The Blackhawks' winter vacation has come to an end, and the second longest road trip in the 82-year history of the franchise begins tomorrow in Anaheim. With eight games in a row and 10 of the next 11 coming on the road, this promising young Hawks team will be tested more in the next few weeks than they have been all season.
Of course, this long, arduous test for the Blackhawks also provides a great opportunity as GM Dale Tallon will be able to see whether or not the team that he has worked to assemble can slog through this road trip, coming out the other side intact and in contention.
Regardless, Tallon will get a much more definitive answer to the question currently nagging the team and its fans.
Are the Blackhawks still that legit contender from November and December that burned their way through the schedule, scorching opponents to the tune of a 20-7-7 record?
Or are they pretenders, an overachieving group of young kids that collectively fizzled out in the month of January when the team went 5-5-1?
Don't be too surprised if that answer comes at some point during or after this long stretch of road games. Tallon has stated recently that he likes the makeup of his team, and that any moves on the immediate horizon would most likely come from within the organization.
But some still contend that Tallon's job is on the line this season. The publicity machine has been in overdrive this season, and he has now had four years as the GM to turn this team around. If the Hawks drop in the standings, will Tallon pull the trigger?
Oh, and don't tell the fans who believe that the Hawks are a lock for the postseason this year, but the 10th place Ducks are only seven points out of the fourth seed.
You see, the Western Conference is somewhat competitive.
Conflicting rumors abound, as always, regarding what type or caliber of player would interest the Hawks at this point.
During Sportsnet.ca's coverage of the skills competition, Anaheim Ducks defenseman Chris Pronger's name was mentioned in reference to the Hawks.
A certain blogger, who shall remain anonymous, stated recently that Chicago is one of the possible destinations for uber-talented yet uber-injured Avalanche center Peter Forsberg.
On the more reliable front, Tim Sassone of the Daily Herald believes that Bill Guerin, Kyle Calder, Chris Neil, Nik Antropov, Doug Weight, and Mike Sillinger should all be on the Hawks' radar.
With the exception of Pronger, which makes no sense for a team that could ice no less than 10 NHL ready defensemen, and an injured, though nonetheless resurgent, Weight, the rest of those players don't exactly scream, "I'll help you make a run at the cup."
Tallon has bemoaned selling off veterans at the deadline in recent years. He stated several times that he yearned for the day where he would be a buyer for a contending Hawks team.
Well, now is your chance, Tallon, and I honestly believe that your tenure as GM for the Blackhawks could depend largely upon what moves you make, don't make, or fail to make as the upcoming deadline draws near.
The Blackhawks are currently the No. 1 drawing team in hockey. The master plan has come to fruition. Fourth place in the standings, a strong core of young talent, and a fanbase that has been craving playoff hockey for years now, all point to the need for a strong run to the finish and a strong showing in the playoffs.
These younger guys need postseason experience and losing 4-1 or 4-2 in the first round simply won't help in that regard. So, why not make a move that will help out a lot now and in the future?
I have said it before and I'll say it again: The Hawks have the assets to pull off a big trade. Khabibulin or Havlat can be moved to even out larger salaries. Dustin Byfuglien or Brent Sopel can be moved to even out middle range salaries. The Hawks have an enormous amount of depth on defense and in the minors.
Players such as Troy Brouwer, Jack Skille, and Cam Barker have all shown potential, the latter two being former top 10 overall draft picks.
The Hawks also have two second rounders this year and two next year as well. Not to mention a first-round pick that could certainly be parted with for the right talent coming back.
Other teams will begin loading up for their playoff runs before you know it. Maybe a big-name player or two will change teams. Last year, Marian Hossa was had for a first-round pick, a former first round player, Armstrong, and Christiansen.
Don't tell me that the Blackhawks couldn't put together a package as good as that for a player of Hossa's talent and ability.
If the Hawks fizzle out in the second half and either fail to make the playoffs (which I still maintain is possible), or they get routed in the first round, I sincerely hope that Tallon won't have to look back at this deadline and wonder if there was more that he could've done to make his team better.
The rumors will only intensify as the deadline approaches, and while Tallon has brought the team this far, one still has to wonder if he's willing to do what it takes to help this team truly rise above the past and vault this team into the elite status of the NHL.
To me, he has been somewhat gun-shy in the past about making big trades. He has signed big-name players before, but when it comes to the wheeling and dealing with other GMs, well, let's just say that the track record is somewhat small.
Time will tell, but here's hoping that Dale can get the job done.