Saturday, January 19, 2013

2012-2013 Blackhawks Preview: Striving for Consistency in an Unpredictable Season

All we wanted was some hockey back, and all would be forgiven. The months and months of turmoil, bickering like school children, back stabbing, and mostly just rendering the sport irrelevant to casual fans is finally over. Us fans are ready to welcome the NHL and the Blackhawks back, but what league are we coming back to? In this 48 game season, with no preseason, what will the NHL, and most importantly, the Hawks, look like? The Hawks are a team capable of high offensive output, albeit with some questions on the backend. Is this going to be a season where defense struggles, and thus the best offensive team wins the cup? Or the opposite - will defense reign supreme over rusty offense? I think in either fashion, the Hawks can come out on top.

Without a preseason, teams that made moves or added pieces will be learning on the fly. Take the Minnesota Wild for example, who added Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, but will have to learn to incorporate these guys after only a week of practice. Or the same with the New York Rangers and their addition of Rick Nash. The Hawks have an advantage over all of these teams, as they have nearly the exact same team from last year going forward. This team can hit the ground running, having added to their regular lineup only defenseman Sheldon Brookbank.

It's not only the carryover from last year that should help the Hawks play consistently - it's the chemistry on the team. These players have been on the same team for years, and the core won a Stanley Cup together in 2010. Simply put, these guys know how to win. With stars like Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, and Patrick Sharp on offense, all led by captain Jonathan Toews, the Hawks have cohesiveness on the offensive end that should allow them to start the season strong and keep it up.

Toews, Hossa, and Kane can help spark the offense
The preliminary question, of course, is just what type of season we're going to see. I think there's two options here - the first being that offense reigns supreme with the short season being a sprint to the finish. It's also possible that the offensive end of things is rusty, at least to begin with, and that defense will have to carry teams. I think for the Hawks, they have the advantage going forward regardless. With the first option, they have enough offensive skill to overcome any perceived or actual rustiness going forward. I look at a player like Patrick Kane, who has played throughout the lockout in Switzerland, and think that he could potentially have a huge breakout year. For him, he's been having a sort of "preseason" for the last couple months and should be ready to transition into the NHL season right away.

Now, I know our defense isn't necessarily a strength, but I think the Hawks will do well even if the second option is true because their offense won't be rusty. That same cohesiveness I spoke of earlier will be a strength for this team going forward no matter what. Spearheaded by the stars, each line for the Hawks could be productive.

We've had this discussion before. I remember writing last year about how this team had the talent and makeup that reminded me of the 2010 championship season. We all know how that played out - with weaknesses on the back end of the defense, in net, and at second line center. Last year, the Hawks has the same talent on the roster but they were terrible on special teams. They couldn't execute on a power play, they couldn't kill penalties, Corey Crawford lost all of his confidence, and the Hawks seemed to fall apart, coinciding with injuries to Daniel Carcillo and Jonathan Toews.

I think we can address this by looking at the depth of the roster and analyzing from there. Right now, the top line has Toews centering Carcillo and Hossa. I like this for a few reasons. It allows Joel Quenneville to spread his skill players further down the lineup, for one. But more than that, it keeps two elite players with Toews and Hossa and flanks them with a young tough player with more offensive ability than people give him credit for. Carcillo is interesting here because he gives the top line, which is usually known for firepower, an edge that can only help.

Carcillo brings much-needed toughness
I think losing Carcillo hurt this team more than they give off last year because he was their tough, physical representative. A big criticism of the Hawks is their soft play. This is illustrated on special teams, especially penalty kill, and on the back end of their defense where they don't step in front and block shots, they don't clear guys away from the net, and they don't ever try to send a message to the other team. In this shortened season, the grind it out, physical style might be less prevalent (at least until the playoffs), so having Carcillo back to give them that edge could certainly permeate through the rest of the team and help in more areas than just the top line.

The second line is interesting as well, with Dave Bolland centering Kane and Patrick Sharp. A huge weakness for this team last year was their ability to find a consistent and effective second line center. The Hawks seemingly had all the winger talent in the world, but only one true dominant two way center in Toews. The Patrick Kane Center Experiment was up and down, with the lack of his defensive ability evident as the season wore on. Kane here is back to his natural winger position, and he should thrive there. Quenneville swears that Bolland can be a good two way center and that he's been focused more on defense since his rise to the Hawks simply because they needed him there. The Hawks think that he has the ability to develop into a fine two way center. The jury is still out on that one, as I felt that Bolland had merely an average season last year, but his development into the second line center the Hawks have needed is paramount. Having an effective player there is crucial to the Hawks' success on offense because it allows the team to take full advantage of the skillset of Sharp and Kane. Time will tell here, and if it doesn't pan out I wouldn't be surprised to see the Hawks move in another direction down the road and bump Bolland back to being a third line checking center.

Speaking of that third line, it'll be interesting to see how Andrew Shaw handles being the checking line center, with Viktor Stalberg and Bryan Bickell on his sides. Shaw, like Bolland and Carcillo, is a tough player who gets under the skin of the opponent. He flashed some offensive skill as a rookie last year, but whether he can be an effective center is another question. I like that he has a physical winger in Bickell, so the third line can be a true checking line, but I also love that Stalberg can give an offensive lift here as well. Any kind of offensive edge the Hawks can keep, even on a checking line, is important.

Finally, you have the conundrum of the fourth line. I like Marcus Kruger centering this line, because he's had experience now up and down the Hawks lineup to finally go with his talent. I think he'll see a mix of wingers at his side depending on the matchup, with Brandon Bollig, Jamal Mayers, Brandon Saad, and Michael Frolik to choose from. The Hawks can go either physical or offensive, or a mix of both, but the one player I think will be consistently on this line is Brandon Saad. The second rounder from a couple years back is the Hawks' top prospect and could see himself skyrocket if he starts to fulfill that promise. I could talk about his talent all day, but the big, skilled player should earn himself a big role in both the Hawks' present and future.

Keith and the defense need to bounce back
On defense, the primary question for this bunch is protecting the net in front of Crawford. The Hawks are a puck possession defensive group, using speed and skill to hold possession over the opponent and push the pack back into the offensive zone to create scoring chances. Nearly all of the Hawks defenseman are skilled with the puck. You'd think that this would make for an elite power play unit, but special teams in hockey are tricky and can be a force one year and not the next. As for the groupings, Duncan Keith is back matched up with Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjarmalsson is set with Johnny Oduya, and Nick Leddy draws newcomer Sheldon Brookbank.

This is where it gets tricky. As the season wore on last year, not only did this unit perform terribly on the penalty kill, but they started to give up too many goals in the course of regular play as well. There's a fine balance to walk with a puck possession group, between clearing the puck and pushing it for offensive chances, to sacrificing your defensive integrity. This group needs to find themselves on the right side of that line again or at minimum maintaining some semblance of balance.

All of these players need bounce back years. Seabrook is the only one out of them all that had a great season last year, but Keith is always going to have the ability to perform like an elite defender. Hjarmalsson was downright awful at times but seemed to improve going forward in the playoffs. The Hawks depend a lot on him and his partner, Oduya, and the two need to improve their physicality and ability to defend the net. Leddy could be the wildcard here, as the former first rounder is blessed with loads of talent. He could take a leap. I'm not sure what to make of Brookbank yet; I just hope he isn't Sean O'Donnell.

One thing I am sure of is that this defense, regardless if they're a puck possession group or not, needs to step it up in terms of blocking shots and clearing guys from the net. These two things aren't difficult to do and really take only an emphasis on such from the coaches and some leadership on the back end. We saw Seabrook do it consistently, but if this group gets to doing that as a whole (like the unit did in the Cup year), it'll not only facilitate the offense, but cut down drastically on goals allowed.

Will we see a different Crawford?
All of which, of course, can only help the shaky confidence of Corey Crawford. Crawford is another talent, a kid who has the ability to shut down the opponent on the right night. Has it been that long that we've forgotten about his heroics against Vancouver in the 2011 playoffs? What worries me about Corey's game is that shaky confidence more than anything else. Sure, he lets in soft goals, and his technique off rebounds is disastrous. But all of those things are fixable, and he's supposedly been working on them the entire offseason. His confidence is most likely not. If Corey can get it under control, it could mean big things for these Hawks. It's hard to project his game going forward, but there are lots of instances of goalies taking a leap in their third season. With Ray Emery behind him, it's clear that this is his job as the Hawks didn't bring anyone in that they want to challenge Crawford for the job. If the coaches, and his teammates, can keep Crawford confident, we'll see if his offseason workouts and training to correct the mechanical flaws in his game pans out. A lot is riding on it.

Truth be told, we don't know how this season is going to play out. We do know from the past that this Hawks group, when they're on, is hard to stop. I think they can use their experience and cohesiveness to hit the season running and try to surge to the finish. There's no need to pace themselves (well maybe besides the grueling schedule) as this is a sprint to the finish. The Hawks feel they have the talent in place already to address the issues that plagued them last season. And yet, I'll be watching to see if Dave Bolland can fix the issue at second line center, if Daniel Carcillo can be the physical example these Hawks need, if the emphasis on special teams in the one week of practice will improve a woeful special teams unit from last season, if the defense can have the wherewithal to block shots and clear guys posted up at the net, and finally, if Corey Crawford can not only iron out the mechanical wrinkles in his game but also keep his confidence at a high level.

In the end, we're all just happy that the NHL and the Hawks are back. I've already forgiven the league for its messy lockout, and I'm sure most of us eagerly await the first puck to drop. More important than anything, though, is how amazing to actually be able to talk about hockey again, and even better knowing this could be a special season for the Hawks. Time to get it started.