Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Hawks Fall as Rollercoaster Season Comes to a Close

If, or when, the Hawks were going to fall, this was the way you figured they'd do it. In a game that fluctuated in a way that served as a microcosm of their season, the Hawks dropped Game 6 in embarrassing fashion to end a season that certainly wasn't for the faint of heart. The game, like the season, was up and down; the Hawks started fast, slowed down, then plummeted towards the earth in startling fashion. It was a game that both frustrated fans hoping for a miracle comeback in the series and yet probably, once the emotion and hurt from the loss wears off, comes as a surprise to no one who closely followed the team this season. The loss exposed all the weaknesses of the team right now, so perhaps can serve as a moment to use going forward this summer. And still, above all, it just hurts to see the Hawks go down. It means there's no more Chicago hockey for months.

Maybe after watching that game, that series, and that season, we could use a break. The problems we've talked about ad nauseum surfaced again. You had a blazing start from the Hawks, as they came out in the first period desperate to control the pace and tempo. The team looked great, as tempo and pacing (who would have thought) actually plays to the strengths of the team instead of forcing them to try and match up with Phoenix. But as the Hawks poured shot after shot on a steadfast Mike Smith, you started to get that old feeling creeping in. You knew that if the Hawks didn't get one quick, Phoenix, regardless of how badly outplayed they were, was going to sneak one in and change the pace of the series. And that's exactly what happened. Once Phoenix got their second goal, the floodgates were open.

Smith was simply unstoppable
That first goal tells you everything you need to know about the Hawks defense this year. A technically inferior offensive team launched a shot from the point, a forward didn't block it, and an uncleared player got in front of Corey Crawford for their goal. In this case, it was Brendan Morrison who refused to get in front of the shot, Niklas Hjarmalsson and Johnny Oduya didn't clear someone out RIGHT IN FRONT OF THE NET, and Crawford was screened and the shot was good. Man, it must be so easy to gameplan against the Hawks. And really, Oduya had just an awful, miserable series. He was on the ice for a bunch of the goals in the series, but more than that, was a turnover machine who looked out of position all the time. I think the fact that he went and broke his stick after the fourth game shows how unhappy he is with his performance.

But it's more than just Oduya or Hjarmalsson, the latter of which I actually thought had a fantastic rebound performance in Game 6, and started to play much better as the series wore on. Really, the problems with the defense, by both the defensemen and the forwards, is widespread throughout the team. It has to be a combination of things - coaching, discipline, skill, awareness, scheme, and really effort - but something has to be done. I think that many of the cheap goals given up, where the Hawks don't clear up traffic in front of the net, have to come down to Joel Quenneville ironing them out in practice. There simply has to be a philosophical change in instruction going forward, because the style in which the Hawks play, on both offense and defense, won't and can't change. With guys like Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Hjarmalsson, and Nick Leddy here to stay, there really is only two spots open on defense going forward. The Hawks will not find two guys to put back there that allows them to shift the way they can scheme around the other defensemen. Thus, going forward, the Hawks just have to get better at the type of defense that their personnel can win with. They did it in 2009-2010, they can at least do it adequately now.

And what about the offense? Sure, it was effective when the team was maintaining pace and tempo. The whole point of the offense is predicated upon puck possession - keep the puck in the offensive zone and let the playmakers go to work. For most of Game 6, the Hawks were able to do this with a frenetic pace, outstanding forechecking, and a great ability to force turnovers. I loved how Quenneville had Leddy, Hjarmalsson, Keith, and even Oduya over the blue line, pinching on pucks coming around the boards in an effort to keep possession of the puck in the offensive zone. That's just great coaching. Sure, it opens the team up to more breakaways, but the whole point of having athletic defensemen is to operate within this type of system and be able to get away with it better.

Kane was completely ineffective
Yet, where was this pace, and this strategy, when the defense let up a couple goals? It was almost as if when that second goal landed behind Crawford in the Hawks' net, the entire weight of this pressure-filled season collapsed in on the Hawks. All the air was let out of their balloon, and the Coyotes took advantage of it, dumping two more quick goals. But going back to the offense, why couldn't the Hawks capitalize here? They created a TON of chances, but they couldn't finish the opportunities. Whether it was Andrew Shaw taking a perfect feed from Patrick Kane and somehow not shooting to a wide open right side of the net, or Morrison taking a great pass from Jonathan Toews and not lifting the puck over a slouched Smith. Watching the Hawks skate into the zone with ease, only to screw up at the last second, was maddening. This was furthered more by the complete ineffectiveness of Kane, the limited impact of Patrick Sharp, the complete disappearance of Viktor Stalberg, and the deeply missed Marian Hossa. When the strength of your team is playmaking on offense, when the stars of that offense fail to show up, the chances of the team winning are slim. And that's exactly what happened.

Of course, much credit has to be given to Mike Smith and the rest of the Coyotes, especially focusing on their defense. This is EXACTLY the type of team that gives the Hawks problems. They play like Nashville, a team that if we had beaten Phoenix surely would have given the Hawks yet another set of problems to solve. They're a physical, patient team that will sit back in their own zone, tighten up, and forget about defense until they frustrate you enough to force a mistake. The Coyotes are perfectly comfortable playing a 1 goal game. They get up in the Hawks, fight off entry passes, check any skill player who comes towards the net, and generally make life very difficult with a suffocating defensive style that stymies and suppresses the natural playmakers on the Hawks.

Is Crawford the answer?
Of course, this is all made a lot easier when you have a world class goaltender sitting behind you. Smith was, quite simply, amazing the entire series. His electric play, brought even more to the forefront with a dominating Game 6 win, shows just how valuable an elite goalie is, and shows what a gap there is between a player like him and a guy like Corey Crawford. Smith is a guy that covers up mistakes by his defensemen and wins games all by himself. Crawford doesn't do that for you. He's serviceable, and to be fair, wasn't at fault for at least 3 of the goals tonight, but think about it. Even those goals that Crawford gave up tonight, regardless of whether or not they're his fault, were goals that probably would have been prevented by Smith. An easier way to look at it is if the roles of the two goalies were reversed. If Phoenix had Crawford, the Hawks would have annihilated the team. Granted, Phoenix probably wouldn't have made the playoffs to begin with, but seriously, Smith nearly single-handedly won that series with some epic, amazing saves in all 6 games. With Crawford, the pressure is on an already-shaky defense to play at a much higher level to prevent those types of goals from being scored. Who knows how we're going to handle this issue going forward, but it sure hurts now.

I like to think of this season, and the last, as a bridge between the Stanley Cup winning 2009-2010 season and the true formation of a consistently successful team. That team was what I call "perfectly flawed;" they were phenomenally talented but were only going to be able to make it happen that year before it all came apart. Thank god it did. But you can't blame anyone for having to gut the team. The NHL's hard salary cap played a big part in that. And it certainly takes time to rebuild, and fully implement the Detroit Red Wings sustainable model of success, where you find the right role players to fit in around the stellar core.

This means, though, that there is going to be a tremendous amount of pressure on the Hawks going forward. Really, this next season is going to be a make or break year for both Stan Bowman and Quenneville. It's been incredibly difficult to stomach two straight years of 1st round playoff exits, but it will be much more tolerable if it means that the Hawks will have straightened out after this season and will be much more consistent going forward.

The pressure will be on Bowman this summer
But, the question remains, how to do that? The cost of maintaining that Red Wings model, of building around a stellar core, has been expensive. Going into next year, the full extensions of all the young core kick in. That means that between Sharp, Kane, Toews, Keith, Hossa, and Seabrook, you have about $35.5 million already dedicated towards the salary cap. When you add in players like Dave Bolland ($3.375 million), Hjarmalsson ($3.5 million), and Crawford ($2.66 million), you have about $9 million more dedicated. After considering the salaries of other players inked through next year, and a salary cap around $64 million, that means the Hawks will have about $6 million to start to fill major holes on the team (assuming that no one is traded).

What does this mean? First, it probably means that the Hawks are stuck with Crawford next year, and they've already resigned Ray Emery to back him up. This, and the obnoxious $3.5 million salary for Hjarmalsson, really frustrates you when you consider that stellar former Hawks goalie Antti Niemi is locked up for a relatively cheap $3.8 million for the next three years for the Sharks. In hindsight, that was certainly not the greatest move by Bowman to let him walk, and I'm sure if they could go back, they would keep Niemi and let Hjarmalsson accept the Sharks offer sheet in a heart beat. Regardless, unless some miracle happens, expect Crawford in net next year, if only for the reason that top tier goaltenders are enormously expensive and do not always work out (ask Vancouver who they'd rather have, Luongo or Schneider? Which one has the massive contract?).

I don't expect the Hawks to resign free agents Morrison or Andrew Burnette, and it's unclear if they'll keep Jamal Mayers around. I think that they can fill in one of their departed forward spots with Brandon Saad, the top prospect, and you might see a kid like Jeremy Morin stick around too. Those kids are supremely talented, and also relatively cheap. But most importantly, above anything else, is the need to sign an offensive-minded second line center. It's arguably the biggest offensive weakness on the team. It forced Quenneville to throw Marcus Kruger, a defensive-minded center, on the second line. Surely, he performed much better than expected, and the second line he centered between Sharp and Stalberg was fantastic down the stretch. But as the playoffs exposed, that's an area that is sorely missing going forward. If Bowman can fill that need (and really, there's no one in the minors who's ready to fill that role), it will only do wonders for the playmakers on that line. And it can end the mixed-success of the Patrick Kane center experiment once and for all.

It'll be interesting to see what they do on defense. With Keith, Seabrook, Leddy, and Hjarmalsson all coming back, it leaves two solid spots open for the taking. I personally think the Hawks should take the inexpensive route and give one of the spots to a young player, someone like Dylan Olsen. But it wouldn't hurt to take a hard line at bringing in another defensemen, hopefully younger, who is cut from the same mold as Brent Seabrook. It would be nice, even in the Hawks scheme, to have two physical defensemen to go along with the other 4 puck possession types.

At this point though, I'm going to cut myself off. It's hard enough to watch a first round exit from a team much more talented than their play indicated, but to see the disappointment all season has been exhausting. I hope the entire organization realizes that the pressure will be on the team from the fans to win, and win big, next year. Nothing else will suffice. Winning a Stanley Cup a couple years ago will create these kind of expectations, right or wrong. But regardless of any of that, those are the expectations. It'll be on Bowman to fix this team going forward, it'll be on Quenneville to get his players to play their scheme much better, and it's on the "elite" core to ensure they operate consistently within that scheme. But I guess all of that can wait for another day. Hockey, for now, is over in Chicago. It's been an up and down season, but we can all agree that at the end of the day, more than anything, it's going to be rough adjusting to a world without the Hawks. I will certainly miss them. Until training camp, when the Madness on Madison starts all over again.