Wednesday, February 15, 2012

What's Next for the Hawks: Is this Rock Bottom Yet?

Is this seriously happening? Is the chatter surrounding the Blackhawks, in the midst of a 9 game losing streak, really considering the firing of Joel Quenneville? Well, that's what it's come to. For a team that was at the top of the Western Conference standings a month ago, it's unfathomable. But as the Hawks keep piling up loss after loss after loss, in a fashion unbecoming of an elite club, Coach Q's seat is only going to get warmer.

It's not all Coach Q's fault
I'm not so sure that I'm ready to fire him yet, and neither are the Blackhawks. GM Stan Bowman has already come out in support of Coach Q, and his players were seemingly aghast at the thought that their coach would be fired. And with good reason:  most of this is not his fault. Sure, Quenneville is at fault for a few things, chief among them the penalty kill. He doesn't alter his strategy on the penalty kill to close passing lanes. But at the same time, he has players who he cannot adjust the scheme, simply because they do not step in to block shots. None of the Hawks' forwards is particularly adept at blocking shots. It's something that forces the back end of the defense, and the goalie, to work that much harder to compensate for. Another thing that Quenneville does wrong is the constant juggling of the lines. Look, I understand that he's looking for something, ANYTHING, to create a spark, but it's February. He should know what works and what doesn't right now. Find your best combinations and stick with it, allowing some chemistry to come at the same time.

Perhaps Bowman came out and gave Quenneville a vote of confidence because he's aware that he has played a huge role in the downfall of the roster right now. As I've written about before, Bowman has yet to make a legitimate acquisition to help the team out. The onus is on him to bring in players that can contribute not only this year, but down the road. He's yet to do that thus far. And at this point in time, how will he be able to this year? The Hawks are in a free fall, desperate for anyone who can contribute. Every other team knows this as well, meaning that any particular team can leverage the hell out of the Hawks in any prospective deal they try to make.

The sad thing is, I think most of this falls on the players. This is the same group that was dominating earlier in the season. I went back and looked at all the things I wrote about the Hawks then, and I can't believe that I watched this same team and thought it was a Stanley Cup contender. Which therein begs the question - can this particular team turn it around? For starters, the schedule isn't going to help matters. Most of their remaining games are against contending teams. Not to mention they have an immensely uphill battle to fight just to remain relevant in the Western Conference. And other than the legitimately big effort the Hawks had in a losing battle last night against the Predators, have we seen anything to make us think that they're going to come out of it?

At this point, you have to hope that the players can dig themselves out of the funk. This is where someone like Jonathan Toews needs to step up, regardless of whether he's a vocal leader or not, and get his teammates out of this funk. There is not going to be some magical defenseman (or two) and goalie descending into Chicago to bail them out. This mess is on the current Hawks to fix. With this same personnel group, they led the Western Conference for a better part of the season. That tells me that they can at least win with this group, even if it's not quite the Stanley Cup contender as of yet. And really, look at the past couple of years, especially in the Eastern Conference. The final standings DO NOT matter. Both Boston and Philadelphia, the last two representatives in the Eastern Conference, were low seeds. The NHL playoffs, as the most exciting and interesting playoffs in sports, are truly wide open every year. It really isn't often that the two top teams from each respective conference play each other.

So, if the Hawks can find some leadership within the team and band together, their coach can adjust his philosophy to reflect the personnel he has on the team, and Bowman can make one or two quality moves before the deadline, the Hawks have a chance to come out of the funk. I recognize that those are long odds, but something has to give, right? Has a team with this much talent ever fallen so hard like this in one season? The fact that we still have world class players like Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, and Patrick Sharp leads me to believe that we can get out of this mess at least enough to make the playoff's and maybe, for now, save Quenneville's job. It doesn't get any easier, starting tomorrow with the Rangers, but really, there's nothing else to hope for. And to think, not even two years ago Coach Q and the Hawks were on top of the hockey world. Time flies.