the epic battle that every NHL playoffs series is, that knowledge and confidence can make all the difference.

The Hawks also, oddly, have far less pressure on them. When does that happen - that you can claim an advantage in experience and accomplishment, but also in the lack of pressure and expectation? If the Hawks bow out in 5 games, whatever. The disappointment that is this season has already been suffered, especially after the loss to Detroit on Sunday. GM Stan and Coach Q made a bunch of glaring mistakes that all but assured this season wasn't gonna be a happy re-run of last year.

But Vancouver? They've already put together a long string of post-season let downs, largely blamed on their otherwise stellar netminder, Roberto Luongo, tho the Sedins, their coach, and really the entire team deserve plenty of the credit, too. Now, pretty much anything short of raising the Cup will probably mean just another lost season. Sure, if they make the Finals they can at least claim some sort of advancement. But this squad has been talked up since the off-season as the next big thing, as a clear Cup favorite, and they've only inflated that sentiment with their unquestionably great regular season.

Pretty much the last thing they could have wanted was to enter the most pressure-packed playoffs they've ever had and walk straight into the lion's den that is their greatest adversary and the still-talented Stanley Cup champs.

One thing I will say, and not that it will matter to us Hawks fans - if the Canucks can manage to get by the Hawks, it probably will be the best thing that could have happened to them. Getting that monkey off their back could give them the confidence and focus they need to finally elevate their playoff game to their potential. No other first round opponent can offer them so much of what they need on their quest.

So yeah, the extra pressure is on the Canucks. That means any early struggles will be magnified - a win in either game in Vancouver will bring out all the doubters. Clearly the early mental edge is also with the Hawks, who've got the crown and have twice dispatched Vancouver. But off-setting that a bit is the fact that the bigger carrot lies with the Canucks - a series victory here could be the final piece to their championship puzzle.

On the flipside, while dispatching the Canucks would return a bit of the swagger and confidence this Hawks team has been missing since so many of their teammates left town, once you've won the Cup, there aren't that many more moral victories. Sure, if they do win a series or two they can hang their hats on that as they again retool this off-season and look to return to contender status next year.

But that's not exactly a sentiment you can rally the troops around in the lockerroom. Instead, anything short of a Cup just isn't that motivating, so really, this is just one series in a long slog for the Hawks. An important one, as they all are, but w/o that little extra inspiration that the Canucks will likely have.

So what does this all mean? Pretty much nothing. The simple fact is that both teams have some intangible edges and disadvantages going into this series, so it's not clear who can claim a real leg up in that department. The good news from the Hawks perspective is that a mental/emotional edge does in fact exist for them to overcome the talent and execution gap they're facing. We just have to hope it plays out that way.

As for the talent gap - how big is it? Well, the Canucks roll out two different 40-goal scorers this year... and neither is the guy who won the league MVP and scoring title last season. The Sedin Twins were as murderous as ever this year - Daniel with 41 G and 104 points, Henrik with 75 A and 94 points. Ryan Kesler went from good to great, adding 41 G to a game that already included incredible defense and great work in the face-off dot.

And that's definitely not all - Samuelson, Burrows, and Raymond are all names that you'll expect to hear getting points this series. Raffi Torres, a newcomer, brings some necessary grit. One unfortunate situation but good break for the Hawks - checking centerman Manny Malhotra had a serious eye injury that will keep him out. A blow, certainly, but not one they can't overcome.

Don't let all those weapons make you think this team is all O. Much like the Hawks of yore, they combine a high-energy, go-go-go offense with good goaltending and a deep defense. Luongo had another great season behind a D that includes break-out star Christian Ehrhoff, minutes leader Alexander Edler, and solid veteran grinders like Hamhuis (picked up this off-season), Bieksa, and Salo.

What does it all mean? It means the Canucks have the talent in all facets of the game to win. Not just this series, but the whole thing. Their President's Trophy was no fluke - they've built on the solid foundation they had in the past to become that much closer to a title. But will it be enough? As always, it's not about past success, regular season performance, or how you look on paper. It's about stepping up when it matters. Getting contributions from top to bottom. Keeping your head, heart, and body full into each and every shift.

Can the Canucks do that? Who knows. Their coach, star forwards, and goaltender have all been shown wanting. Sure, every champion could have said much the same thing until they broke through, so maybe this is when they do. But remember, this is the NHL. You expect every single series to go 6 games. You don't find any "upset" to be that great of a shocker. President's Trophy winners lose in the first round all the time. 8 seeds advance through multiple rounds a lot.

The Canucks are assured of nothing and our Hawks, with the core of talent they still have, can be every bit as confident of their chances as any team out there right now. But know that they do face a heck of a challenge here. This Canucks team will require everything the Hawks have.

One thing that meant a lot to me - how outwardly excited JQ was about making it into the playoffs. I would have guessed that he'd be dour about the way they got in, still disappointed that they were in that position. I'd have figured he'd quietly talk about the challenges ahead and the need to get better.

Instead, he expressed giddiness. Yeah, stoic Quenneville said he was giddy after he saw Dallas blow that game to Minnesota. I'm seeing only one reason - because Coach Q knows damn well that he can get his troops past these Canucks. Not that it's just a possibility, but that he believes it's likely. When you're the Cup Champions, you're not giddy to just make it into the playoffs with some vague hope. You're giddy because you know that you've gotten in with a legit chance to do something special again.

I think Q fully believes that the Canucks are the exact team the Hawks needed to face. Their style of play (wide open), their mental and physical fragility, their reliance on their top line and a mentally suspect goaltender, and of course, the history between these teams. I'm guessing that JQ sees all of that and truly thinks that his team will get past these guys yet again.

Could he be right? Well, just the fact that he thinks that has me very confident - coaches generally don't feel that way, not in a giddy sense that requires that much confidence. It tells me the inside view is that this match-up favors the Hawks, as least as much as this version of the Hawks could have hoped. And as I just detailed - it makes a lot of sense, given the holes you can poke in the Canucks.

But what about the Hawks? As ripe as the Canucks might be for a takedown, as perfect as they might align with this Hawks team, we still need to have the guns to win what is always going to be a hard-fought 6- or 7-game series. Do we have it in us with the roster as constructed, given its current health?

To me, that's one of the big questions - how healthy are we. There are the obvious issues of Bolland and Brouwer - when will they return, what can we expect of them? Slightly less obvious are guys like Sharp and Hossa - guys who've fought recent injuries and who, if fully healthy, can be major impact types. Even less obvious are guys like Keith and Seabrook, whose games haven't been up to par all season long, possibly because they were overtaxed last year, with their Olympic and Cup run.

One thing I'll hang my hat on - these guys have all been there before, they know what it takes and what the payoff is. Sure, there's some level of physical health you can't do anything about - i.e. what level Brouwer and Bolland need to get to in order to lace em up and play regular minutes. But there's also a level of physical health that has a lot to do with the mental side of things. I have faith that this whole list of guys is gonna exact every bit of effort out of their bodies that can physically be done. They understand how to play through pain and what it can mean when you do. And that gives me faith that our health won't be a major detraction.

So that leads us just to the talent level and how Q is gonna use it. If healthy, I think we've definitely got the talent to win any series. Like last year, we've got the four big scoring options we need in Toews, Kane, Hossa, and Sharp. Like last year, Bolland and Johnson give us the necessary defensive center depth. Like last year, Keith, Seabrook, Campbell, Hammer, and Campioli give us the 5 reliable blueliners you need. Finally, like last year we've got a goalie in net capable of stealing wins and making leads hold up, who's shown himself capable of the heat.

But, just like last year, there are three major questions to be answered. #1 is health - as discussed, we need Brouwer and Bolland to come back healthy and the other guys to be near full-go, and, of course, to remain so. #2 is the defense - like last year, Seabrook and Keith showed a lot of signs in the regular season of less than the dominant play we've come to expect (and most certainly can't live without). Hopefully, like last year they can elevate when it matters most. Similarly, Campbell, The Hammer, and Campioli need to provide big support minutes, as those first two and Sopel did last season. And Leddy needs his minutes to be very minimal, used in a way that doesn't hurt us while buying a bit of a breather for the Top 5.

Finally, #3, and the only one I really have any major concern about, is that we have to find the complimentary pieces to our big scorers and defensive centers. It's easy to forget last year that it wasn't at all clear how guys like Ladd, Brouwer, Versteeg, Buff, Kopecky, and even Bickell would align. Buff was on D, Kopecky was mainly a 4th liner, Bickell was an unproven nobody, Brouwer was inconsistent as always, and Versteeg was maddening as ever.

In the end it all worked out - JQ seemed to either make the right choices or quickly fix the wrong ones. Everybody found a way to contribute and rarely were line configurations a major issue. Can JQ do that again? So far this year he's struggled mightily. Some of it is on Stan, who didn't give him the right pieces. I'll have more on that in the off-season, but I'm most definitely not sold on his ability to build a winner. I'll give him another crack or two at it, but this year, I think Stan failed pretty much across the board in building the forwards around his key core guys.

For now tho, JQ has to play with the hand he was dealt, and I'm not thrilled by how he's done it thus far. Kopecky? A perfect 4th liner - he's got the energy, size/physicality, and even brings a bit of scoring touch. He accepts the role and thrives in it. But he's shown, chance after chance, that he just brings nothing to the top lines. Kopecky isn't an asset up there and after two years, it's time Q accepts that.

Stalberg - I think he's a real talent, but like Versteeg, his head isn't always there. However, like Versteeg, he's got rare talents that it's on Q to cultivate - burying him on the 4th line with limited minutes kept Stalberg from getting the experience he needed to grow through those mental letdowns. Unfortunately, now Q can't go back - Stalberg doesn't have it to play with the top guys and he can't be allowed to learn on the job now. Good news is that he's turned himself into a very valuable 4th liner, an asset the Hawks have exploited in their last two post-seasons.

Now that we've filled the 4th line quite well, what about the two wingers necessary on the top lines, and the two guys who need to skate alongside Bolland on the ever-important checking line? Last year Ladd's great advantage was that you could put him on any line and know you'd be fine there. To me, that guy this year is Brouwer. You can argue that his scoring has been inconsistent, but to me it's pretty clear - when he's up with Toews and Kane, he gets it done. Put him on the third line, he's not gonna score. That's just who he is. But, like Ladd, I feel confident with Brouwer either as strong defensive checking line guy or a complimentary scoring line go.

What do we do with him (whenever he's ready to go - might not be for a game or two)? Tough call. Some of me says he's the best complimentary scorer we have, so get him up with Toews and Kane. Some of me says we're hurting on checkers and need his plus play there, so put him with Bolland. I honestly can't say what'd be best.

One thing that is giving me a bit of confidence - Ben Smith and Frolik have looked pretty solidly of late. Some of it has been being joined with Kane, who's really been putting in full effort down the stretch. Kane is just the type of guy to make anyone better when he's got it going. But some of it is both guys fitting a bit of what the Hawks need. Frolik hasn't had the numbers, but he clearly is a solid offensive player who works hard. And Smith just seems to do a lot of the little things. I can't say I'm sure how best to use these two, but I think they also offer some flexibility.

Maybe one can be on a checking line, if their two counterparts are fully caable. With Bolland's offensive skill, if you can get him a decent playmaker to skate with, that line becomes a source for some offense (as it was last year w/ Versteeg and the year before w/ Havlat). Maybe that playmaker is Frolik. Joined with Bolland and Brouwer, maybe they can handle the Sedins and provide a bit of punch the other way. I can't insist this is the case, but I like that JQ's got the possibility to play with.

Bickell? Not exactly sure what to make of him, but sort of seems like Brouwer, maybe just not as accomplished yet. He's skated a lot as a checker and done OK, while his 17 G and 20 A show he's capable with the stick. Throw in a +6 and you can see how he might be a nice piece on any line. He even got a little taste of the playoffs last year to put some experience under his belt. You need random support guys to step up (like Buff did in certain series the past two years) - why can't it be a Bickell?

Finally, two guys I hope to see glued to the press box are Pisani and Dowell. Neither seems to really bring anything of any impact. I guess I'm maybe a little happy to have both around, given that Brouwer and Bolland may not be back. But it's disappointing that neither could turn themselves into a capable enough grinder that I have any excitement about using them on the third line. Ideally you'd like them to be able to form a checking line (maybe with Bickell?) until B&B come back, but that's a lot of minutes for a bunch of blah guys who aren't clearly plus defensive skaters.

Ultimately, all of these support forwards are what I'm putting this series on. Sure there are some questions about our studs being studs, our D being solid, and their guys finally figuring it out. But I've got enough faith that enough will break out way in those things that we can win this series. What I'm not sure about is whether our third line can be that shutdown group necessary to contain a team like Vancouver. Can Bolland get back and effective quickly enough? Can we find him two quality supporting players. And until he is back, can we find others to get the job done?

You've worked your way through a heck of a long post here (can you tell I missed writing these?) - in the end, those three questions right there are what I believe this entire series will hinge on. If we can get positive enough answers from those questions, I say we pull off the upset. If not, it'll be just one more disappointing chapter in a season filled with them.

Me - I think we can do it. Hawks in 7.

Friday, November 5, 2010

And You Are...? (part III)

I started this chain with an intro and write-up on the Goalies last week (here), went on to blueliners a few days ago (here), and am concluding it with my take on the forwards. First, a brief intro taken from that last post to get you up to speed on my purpose here:

...all these new guys in the Hawks sweater are hard to keep up with this early in the year. While only the biggest names get any attention in hockey, the reality is that you definitely need contributions from at least 20 guys over the course of a season. So it's gonna take a while to understand exactly where all that production is coming from with this year.

After 14 games, at least half of which I've seen, I'm starting to get a baseline understanding of what these players might end up being when all is said and done in 2010-2011. And I'm very encouraged, as I thought I would be. It's early and we're still w/o Campbell, one of the most important pieces to our championship puzzle, but we've put up a nice lil win streak and been in every game, despite a very compressed schedule to start the year.

Sure we're getting carried by the core guys, but some of the newcomers are definitely doing their part. Hockey isn't a game where just a few strong players can do it all forever, so all the standings points we've earned mean you should be encouraged by the new guard of role players.

Here's what I've gathered on all the Hawks "newcomers" this year - I quote newcomers because I'm including everyone on this list who wasn't a regular and significant piece of the squad last season, even if they did log some time w/ the Cup winners.

Last Week - Goalies. A few days ago - Blueliners. Today - Forwards.

W Bryan Bickell, 24 years old, 4th season, $542k for 3 years, #29

We saw a bit of Bickell last season, enough to be encouraged about his potential to step into a Top 6 role this season, especially after he was very respectable in his few games of playoff exposure. Bickell had 23 regular season and three post-season games under his belt over the past three years, so he's not a perfect stranger to the NHL game. Still, this would be his first chance at regular minutes and a significant role.

So far the results have been up-and-down, as you'd expect. As is JQ's way, Bickell has been shuffled all over the lineup, seeing his minutes fluctuate from 10 to 19 on any given night. But he has been given some top line time and at first looked productive enough, notching 4 points in the first 5 games. Though that also included a -2 and three Hawk losses, so Coach Q has since moved him around.

But after that hot start, Bickell stopped making much of an impact - not just on the score sheet, but in bringing much physicality, energy, or anything of note to the game. He wasn't playing terrible, just not showing that hunger to impact the game that you'd like to see out of new guys trying to make their mark.

The result was a pair of healthy scratches and a role that now is limited to only 10 minutes, despite the loss of Hossa and Bolland. Somehow he only got 10 minutes in Wednesday's game against NJ, when JQ essentially ran w/ three lines, thanks to using Hendry and Scott as his 4th line wingers.

The good news for Bickell is that after putting up a shot or less in six of seven games, he's got two shots on goal each of the past three games, in only that 10 minutes of ice time. He hasn't been negative since the third game of the season and even has a couple of positive nights (not bad given four losses in the last five games he skated).

What do I make of Bickell? I think he can definitely be a nice complimentary top line player, but I feel that Q needs to commit more to developing his players. With the forwards it's less a matter of giving ice time to the youngsters as it is in putting them in a set role with the same pair of linemates and allowing them to build a rapport, some comfort, and ultimately, real confidence.

There is no question in my mind that one of the reasons the Hawks developed so many great role players that we were so sorry to see go this off-season is because they were around when the Hawks were still an un-established team and thus got long stretches of good opportunities to develop a niche for themselves.

I dig JQ wanting to win every night out, but he's also got to see that he'll be earning more points down the road if he shows some restraint and some patience by setting some lines that allow guys like Bickell to find out what kind of player they can be most productive as in the NHL. Bickell has size and a nice touch and certainly doesn't mind doing the dirty work. But can he hold his defensively? Does he have a nose for the goal or a propensity to take advantage of rare chances that come up? Is he a forechecker, a guy who can camp out in front of the net, someone who can skate all over or provide energy?

There are so many different attributes and approaches that a player can take to make himself into any number of different productive roles necessary on a championship team. Versteeg, Ladd, Eager, Burish, Buff, Madden, and Frasier all served very different purposes on the team last year, all based on what they brought to the table and the responsibilities they were allowed to grow into over time.

So JQ needs to appreciate that not only must he give guys like Bickell a chance to develop and show how good they are, but he needs to give them a chance to develop and show in what ways they can be contribute.

For now, I'm not sure where Bickell fits. But I do have faith he fits somewhere. Ideally I'd like him to be a guy capable of playing on the Top 6 if called upon and also a strong contributor to our power play unit. But given how effective both Brouwer and Kopecky have been on the top lines, it's also important that Bickell carve out a nice for himself as a guy capable of filling a Bottom 6 role. That means being a tough enough defender to serve on the checking unit or showcasing tremendous spark and tenacity to drive the energy line - neither of which I've really seen out of this kid yet.

Still, the skills seem to be there, a decent head for the game seems to be there, and a decent desire to make a mark seems to be there. So I'd definitely like to see JQ slot Bickell into one set role and just let him grow into it. I think we'll end up with a nice support piece that way.

W Fernando Pisani, 33 years old, 8th season, $500k for 1 years, #15

I like the idea of Pisani, and not just cause he's got a cool name. It's more that a veteran who's remained in the NHL due to his checking and PK skills is a valuable piece to a title-contending team, especially one that just got rid of all of its role players.

But I've got one issues with Pisani - I don't like him on the 3rd line, as he's clearly extremely limited offensively and also is taking valuable ice time from younger, more dynamic and capable player. I think he should be down on the 4th line, ensuring it's capable defensively to get a shift here or there against a non-4th line and not hurt the Hawks, and saving his legs for the PK.

I can't say I've seen enough of Pisani to know if he really is all that on the PK (much like with blueliners, it takes some time to fairly judge a skater's defensive abilities), but I'm gonna have a bit of faith in the Hawks front office and JQ until I see for myself otherwise (or hear enough rumblings). Given that he's the #2 forward in terms of PK minutes and that our PK unit has been a disappointment so far (only 83%, below average in the NHL after being one of the best going last year), I'm certainly not impressed.

But for $500k, I think the Hawks are smart to have picked this guy up and I like that JQ is trying to see if he's got a nice veteran defensive forward. I just think the Hawks would be better off with him getting the limited 4th line minutes instead of extended third line ones. Again, this is a case where JQ can't fall in love with the reliable vet - he's got to show a lil faith in his youngsters and know that Pisani will still be there to lean on down the road, when things really matter.

C Jake Dowell, 25 years old, 4th season, $525k for 1 year, #28

For a savings of $175k, the Hawks went from a known commodity in Fraser to an unknown in Dowell at their 4th line center. While I didn't love Fraser - he should have been better in the face-off dot - I also didn't mind him, as he worked hard, flashed just enough offense, and seemed a respectable physical and defensive presence as a 4th line pivot.

However, JQ didn't seem sold, sending him to the press box in each of the last two playoff runs, so giving up on Fraser to open up a shot for another prospect probably was the right call. Now the question is whether Dowell is the right guy to take advantage of the position that's opened up.

One thing I don't like right off the bat is Dowell's mediocre face-off percentage, down at a subpar 46%. However, he's only lost 8 more draws than he's taken and his percentage has been climbing steadily up of late, so maybe Dowell just needed some time to get comfortable. Much like with Fraser, it bothers me when a grindy 4th line center isn't bringing plus face-off skills to the table. Hopefully Dowell will get there.

Ditto for the PK unit, where Dowell is pulling only a minute a game. Sure, some of that is because the Hawks have a nice group of vets who can get the job done. But as a young 4th line center, I'd like to see Dowell take the pressure off of Toews and Sharp by playing well enough to assume twice as much PK time.

Other than that, I'm not sure what else to make of Dowell. He's skated with some decently skilled forwards - first Stalberg and Skille, then up as a 3rd liner with Bolland out. But I don't know if he's got upside beyond a 4th liner. I don't know if he's got either the scoring/playmaking touch or defensive shutdown ability to get regular center minutes.

Ideally, Dowell would be a 4th line plus center, meaning he brings more to the table than most 4th line centers and doesn't kill you if he has to skate a period or a few games as a 3rd liner. Because he's young, because the organization seems to like him, and because he's got a lot of talent around him, I'm gonna have some faith that Dowell might just become that before the year is out.

W Viktor Stalberg, 24 years old, 2nd season, $850k for 1 year, #25

Stalberg came over as the key piece in the Versteeg deal, bringing with a perceived ability to score thanks to an impressive combination of speed and size. The 9 goals he scored in 40 games of limited play last year suggested that the young Swede could thrive if given a chance next to some real gamers like the Hawks had.

So far he seems to be the newcomer with the most upside, tho as with so many other such talented youngsters, there are questions about his commitment. Not that he's been a major slacker, just that he hasn't shown an every shift, up-and-down the ice tenacity that you hope for out of someone trying to earn a major role.

Still, the guy can definitely play, showing a nice touch, great wheels, good size, and decent skills. With Hossa going down, he's getting some top line minutes and doing solidly with em. But I wonder if he's better suited as the offensive component of the third line? Mainly because the top two lines aren't hurting for skill - what they need is a hard worker who can support the studs.

However, on the third line, the Hawks were well-served last season with some skaters who could both check the other team's top line while also providing some scoring punch themselves. The question is can you get Stalberg to work hard enough to hold his own in the Hawks end so that he can provide that offensive spark?

Again, to me the answer lies in JQ just committing to Stalberg in that role. It's tougher now with Bolland and Hossa out, but when those guys return, I'd like to see Stalberg squarely installed on the third line to grow into the role. Given the coaching staff's track record and the way the stars on this team work so hard and demand the same of everyone around them, I have faith they'll be able to make Stalberg a respectable defensive presence.

And I have little doubt that he's going to be an impact player offensively. Will he be a stud? Maybe if he ends up paired with the right guys. But even without that, I think he'll be a guy who provides second level production and has to be respected as a threat to score or create chances.

W Jack Skille, 23 years old, 4th season, $600k for 1 year, #20

Skille was a high 1st round pick the year after Kane but has bounced between the NHL and AHL (mostly in the AHL) the last few years, unable to break through to command a regular role, despite a few opportunities afforded to him. His speed is his biggest asset, but supposedly he can score and isn't a small guy by any stretch, so a spot on the top line is within his potential.

Personally I think that being buried in the AHL last year was the best thing that could have happened to this kid longterm. I think it's evident that it made him hungry and even desperate. Whereas before Skille didn't seem talented enough to skate Top 6 nor bring the right assets to the table to be a Bottom 6 wing, now I think he's going to end up a heck of a Bottom 6 player.

While it's been frustrating to watch him unable to bury the many chances he's gotten, you have to give Skille the credit of working hard and using his speed and feel for the game to get some things going in the offensive zone. I loved him paired with Stalberg and hope when everyone's back healthy that the two of them are alongside Bolland on the third.

Again, is Skille a great defensive player? Probably not, but that doesn't mean he can't be. To me he's got two of the most important skills - tenacity and speed. Throw in that he's respectably physical and has a good head for the game, and to me Skille just needs time and the clear assignment of turning himself into a plus checking line player to do just that.

Along with Stalberg, I really think there's some high-end potential here. Maybe not superstar high end, but real plus role player type of ceiling. Buff, Versteeg, Ladd - those guys were at that level and the Hawks could never have dreamed of winning without them. I believe Stalberg and Skille can reach those same heights, but sorry to be redundant, but JQ just needs to commit to it.

That will be the big challenge for the coaching staff this year. Not just the Xs and Os and motivation, which I think they're plenty good at. But in forcing themselves to put these young guys into positions that they might not be capable of. Having the faith in their abilities and the fact that in time, these guys will rise to the challenge. And when they do, you'll be in a far better place to win the Cup.

In fact, I'll even say that I don't think the Hawks can win the Cup unless the coaching staff makes that commitment. I've seen it happen on many a team, even played on one - the coaches refused to take the risk to develop their role players and depth, over-relied on their proven commodities, and eventually ran into a challenge that was too great for just the core stars to carry the team through.

I sure as heck hope that isn't what the Hawks are getting themselves into this year. I'm gonna continue to harp on it - JQ needs to give these guys some confidence, stability, and clear direction. If he fails to do that, I'm not gonna blame the newcomers, especially the youngsters, for not stepping up. I'm gonna put it on JQ. Especially because of what I've seen, I think the potential is there. It just needs to be properly cultivated.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

And You Are...? (part II)

I started this chain with an intro and write-up on the Goalies last week (here) and am picking it back up today with the blueliners. First, a brief intro taken from that last post to get you up to speed on my purpose here:

...all these new guys in the Hawks sweater are hard to keep up with this early in the year. While only the biggest names get any attention in hockey, the reality is that you definitely need contributions from at least 20 guys over the course of a season. So it's gonna take a while to understand exactly where all that production is coming from with this year.

After 14 games, at least half of which I've seen, I'm starting to get a baseline understanding of what these players might end up being when all is said and done in 2010-2011. And I'm very encouraged, as I thought I would be. It's early and we're still w/o Campbell, one of the most important pieces to our championship puzzle, but we've put up a nice lil win streak and been in every game, despite a very compressed schedule to start the year.

Sure we're getting carried by the core guys, but some of the newcomers are definitely doing their part. Hockey isn't a game where just a few strong players can do it all forever, so all the standings points we've earned mean you should be encouraged by the new guard of role players.

Here's what I've gathered on all the Hawks "newcomers" this year - I quote newcomers because I'm including everyone on this list who wasn't a regular and significant piece of the squad last season, even if they did log some time w/ the Cup winners.

Last Week - Goalies. Today - Blueliners. Day 3 - Forwards.

D Nick Boynton, 31 years old, 10th season, $500k for 1 year, #24

Boynton was an afterthought acquisition last season to even the most diehard of Hawks fans, a guy picked up just before the trade deadline as apparent organizational depth. But when Kim Johnsson died and Jordan Hendry didn't cut it for JQ, Boynton found himself skating in the final few games of the post-season, earning himself the most unlikely of etchings on the Stanley cup.

With Sopel gone and the budget tight, Boynton was thrust into that same grindy 5th blueliner role. He'll be asked to skate on the PK, block shots with reckless abandon, and step up to handle a bit more ice time whenever the Top 4 need it.

Unfortunately, that time just occurred thanks to Campbell's injury (which he fortunately has returned from). That forced Keith to play 30 minutes and Seabrook 26 minutes a night, and for a while, that meant Boynton putting was out there for over 22 a game. On a lot of nights, that was more than the Hammer (getting around 18 himself).

My thought so far - Boynton is definitely a Sopel clone, in that he's mistake-prone, a bit cloddy, definitely physical, and sometimes a bit retarded. But like Sopel, I can see Boynton showing some real some veteran value and if asked to be strictly a 15 minute, 3rd pairing, PK specialist type, end up being a solid piece to a championship puzzle.

But that is far from assured and the recent lowering in ice time and the fact that he was a healthy scratch at the Rangers suggest that JQ isn't sold on his late-season Sopel-like potential. Or maybe JQ is just trying to see what he's got in some of the other newbie blueliners (young and old) or just keeping all of his guys fresh and not allowing anyone to be scratched for too long.

Whatever the case may be, I can't say I'm a huge Boynton fan, but I'm trying to learn the lesson of Sopel last year, where I hated the guy all regular season long, only to see him become a truly invaluable asset to the blueline for the Cup run. Basically, I'm withholding judgment, as even veterans need some time to get used to the system, figure out their role, and then start to thrive in.

So like Sopel, hopefully JQ can keep Boynton in his comfort zone - killing penalties, blocking shots, taking 5th or even 6th blueliner minutes - and allow him to become an asset. Hopefully that early love affair, as represented by his huge ice time, was not a choice of JQ's and instead the coach gets this guys very limited potential.

But there is potential to Boynton being an asset this year - not only is the bottom of the defense a bit suspect, but it's a fact of every team that you can never have enough capable blueliners. Injuries happen and unlike with wings, it's hard to hide guys who can't really cut it on the NHL level. So even if Boynton is just a 7th defenseman, if he can get the job done, he'll be someone the Hawks need again before all is said and done.

D Nick Leddy, 19 years old, rookie, $1.117M per for 3 years, #8

Leddy has already been shuffled back to the minors after JQ initially bought in to the idea of having another puck-moving blueliner out there developing his NHL game, but ultimately decided he just wasn't comfortable enough with the kid to keep him around.

I don't know what to think about this - I guess I'd prefer to see Leddy brought along slowly, given time in the AHL to develop his game to the pro level while also making huge strides forward in size and strength (as 19-year olds will do).

On the other hand, the Hawks definitely could use another player who can skate the puck from the defensive end and with some patience and commitment, Leddy might have blossomed into a very valuable 6th blueliner with offensive skills. Especially because it's not like the Hawks have a lot of other impressive options right now (nor, with the cap as it is, any real prospect of changing that fact).

But that still might happen - if Leddy is given a half season or so to take some steps forward, maybe like Hammer did two years ago, Leddy can rejoin the team down the stretch and step right into a crucial role. For HJ that meant riding shotgun with Campbell on the #2 pairing, a pretty huge responsibility. But the bar would be much lower for Leddy, who'd just have to fill 3rd pairing minutes and maybe even some second unit PP time.

It's hard to really judge a blueliner w/o a bunch of exposure to him, so I'm gonna reserve judgment on this kid. I do think we all should be encouraged by the fact that he played well enough to even warrant a shot and that he wasn't obviously terrible. With some development time and then the right moves to bring him along slowly, Leddy could definitely be the next generation of puck-moving blueliner the Hawks are always looking for.

One thing to definitely keep in mind for future years - the Hawks really won't get much for cap flexibility until they can move Campbell. Now that may never happen, but it's the only option available to the team that is at least palatable. Or would be IF a guy like Leddy would step up into that role.

However, that's not an easy role to fill - in fact, that lack of capable puck-moving defensemen is a big reason Campbell got so much money to begin with and why he continues to be an invaluable part of this team (as we continue to be reminded every time he misses much time). So keep an eye on Leddy - he may just be developing into a hugely important asset.

D Jassen Cullimore, 37 years old, 14th season, $500k for 1 year, #5

I'm gonna forgive the spelling of his name (it's just pronounced Jason, so why not spell it in the universally accepted way?!? Why must parents sentence their child to a lifetime of annoyingly having to correct pronunciation or spelling... but I digress) and instead focus on the fact that last year, at the age of 36, this guy was willing to play a whole season in the AHL with no promise of ever getting back. And then when he was looking at the same thing all over again as a 37-year old, Cullimore again accepted it and kept on plugging along for the Hawks minor league affiliate.

And now he's finally getting the chance he wanted, to return to the NHL and contribute. The fact that it's contributing on a Stanley Cup contender is some sweet ass icing, I'm sure.

For a long time Cullimore was a pretty productive grindy defenseman for the Lightning, even winning a Cup with them right before the lockout. On the other side, the Hawks signed him for some decent change to help bolster their feeble blueline... but as you probably don't remember, he didn't live up to expectations. After two poor years he moved on to Florida where had a bit of a rebirth in the 07-08 year, only to struggle again in 08-09 before finding himself in the minors for all of last season.

I kinda figured Cullimore was just gonna hang around as a healthy scratch until Campbell got healthy, but after JQ gave up on Leddy (understandable) and Hendry (more of a head-scratcher), Cullimore has become a regular on the blueline. In fact, in Campbell's first game back, Boynton was the healthy scratch - not Cullimore.

Again, it's not always easy to judge a defenseman after just a few games, but I haven't noticed him, which like offensive lineman, is a good thing, and the reports I've been reading seem to suggest he's doing alright for himself. Cullimore is ideally not gonna skate more than 15, maybe 17 minutes, grab a small bit of PK time if really necessary.

But if he can be just serviceable next to Boynton or Hendry as a veteran presence, we might have a quietly decent, if limited, third pairing to take some of the pressure off the top 4, at least in the regular season, while also having some depth for the dings and dents that will most certainly come up this year.

Especially with the way Keith and Seabrook log time and the way both of them wore down a bit before the stretch run, the Hawks would do well to have a solid 7 NHL-caliber defensemen they could lean on to keep minutes at more reasonable levels for the Top 4.

Finally, I'll go ahead and say right now that Cullimore, mainly for grinding it out in the AHL at such an advanced age, but also because he's come up and quietly taken care of business, is fast become an irrational favorite of mine. So expect me to be openly celebrating any success he has and giving him an undue amount of patience with his failings.

D Jordan Hendry, 26 years old, 3rd season, $600k for 1 year, #6

Hendry is hardly a newcomer, having played in 43 games last year and a bunch of the post-season. In fact, he has his name on the Cup, something that requires a respectably high level of participation on a Cup-winning team. Still, last season he wasn't a regular in the sense of getting out every night at one position, instead juggling between the 4th line, the 3rd D pairing, and being a healthy scratch. So I figured I'd throw him into the mix as someone worth knowing a bit more about.

This year it looked like he'd have a nightly spot on the blueline all but wrapped up, especially once Campbell went down. Instead Hendry has seen just about everyone get their shot before he has - Leddy, Scott, and Cullimore all skating in games that Hendry watched from the press box.

For whatever reason, JQ just hasn't ever shown much faith in Hendry. And he's done all he could to avoid having to give the kid regular blueline minutes. Moving Buff back, going to Boynton in the Stanley Cup Finals, or just making sure Hendry took as few shifts as possible, JQ has found a way to avoid relying on him for a while now.

While I can definitely see some of the reason - Hendry often looks unsure of himself leading to costly or just annoying mistakes - I'm also of the belief that the kid needs more of a shot than he's gotten. To me that lack of confidence and comfort has a chance to be solved just by getting regular ice time. Especially when Campbell was out, why not give Hendry a start every night next to the same blueliner?

Instead JQ jerked him around, scratching him a lot and limiting his minutes. Through the first 10 games, Hendry had played only 4 times, once for a mere 5 minutes. Look, Hendry doesn't have a ton of upside, that's clear. But he can definitely skate well, handle the puck solidly, and certainly fits with the high-flying nature of this team.

From what I've seen of him - and I've watched him closely in the hopes of seeming he take the next step - he really just needs more experience and confidence. I'm firmly of the belief that if you give Hendry a guaranteed starting spot for the next 20 games aside the same reliable veteran (I'd prefer Cullimore to Boynton, as he seems a smarter, more steady player), that at the end of that stretch, you'd have a nice young 3rd pairing blueline asset on your hands.

And who knows, maybe JQ finally is starting to think the same thing after watching a number of other blueliners look a bit iffy out there so far this year. For the last four games, Hendry has played every one and gotten a steady 12-13 minutes. Hopefully that remains the case for the next couple of months, because his wheels alone make Hendry worth really committing to.

Because as much as Cullimore and Boynton use veteran savvy, physicality, and grit to more or less hold their own, they are limited by the fact that they just aren't very athletic on a team of guys who can just fly around the ice. Sopel was about as good in that role as anyone could expect and he still always looked like a square peg in a round hole on this team. It took a long while for Sopel to truly rise to the level of an asset and it's far from certain that either Boynton or Cullimore will be capable enough in those intangible areas to do so as well.

Plus, as I discussed with Cullimore, a developed Hendry would provide you with always needed blueline depth. Boynton and Cullimore are older, Keith and Seabrook log a ton of minutes, and Campbell's been injured seriously twice in the last six months. You know what you're going to get, more or less, out of Scott, Boynton, and Cullimore. Sure they could use some more ice time to get comfortable in the system, but they don't need to go out there everyday.

However, with Hendry, he definitely does need to be out there every day, again because it's all about confidence and comfort with this kid. Instill those things in him and you should have an NHL-capable blueliner that brings rare athleticism to the 3rd pairing. And if he doesn't take that step forward - well, now you know for sure what you've got in Hendry and can move on.

D John Scott, 28 years old, 3rd season, $512k for 2 years, #32

Only 10 Hawks skaters played in the first 10 games... somehow this guy was one of them. Really. I can't say I've personally noticed him be all that terrible, but you don't have to look very hard to understand it's been the case. First off, nearly every Hawks commentator, even those who are knee deep with the team and thus rarely very critical, have questioned the regular role this guy has on this team. Second, the numbers speak for themselves - he's playing barely 8 minutes a night (despite being part of a very thin and inconsistent blue line) and regularly sitting for long stretches when the games get tight.

Scott's a huge man (6-8, 255) and actively seeks out fights and hits to help keep the opponent honest. So far he's only had one negative night and that was offset by a +2 in the only game he got significant amounts of ice time (nearly 17 minutes in a victory in Buffalo). So there are some obvious justifications for keeping him around.

However, on two separate occasions Scott's dressed and then logged only two and a half minutes of ice time - essentially forcing the team to skate a man short. Everybody complains about how slow and awkward Scott is, while also pointing out that he really hasn't been much of a physical force, neither getting many guys to fight him nor delivering big hits when he's out there.

So why has he dressed for so many games? Some of it has been a misguided sense that the Hawks need the protection. Misguided both in that Scott hasn't actually provided any protection (teams have been just as physical as ever) nor is he really good enough to get on the ice enough to effectively police anything.

Most importantly, his continued place in the nightly lineup has been misguided because, much as I discussed with Hendry above, the Hawks need to develop their depth, both on the blue line and at wing (where Scott has skated a few games). Two universal truths for any Cup Champion are that you can never have enough capable NHL defenseman and that you need strong role players supporting your stars. This is especially the case for a team coming off a very long season that demanded incredible amounts of ice time from its top skaters, is looking to do the very same thing this year, and has minimal cap room to get help from the outside.

Sure, it's nice to have a policeman out there, but if Scott can't justify the minutes with his play, it's pointless to dress him and pretend he's having any effect on the game. It seems clear Scott doesn't have the ability nor potential to be anything but a goon, so he should be a healthy scratch until the demand for some enforcement is clear and undeniable.

Instead, his defensive minutes should be taken for now by Hendry, Boynton, and Cullimore, with Leddy getting time if the need arises and he's made the necessary steps forward as a pro. And Scott most definitely should NEVER dress as a wing in place of Skille or Stalberg or really any of the Hawks forwards. Those guys need every bit of ice time they can get and especially now that Hossa and Bolland are out, the Hawks need every bit of production they can provide. Pissing that away for a one-dimensional brute in 12 of 14 games has been one of the biggest mistakes JQ has made this year.

In general, I'd give the new blueliners an incomplete - pretty much what I would have expected. Sure it'd have been nice for someone to surprise and make an instant impact, but the reality is that most blueliners need time to both get comfortable and to really show what they're capable of. It's been nice that Cullimore has looked decent and that Boynton has seemingly justified a lot of minutes for stretches. It's nice that Hendry has finally gotten a steady dose of starts to string together. It was even nice to get Leddy a taste of NHL action and to have Scott exposed as the total one-dimensional goon he is.

But the reality is that there are 68 more games on the schedule and it will take maybe another 40 or 50 before I really feel like I'll have a grasp on what the Hawks feature after their very impressive Top 4. Do keep an eye out, because hockey is most definitely about quality of depth as much as it is about the headliners, so developing two or three capable NHL-level defenseman will be as crucial to a Cup defense as anything else.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

And You Are...? (part I)

First and foremost, if you're heading to the UC for a game, make sure you pick up a copy of the Committed Indian gameday program outside of the stadium before you go in. Just look around a bit, the guys are always out there before the games selling it. Not only is it cheap (easily the cheapest thing you'll buy at the UC all night) and must-read Hawks commentary (as is most everything at their website,, but it's worth having at the game if only for the two pages that lay out the predicted lineups for each team:

This is an example from the recent game against the Canucks. Obviously you can't appreciate the detail here, but you get the idea - it's a great visual and informational layout of all you'd need to know about all the skaters you'll probably see that night. Simple, concise, and makes it really easy to keep everyone straight. I was pumped when I saw it for the first time this year, so much so that I sort of reprinted this one w/o their permission. I hope they don't hammer me for it, but I figure I'm a lawyer and they're a bunch of drunks, so...

One of the reasons the above page is especially valuable this season is because of all these new guys in the Hawks sweater are hard to keep up with this early in the year. While only the biggest names get any attention in hockey, the reality is that you definitely need contributions from at least 20 guys over the course of a season. So it's gonna take a while to understand exactly where all that production is coming from with this year.

After 11 games, at least half of which I've seen, I'm starting to get a baseline understanding of what these players might end up being when all is said and done in 2010-2011. And I'm very encouraged, as I thought I would be. It's early and we're still w/o Campbell, one of the most important pieces to our championship puzzle, but we've put up a nice lil win streak and been in every game, despite a very compressed schedule to start the year.

Sure we're getting carried by the core guys, but some of the newcomers are definitely doing their part. Hockey isn't a game where just a few strong players can do it all forever, so all the standings points we've earned mean you should be encouraged by the new guard of role players.

Here's what I've gathered on all the Hawks "newcomers" this year - I quote newcomers because I'm including everyone on this list who wasn't a regular and significant piece of the squad last season, even if they did log some time w/ the Cup winners.

Today - Goalies. Next - Blueliners. Day 3 - Forwards.

G Marty Turco, 35 years old, 9th season, $1.3M for 1 year, #30

By far the biggest off-season acquisition, Turco has a hell of a track record. He's started almost 500 games in his career and won over 260 of em (good for a stellar .580 win percentage). Before the lockout he was a beast in net, posting a GAA under 2 in his career. As the game opened up with the new post-lockout rules, Turco remained strong, winning an impressive 41 and 38 games the first two seasons out, then a still respectable 32 and 33 the years after.

Last season Marty, like the Stars, took a step back, failing to appear in 55+ games or win 30+ for the first time since he became a #1 goalie. The Hawks were wise to see thru those numbers to a guy who posted a .913 save percentage, his best since the lockout (and in fact, as good as what he posted the year before the labor break).

So how's he been doing? On opening night in Colorado, he stopped 37 of 40 shots before allowing the OT winner in. Two nights later he could must only 23 saves on 26 shots in the Banner Ceremony night against Detroit. OK, but not great and possibly cause for concern if it kept up.

Then? 4 starts, 4 Ws, and not a single one featuring anything lower than a pristine .927 save percentage, all while facing 30-40 shots a night. He followed that up with a bit of an off night, but rebounded last night with a pristine 33 saves on 34 shots against one of the hottest offenses in the entire NHL.

Now I'm not counting on Turco to end the season w/ a .921 save percentage, but it's outstanding to see he can be that good for stretches, because there will come a time in the playoffs where that's what the Hawks will need. No question right now the Hawks need some great goalie play. This is not the defensive system we saw last year, holding opponents to something like 20 or 25 shots a game. With Campbell out, Sopel and Barker gone, and so many new guys at forward, JQ's lockdown system just isn't happening.

So the fact that Turco is seeing around 35 shots a game and still has 11 out of 16 points for his squad? Yes, please. Especially on a measly $1.3M one-year deal.

And if you really wanna be sold, Niemi has four starts and been pretty terrible in three of them, while the Sharks other goalie has been absolutely sparkling. We're talking a very small sample size here, but kinda lends some credence to the idea that Niemi was a product of the system.

G Corey Crawford, 25 years old, 3rd season, $800k for 1 year, #50

That third season thing is misleading - Crawford has appeared in games each of the last two years, but he entered this season with only 5 career starts. For all intents and purposes, this guy is a rook.

So far, we've only seen three starts of his and that light workload will remain the case, as Turco is definitely a guy who wants to be in the net 60 times a year. However, Marty is getting older, the Hawks don't need to chase regular season points as desperately as most teams, and the plan certainly has to be for Turco to log 20+ games in the postseason.

All of that means that Crawford, if he can play respectably, will get 20-30 starts this year. If he can replicate what he's done in his first three, I'd be a happy camper.

He pulled out a tough W on the road against Ryan Miller and the Sabres, stopping 32 of 35 shots, and he lost a heartbreaker to the Preds when the Hawks went to sleep in the third, giving up a one-goal advantage and then losing in the final 30-seconds thanks to a horrendous penalty taken by Nick Boynton. He had another tough-luck loss against Columbus, stopping a stellar 37 of 40 shots, but coming up on the short end of a 3-2 game.

I've gotten to see two of those games and I can attest that so far this kid looks legit. I also remember him from his spot starts in seasons past and thought the same thing. A little rough around the edges but definitely capable. The excitement over Crawford has been tempered a bit by the fact that his AHL numbers were mediocre.

But chew on this - in 2008-2009, when both Niemi and Crawford were splitting time with Rockford, their numbers were about equal. The very next year Niemi was able to backstop the Hawks to a Cup. Is Crawford just as capable? Ya know, maybe. Certainly if the Hawks play the kind of D and get the kind of clutch scoring they did last season. From what I've seen - an admittedly small but still telling body of work - I think Crawford has what it takes IF, and that's definitely a bit if, he has the heart/mind to take the heat and grind of an NHL regular and post-season.

Ideally we won't find that out for another year or two, but at least for now, it's cool to know it might be the case. Keep watching him to see if his development arc suggests the same to you.

Tomorrow, I'll discuss the many new faces on the blueline (Boynton, Leddy, Cullimore, Hendry, and Scott), and next week wrap it up with the forwards (Bickell, Pisani, Dowell, Stalberg, and Skille).

As always, any comments are appreciated.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

"D!" "Fence!"

So the title defense starts tonight... were you even aware? Hard to believe that it's time for hockey again, especially given how late last season went. Throw in the fact that the baseball playoffs just started, that football is only at the quarter post, and that it's pretty warm here in Chicago, and I'm just not feeling very NHL-ie right now.

Some day I'll bore you with my theory on how the hockey season should be timed (think Stanley Cup Playoffs filling the "Dead Zone" every night), but for now the NHL powers that be somehow think it makes sense to be discreet as possible when kicking off your season. You know, might as well start playing when the sporting world's attention couldn't be more diverted from you.

For the Hawks, this might actually be a good thing. As much confidence as I have in them (if I was forced to bet everything I had on just one NHL team to win it all, no question it'd be the Hawks, and that's not because I'm a homer), there's no question the Hawks are gonna need a bit of time to get everything working as they want it. There are just too many new faces, too many unproven assets, to think that there won't be growing pains, probably significant ones.

So maybe it's best that the city and our sports commentators will be distracted by the Bears O Line, another Boozer injury, and baseball teams that don't suck to hammer the Hawks for problems that are guaranteed to happen... but not guaranteed to last. I've got faith in this squad, faith in the moves that were made, faith in the overall approach to building and retaining a contending squad that this front office is following.

See, my cleverly crafted post title has two meanings. First, it represents the start of our title defense - that's a damn exciting thing to be a part of something we need to remind ourselves about. When you start doubting this squad, just remember that at the end of the day, everyone else has been shown beatable - these Hawks have yet to be.

Second, I wanted to highlight the specific reason I think WAY too much is being made of the Hawks off-season talent exodus. Simply put, the Hawks did not lose a whole lot of what made them one of the best defensive teams in the NHL and at the end of the day, in hockey just like all sports, defense is what wins championships.

Cliche, but so incredibly true. Look across every sport and you'll see the same thing - teams w/ no offense but a great defense able to win titles, while high octane offenses w/o any D always fall short. And equally as convincing - teams with great offenses only taking home the title once they finally were able to upgrade their D (think Rams, Colts, and Saints in the NFL, or the Yankees finally getting some SPs last year in baseball).

So I'm just blown away by the universal belief (based on all of the predictions I've seen) that the Hawks will not win the Cup this year. Sure, the Hawks lost a 20-, two 17-, a 10-, and two 7-goal scorers from last season. But they still have their Top 5 goal scorers and just as important, their top 7 assist men.

Yes, Versteeg, Buff, and Ladd all were valuable offensive pieces that could score and create a lot more than most role players. But not only is the majority of the Hawks high-powered O still intact, the incredible amount of talent that is there should allow the incoming role players to quickly become productive players in the opponents' end.

However, even if these youngsters don't make up for all the lost scoring (and I think they'll be close, but definitely still short), this Hawks team can still be just as good because their defense is largely intact or improved. Not just their blueliners, but their key defensive forwards and their goaltending.

Your Top 4 defenseman - all back, all still in their prime or possibly getting better (I think both the Hammer and Seabrook still have upside, scary given how good they are). Your three two-way centerman - all back, with Bolland following up a real playoff coming out party that had to establish him as one of the better shut-down pivotmen in the league.

On top of that, it's distinctly possible the Hawks have upgraded the most important single position to defense - the goalie. Niemi played solidly down the stretch and through the playoffs, gave the Hawks some big games and big stops when they needed it, and in all was the kind of goalie you can win a Cup with (an obvious statement now, but still the best way to describe him). But Niemi wasn't going to carry you to any Cups (as the Sharks will learn, if their defensive work doesn't drastically improve) and in my opinion did nothing more behind a stellar Blackhawks defensive scheme than maybe 15 or even 20 other NHL goalies could have done.

In his place, the Hawks got a guy in Turco who showed, prior to his two-year hiatus, that he could be a real beast in the playoffs, carrying a middling Dallas team to the Western Conference Finals. Back in the day he thrived in the defense-first system that former Stars coach Ken Hitchcock utilized, posting some of the best season totals out of a goalie of the last few decades. And while I think a tad bit too much is being made of it, going from the basically stickless Niemi to one of the league's top puck-handling keepers is gonna help this team on both ends.

So with three great centerman and four stud defensive blueliners back, as well as a possible upgrade in goal, doesn't it seem a bit stupid that all of the national "experts" jumped off the Hawks' bandwagon so quickly? Can't you see this squad playing the same lockdown D that carried them to one of the league's best regular season marks and then, of course, the Cup, given the great majority of the same outstanding defensive pieces?

No question Madden, Versteeg, Ladd, and Sopel, even Buff, Frasier, and Eager were contributors on the defensive end that will be missed. But are you really worried that they aren't replaceable, at least defensively? The Hawks 4th line might not have the same offensive spark it had in the past, the third line might not be the same defacto scoring line it was last year. (I say might - who knows, as the Hawks do have a lot of nice young talent that might just surprise).

But defensively, doesn't it seem plausible that the athletic, hard-working, playing-for-their-hockey lives group of youngsters the Hawks have will be real assets? Especially given JQ's demand of such? Especially given the way two of your biggest stars and leaders - Toews and Hossa - kill themselves in their own end? Especially given the fact that these new guys won't be in roles demanding much more of them than to be complimentary pieces that do all the little things?

Here's how I see it - the Hawks will stumble a bit out of the gate as the players all learn to skate with so many guys they've never shared ice time with. They'll have some troubles early without Campbell's 20-25 minutes a night for the first month or so. They'll run into some issues juggling around the youngsters, figuring out which ones are keepers and whom should play where.

But along the way they'll still be winning at a decent clip, just because they are so talented and because the NHL features a lot of teams that are very beatable. And then they'll get Campbell back, just as they've finally learned what they've got in all these new faces, finally settled on some semblance of regular lines that work top to bottom. Sure, an injury or two might crop up to slow them down, but again, the core will be enough to overcome whatever happens, just like last year (Hossa, Bolland, and KJohnsson all missing significant time).

The Hawks will enter the playoffs as a top seed, or maybe just as a #5, but still dangerous and favored by a lot of pundits. They'll scuffle a bit in the first round, as once again the newbies have to figure out what playoff hockey entails and JQ has to respond by getting the right lines set for the postseason's unique style of play.

But again, the sheer talent combined with their outstanding system will be enough for these Hawks to triumph in what is a very winnable NHL. Detroit? Always dangerous, but getting old in spots and with an unaccomplished goalie. San Jose and Vancouver? Has all that much changed for a pair of teams shown wanting year after year, both in talent and heart? Washington? Remember the title of this post. New Jersey? How many times does Brodeur after to fail when it matters for people to accept he's just not that good anymore? Pittsburgh and Philly? Probably the two teams I fear the most, but definitely both beatable if the Hawks can be what I think they will be.

So to borrow from the world of sports' greatest homer announcer - "Sit back, relax and strap it down" because the Hawks first title defense in almost 50 years is about to begin... and I'm betting it's gonna be a successful one that you're gonna want to be a part of.