Friday, October 14, 2011

Here Come the Hawks

Because I had tickets to Thursday's Hawks game against the Winnipeg Jets, I wanted to wait until I had seen them live to write anything about them. The game presented a perfect opportunity; the return of Dustin Byfuglien (whose Stanley Cup playoff heroics will not soon be forgotten) and Andrew Ladd from the Stanley Cup run of 2009-2010 illustrates the on going dynamic in Hawks Nation about the Stanley Cup run and the current Hawks. Not to mention it's pretty cool having a team back in Winnipeg after the miserable failure that was the Atlanta Thrashers.

As Hawks fans, we need to move on. Hawks journalists still get the same questions over and over again about reacquiring the likes of Versteeg, Madden, Byfuglien, Ladd, and Burish. We need to start facing the reality that those guys aren't coming back. In a way, it makes that championship team even more special. Regardless, let's take a look at the current Hawks, with a spotlight on last night's game, and see if we can make this team just as special.

Last years Hawks team was, understandably, rough to watch. The team had been gutted after the championship run because of the NHL's ridiculous hard salary cap. So let's go ahead and characterize that year as a transition year, even if the Round 1 playoff comeback against the hated Vancouver Canucks was insane to watch. Thus, championship expectations return for the 2011-2012 season, and the transition tag is gone. 

In typical Coach Quenneville fashion, the lineup has changed considerably. Last night, he ran out a top line of Jonathan Toews, Andrew Burnette, and Patrick Sharp, and a second line of Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, and Daniel Carcillo, a third line of Dave Bolland, Bryan Bickell, and Michael Frolik, and a fourth line of Marcus Kruger, Jamal Mayers, and Rostislav Olesz. Forced to start Ray Emery due to injury, he joined him on the defensive side with pairings of Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjarmalsson, Nick Leddy and Duncan Keith, and Sean O'Donnell and Steve Montador. 

What I saw last night was encouraging. First, I'm split on the new guys. Granted, the nature of free agency is to hit and miss, but to just hit big and miss small (obviously). From what I saw last night, I like the addition of Burnette the most. He may just be benefitting from a line with Toews and Sharp, but he looks like he adds a good deal of important veteran goal scoring. He also looks great on the power play with Sharp, Toews, and Kane. That power play could be deadly all year. Carcillo looks like he bring exactly what we thought - toughness and some goonish activity. He could benefit from the line with Kane and Hossa, but the chemistry could be lacking and I wouldn't be surprised to see him move from that line. Mayers hasn't done enough for a proper evaulation, and I'll speak more on O'Donnell in a minute.

I love the top line of Toews, Sharp, and Burnette (who wouldn't), so I'll focus more on the others. The second line features the infamous Patrick Kane experiment at center. From what I can see, I absolutely love it so far. It allows Kane to work the center of the ice to maximize his playmaking ability, creating great chemistry between him and Hossa and leading to great goals from the both of them. That line has the chance to make serious noise, and Marian Hossa looks rejuvenated by playing with Patrick Kane. I also love the third line, which only a few have noted because the stars on the top line overshadow them. I'm a massive Davey Bolland fan, and I think he brings something to the table everynight, whether it be offensive creation or defensive dominance. Combine him with Michael Frolik and the physicality of Bryan Bickell, and that line presents the perfect change of pace from the top 2 lines. As for the last line, there is one issue. Olesz is terrible, and needs to be replaced. I'm really hoping that it's Ben Smith (recovering from a concussion from a dirty Detroit hit in the PRESEASON!) to replace him when Smith gets healthy. Either way, the throw in to the Brian Campbell trade has to go. I really like Marcus Kruger - I think he's a raw young center, but contributes with good defense already. And the jury is still out on Mayers.

As for defense, the splitting up of Keith and Seabrook continues. I like the pairing of Seabrook and Hjarmalsson, and hopefully Hjarmalsson looks poised for a big comeback year. I like the concept as well behind the Leddy and Keith pairing, but I have concerns for Keith. It looks like he's pressing too much. He knows he has the expectations of a Norris Trophy candidate every year, but he needs to relax and just play his game. The bad positioning and turnovers in our zone need to stop. I think returning him to a pairing with Seabrook, someone he trusts, might help that, if only because he won't feel the need to do everything himself (even though I feel Nick Leddy will be able to more than handle himself). The last pairing, of O'Donnell and Montador, however, is awful. The two guys are old, and certainly look like it. Granted, defenseman are hard to come by in the NHL, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Hawks were players at the trade deadline in an effort to upgrade that position. The third defense pairing certainly needs it.

Which brings us to goaltending. Corey Crawford has established himself as the starter, and one of the better goaltenders in the NHL. But last year we had a gaping goaltending depth problem with Marty Turco, and that doesn't look like it's changed this year. Emery looked awful last night in replacing the injured Crawford, letting in two early bad goals. I don't know if Salak will be much better, but either way, a backup goaltender is clearly a position of need.

All told, the Hawks look like a team, if they can get past their random listless moments, apparent need to build team chemistry (maybe due to all the new moving parts and line changes from Coach Q), contribute solid defense, and beat Detroit & Vancouver, that can win the way the Hawks team did a couple years ago. And that, not wishing for the return of old Hawks favorites, is the only comparison that matters to that glorious Hawks team.