There is a lot of excitement and uncertainty shadowing the next couple of months as we enter what should have been the home stretch of the NHL offseason.
Negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement are becoming intense and being treated with careful scrutiny. There is a very real possibility that “opening night” may be shoved into the proverbial sock drawer and forgotten about for several months—perhaps longer.
However, teams cannot afford to treat one wound and neglect the other. As exhausting a time it may be for an organization and its management, team issues still need to be addressed.
The Chicago Blackhawks have been on the muzzle-end of their last two Stanley Cup Playoff series losses. The team hasn’t restructured their current organizational depth much since its massive salary shedding in the post-Stanley Cup summer of 2010, and they are delusional if they believe that things will magically improve on their own.
Here are the 4 biggest changes the Hawks must make before their season begins.
The Blackhawks tied Vancouver for the fourth-highest offensive output in the entire NHL last season. The team has some of the most talented and creative offensive specialists in the league. Yet, they ranked 26th overall in power play success. That means only four teams had poorer execution with the man advantage.
Those nasty statistics foreshadowed their early first-round exit in the playoffs. The Blackhawks scored only one power-play goal in six games, while allowing the less offensively potent Phoenix Coyotes four (a team which ranked 29th in overall power-play proficiency during the regular season). The team’s only power-play goal came from underperforming fourth-liner Bryan Bickell.
The reasons the Hawks have struggled so much on special teams the past couple of seasons are unclear, but their struggles remain nevertheless apparent. Whether or not personnel changes on the coaching staff will help jump-start productivity is still up in the air.
The Hawks need to be better on both ends of the special teams spectrum if they want to challenge again for another cup.
The pressure is on for young netminder Corey Crawford and his veteran counterpart Ray Emery.
The two combined for a goals-against average of 2.82. Only one other team averaged more goals against and still made the playoffs.
Last year’s goaltending shuffle toyed with the confidence of both goaltenders and both had moments of flair and moments of inconsistency. Neither of them seemed to realistically make a claim for the crease, and as such, goaltending has become the hot topic for Blackhawks critics.
The Hawks' higher-ups remain hopeful that Crawford will return to form, and if not, that Emery can shoulder the load, but neither allows for much hope for Hawks fans, who had to continuously witness meltdown after meltdown last season.
In an ideal world, the Hawks would love to add a Jonathan Bernier-type netminder to challenge both Crawford and Emery for depth-chart positioning, but it’s unlikely. Carter Hutton garnered praise for his performance last season for the Hawks’ AHL affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs, but the 26-year-old will most likely remain in Rockford.
This is an area the Hawks need to focus on, but it’s unlikely anything will happen prior to the start of the season.
As each season passes, it seems the Hawks' gaping hole in the middle is becoming more and more evident.
Last year, it culminated in natural right-winger Patrick Kane centering the second line for prolonged periods of time, despite never having done so before at the professional level.
The coaching staff also looked to fill the void with rookie Marcus Kruger, and while Kruger played admirably, he wasn’t ideal for the role. Given his age, size and talent level, he still needs time to develop—if not on the lower lines then outside of the NHL.
The organization also has players like Patrick Sharp and Michael Frolik, who were originally drafted as centers, but have developed a preference for one side of the ice. Even if these two left their posts at the wing and centered the second line, that would leave holes on the sides.
There have been talks of perhaps filling the middle internally. Highly-acclaimed prospect Brandon Saad even took to center earlier this summer at the Blackhawks prospects camp.
Any way they do it, the Hawks have to add someone to their roster who can fill that second-line center role before the season starts.
It’s an old adage in hockey: “The goalie can’t stop what he can’t see.”
Net presence is a very effective tool both at even strength and on the power play, and it’s a term that Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville is never shy about using.
The Blackhawks have some big, gritty players, but not enough willing to get their hands very dirty. As a result, players like Steve Montador and Jamal Mayers were seeing power play time, and their role was very simple: Stand in front of the goalie. Don’t let him see the puck. Scoop in a rebound if you can.
That’s a silly thing to ask of players whose primary roles are defensive. For the coaching staff, it’s a cunning yet perplexing strategy. It certainly spoke volumes about how the coaches felt about their current crop of power forwards and big bodies.
The Hawks need big players who can play aggressively and aren’t afraid to rough up defensemen in the slot. Jonathan Toews can’t do everything.
The Blackhawks, as they stand, will be a very competitive team entering the 2012-2013 season—assuming there is one. If they can make these adjustments prior to the start of it, there's no reason why they shouldn't contend for more than a first-round playoff exit.