Deep Dish Hockey: After The Winter Classic, Questions Surround Young Blackhawks

Adam KoppCorrespondent IJanuary 6, 2009

So who are the Chicago Blackhawks

Are they the team that soundly defeated the streaking Calgary Flames on Sunday, sending former Vezina winner Miikka Kiprusoff to the bench?  Or how about that 6-0 drubbing of the Phoenix Coyotes on Tuesday?  Tough guy Adam Burish had a goal and two assists, while Cristobal Huet garnered his second shutout of the season.

Yes, that Cristobal Huet. 

The one that allowed just as many goals against the hated Red Wings on New Year's Day, effectively ruining President and chief marketing wiz John McDonough's love letter to Hawks fans. 

Of course, Huet wasn't solely to blame, as the defense must have taken a VERY early flight to Calgary (I'm thinking a first period intermission departure time) for the next game. 

Of course, the Winter Classic came two days after a snooze fest on December 30th that saw the Red Wings skate circles around the hapless Hawks en route to a 4-0 shutout. 

The sting of losing at Wrigley, on arguably the biggest stage of the season to their biggest rival has to have Hawks GM Dale Tallon wondering what it'll take to get this team to the next level.

Owning a 22-8-7 record (good enough for fourth place in the highly competitive Western Conference) speaks volumes to the improvement of a once forgotten Original Six franchise, but the Hawks also own a combined 0-3-3 record against the conference leading San Jose Sharks and division leading Detroit Red Wings. 

Sure, anything can happen in the playoffs.  Six games in an 82 game season does not determine future success or failure.  It barely qualifies as a trend.

I'm going to go with: Microcosm of the season thus far.

In 37 games this season, the Hawks have shown that they are apt at shoveling the snow off of the NHL's doormat franchises.  They have also run more than their fair share of playoff caliber teams off the ice as well.  

Put them up against the elite teams in the NHL however, and the Hawks somehow manage to channel the sluggish, hit shy, passing impaired Hawks teams of the Mike Smith era.

So how does Dale Tallon take a team that's obviously good and turn it into a bona fide contender?

Trade rumors have been swirling around goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin and his bloated contract since the moment Cristobal Huet inked his deal this past summer.  

Will the Bulin Wall be jettisoned to make room for Washington's Michael Nylander?  The Islander's Bill Guerin?  How about The Leaf's Nik Antropov?

How about none of the above.

Cristobal Huet has been great at times, but then there are nights here and there that make me question whether or not he can take the ball and run with it.

See Classic, Winter.

The other issue with trading Khabibulin is the fact that he's played exceptionally well this season, perhaps to the point where trading him might do more harm than the perceived good done by adding a solid two-way forward or face-off specialist at the deadline. 

Will a 37 year old right wing really do more than a hot goaltender in the playoffs?


Weak rumors seem to trickle out of Atlanta every so often that 25-year-old superstar left wing Ilya Kovalchuk might be available. 

The Blackhawks have the current roster talent, the upper level, NHL ready prospects and the draft picks to make such a move happen. 

But can Dale pull the trigger and make such a move a reality?

My gut says no.  Tallon loves his prospects and if players like former third rounder Patrick Sharp (from the Flyers) and former eighth rounder Dustin Byfuglien are any indication, Tallon's all about the upside. 

He has used that philosophy to build a very solid team, so I don't fault him for holding onto draft picks or making trades for no name prospects (who's Kris Versteeg?  Oh right, a Calder Trophy contender). The problem is that the Hawks aren't really an upside team anymore.

That was last year.

The Blackhawks are now a playoff caliber team and in the salary cap era, that means the window is always shrinking.  But if all roads to the finals go through either Detroit or San Jose, as any hockey fan with half a brain would suggest at this point in the season, will anything short of an all-star caliber addition put the Hawks over the top and into the elite class of the West?

Again, my gut says no.

Half measures like Bill Guerin or Michael Nylander will neither vault the Hawks into the elite class of teams nor will they make the Hawks any more of a contender than they are with Khabibulin on their roster.

So Dale, it's gut check time.  Call Thrasher's GM Don Waddell and bring Ilya Kovalhawk, err, chuk to Chicago.  If it takes Khabibulin or Havlat, an upper tier prospect like Jack Skille and, dare I say it, a first round draft pick...

Get this done.

Kovalchuk might be buckling under the weight of carrying a weak franchise on his back, but he's still posting great numbers this year.  He has one year left on his contract after this season, so he won't get in the way of resigning Toews, Kane, or Keith (if the money couldn't be juggled to keep all four that is) at the end of next year.

After the Winter Classic, one thing became painfully obvious to me.  The Hawks are good, but they could easily become the Chicago Cubs of hockey.  Two storied franchises without a title for several decades, both returning to prominence under the abilities of two young standouts, watched by a fan base that, while rabid for a title, is still more or less content in the knowledge that the losing years are behind them for now.

Getting to the playoffs isn't enough.  Making a move here, having a big media day there won't fill the void that a championship closes for a franchise that has been down for far too long.

As the trade deadline slowly draws ever closer, Tallon must be willing to make the moves necessary to put this team in real title contention.  Ray Shero traded a lot last year to get Marian Hossa from the Thrashers and that move was instrumental in vaulting the Penguins into the Stanley Cup Finals. 

Who are the Chicago Blackhawks?  If Tallon can't see the wisdom in adding elite talent to make this team elite, than the Hawks might as well take another facet from their Wrigley counterparts:

Next Year. 


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