Joel Quenneville is every bit as important to the success of the Chicago Blackhawks as the play of Jonathan Toews in the neutral zone or Corey Crawford in net. The choices he makes behind the bench influence each shift of every game.
Sometimes, while watching the contests on the television or on NHL GameCenter, it's easy to forget who the puppet master really is.
The players aren't randomly jumping over the boards whenever they feel like it as they would in a beer league game. There's a structure to the fast-paced, high-tempo team that we watch, and it's Quenneville pulling all the strings and making the adjustments.
Chicago has struggled in some areas, but the offensive zone isn't one of them. This has been the most consistent part of the 'Hawk's game so far in 2013-14 as Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa are all healthy and leading the charge.
Only two teams (the San Jose Sharks and St. Louis Blues) are scoring more goals on average than Chicago's 3.33, and the Sharks are the only team in the NHL that is generating more shots on a nightly basis.
Quenneville has subtly juggled his lines to get certain players going on certain nights. His moves with Patrick Sharp and Bryan Bickell have yielded decent results in particular.
The hockey IQ that is in play is evident on a nightly basis for Chicago. Their top six seems to be one step ahead of the opposition at all times, and the depth players have been providing some punch as well.
Where Chicago seems to have taken a big step forward this year is getting offense from their defense. Niklas Hjarmalsson has been a revelation, while Nick Leddy seems to have taken a massive leap forward in his development as a two-way defenseman.
From a strictly defensive standpoint, it's alarming to see Chicago in the middle of the pack in so many defensive categories. They are the 14th-best defensive team in the goals-allowed department, giving up an average of 2.67 markers a game.
That's fine and well as long as the offense continues to click, but sooner or later, they'll need to iron out some kinks.
There have been some tighter games recently, but giving up five goals to the Ottawa Senators on October 29, five goals to the Minnesota Wild on October 26 and six goals to the Tampa Bay Lightning on October 24 points to an issue that's still ongoing.
What's strange about the goals-allowed total is that the 'Hawks don't give up an abnormal amount of shots per game. They're seventh in the NHL in that category, yet they are 14th in goals allowed.
Part of the blame can go to Nikolai Khabibulin for a few bad starts, but Chicago hasn't been its usual steady self in the defensive zone.
Special Teams: C-
When Chicago was in the midst of its 24-game points streak in 2012-13, the penalty kill was one of the most important aspects of the run. The 'Hawks continued their strong play while a man down in the postseason as well, preventing the Minnesota Wild from scoring a single power-play goal in the first round.
Those days seem like a distant memory for the 'Hawks these days. Losing Dave Bolland and Michael Frolik over the summer took a chunk out of the PK unit, and Chicago has yet to replicate any of the success that it had last year with those two at the helm.
In short: there isn't a less effective penalty-killing team in the NHL right now—not the lowly Philadelphia Flyers or Buffalo Sabres. Even the defensively clueless Edmonton Oilers manage to kill power plays more often.
That's not good.
Chicago's sixth-ranked power play has scored some big goals down the stretch, but a strong power play coupled with an inability to successfully kill off odd man chances makes it more or less a moot point.
Bolland and Frolik weren't ace penalty-killers when they arrived in Chicago, but they were when they left. This is a coachable trait, and the bench bosses for the 'Hawks need to right the ship here, pronto.
Goalie Rotation: B+
Quenneville can only play the cards he's dealt here. He showed last season that he wouldn't hesitate to rest Corey Crawford early and often if he had the chance, but right now, he's just not able to do so. Nikolai Khabibulin has been atrocious in his three outings.
His 4.73 GAA is ridiculously high and the .818 save percentage speaks of a new level of incompetence.
Crawford has started in 13 of Chicago's games, which is the fourth-most among goaltenders in the NHL. The 'Hawks have only played 15 times so far though, so that number should indicate that Crawford's current workload is unsustainable if the team wants the No. 1 goalie to be rested for a playoff run.
If Crawford continues to earn starts at his current rate, he'll finish the season with 80 nods. That's just not plausible.
Overall Grade: B+
The NHL is a results-oriented business, and it's tough to argue with what Quenneville has managed to do through the first several weeks of play. Chicago is only two points behind the Colorado Avalanche for the Central Division lead, and they are fifth-overall in the Western Conference.
As solid as that is, there are still some glaring issues that the 'Hawks must address. Sound defense wins championships, and all the goalscoring in the world won't be able to cover up for defensive lapse after defensive lapse once the playoffs roll around.
A good penalty kill isn't an option. It's a must, and it's a problem that Quenneville and his crew need to address moving forward. The first few weeks of the season are a solid foundation for Chicago to be sure, but for a team with Stanley Cup aspirations, the attention to detail just hasn't been good enough.
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