Chicago Blackhawks: 10 Improvements They Need to Make to Be Cup Contenders
When the summer concluded many fans of the Chicago Blackhawks were excited at the possibility of the Hawks return to glory. Yes, they do have the tools and personnel to make another run at the Stanley Cup, and are of to a 3-1-1 start.
At the same time, they will need to improve and the front office will need to consider making a few moves before this team is complete.
It is early, and the Hawks will be in the mix this season, but they will need to continue to strive for points every night.
Last season, it was the games early on in the season that ended up coming back to haunt the Hawks as they backed into the playoffs.
With this in mind, here are a few areas where the current team can improve and a few thoughts for management as well.
Establish Balanced Defensive Pairings
The best defensive parings are the ones where players complement each other. Pairing Nick Leddy and Duncan Keith together may not be the best move for this club. They are both puck moving defenseman with similar styles, and it has been leading to the occasional odd man rush as well as disorganization on in-zone coverage.
Steve Montador and Sean O'Donnell make a solid third pairing and that has been working. There is nothing wrong with Niklas Hjalmarsson playing with Brent Seabrook, but again those two are similar players.
Injuries will happen and changes will need to be made, but establishing balance in the back six will be critical.
When an injury bug bites the team it can ruin a season. Fortunately to this point, this has not been the case with the Hawks, but they do have some players banged up.
Viktor Stalberg is back. Marian Hossa played Tuesday against the Phoenix Coyotes, and delighted with a power play goal in the first period. Ben Smith (concussion), though recently assigned to Rockford, will see time again with the big club.
Still, you never like to hear about your starting goaltender having a groin injury in October. Those injuries can be lingering. The injury prone Dave Bolland is healthy for now, but time will tell if the Hawks can get a full year out of him.
With a healthy roster, the Hawks can start developing their core unit for the season and have a better idea as to who will contribute night in and night out.
When these players do return, Stan Bowman will have to make some difficult, yet key decisions with the roster. One would think that this will only help improve the squad.
When the Hawks have been giving up goals, it is the result of poor coverage or turning the puck over.
Tuesday night in Phoenix, Duncan Keith lost an edge and gave the puck away in the second period. The Coyotes tied the game 2-2, when the Hawks had all the momentum they needed to keep pouring on offense. Fortunately the Hawks got back on track.
When games are close, the puck needs to be taken care. Don't play scared, but make smart, easy decisions with the puck.
It may be D pairings or it may be running around too much in their own zone. The bottom line is that the Hawks have been having difficulty getting the puck out of their own end cleanly.
Do we miss Brian Campbell that much? Granted, he was a human breakout machine and could pick up the puck and get to the red line by himself.
However, some of the forwards are coming down too low to support the play in the Hawks' end of the ice. When they get a pass along the wall and are too low, they run out of room quickly and the Hawks get trapped.
It would be good to see the wingers staying higher towards the point-men, giving the center more room to circle through. If the play is stretched out more the Hawks' defensemen will be able to see more lanes and move the puck with better efficiency.
Passing Up Shots
Pretty plays are great, but the majority of goals come from right in front of the net or on shots that are on the ice.
During certain moments of the first few games, the Hawks were making that one extra pass as opposed to putting the puck on net.
Against the Phoenix on Tuesday, the Hawks were much better in this regard, peppering the Coyotes with 15 first period shots. This will need to continue.
The more you test a goalie, the more likely he is to give up juicy rebounds. Moving forward, it will be vital for the Hawks to keep there shot totals up, and and get more bodies in front of the net.
Win the 50/50 Battles
This goes without saying, but the more pucks you win, the more hockey games you win. Not that the Hawks are not battling, but you can never emphasize this enough.
When the scorers are having trouble putting pucks away, it is time to focus on the little things. Control only what you can. When you go into the corner mono y mono, come out of there with the puck.
You don't have to take his head off or run him through the wall, but come out with the pill on your stick.
The more guys you have on board with this mind set, the better your chances on any given night.
Build on a Lead
Sitting on a lead plagued the Hawks last season, and we have seen signs of this early on this season.
The Hawks had the Jets on the ropes 4-2 and stopped skating towards the end of the second period. The Hawks were able to escape with a 4-3 win.
They had the Bruins at 2-1 and became complacent. That ended up costing them a point.
It was good to see the Hawks take a 3-2 lead on the Coyotes Tuesday, and continue to beat the drum, resulting in a 5-2 win.
When the Hawks get ahead, they need not to stay there, but continue to skate and be opportunistic. There are no safe leads in hockey. Few teams can skate with the Hawks when they play a full 60 minutes.
Demote Rostislav Olesz
If you read Jon Fromi's column from Monday, you noticed that he mentioned it was nearing decision time on Rostislav Olesz. This is true, the Blackhawks will either need to find a role for him or swallow a tough pill, hope that he clears waivers, and send him to Rockford.
I'll go a step further. Start the demotion process now.
Olesz reminds me a lot of Jack Skille, and this has nothing to do with having the Florida Panthers in common. With both, there is nothing about their game that differentiates them from other players. Olesz is a decent skater, has a decent shot, is decent through the neutral zone, doesn't go hard to the net and to date, is inefficient in his own zone.
Ah ... the smell of an uninspired, mediocre forward.
On Tuesday, for the third time in the first five games, Olesz was a healthy scratch from the Hawks' lineup.
So, it's time to waive him and if he clears waivers, send him to Rockford and clear some space to get a lethal addition before or around the trade deadline. The Hawks will be fine without him and if they are willing to eat his salary to win, it's well worth it.
An Addition at Forward
Did anyone catch Shane Doan's start to the season? Prior to the game against the Hawks on Tuesday night, Shane Doan scored seven points in his first four games.
It's early, but at some point this season, the Phoenix Coyotes will most likely be sellers. This man fits the mold more than most with the Hawks.
It does not have to be Doan. Originally it seemed that the Hawks would need a center, but with Patrick Kane filling that second line center role well thus far, more help on the wing could be in the works.
To get someone quality, the Hawks will have to give up a decent prospect, a pick or perhaps a current rostered player. Stan Bowman has the chips to anti-up, and it will be really interesting to see what kind of moves are on the horizon.
One more key player up front and the Hawks will be a major threat.
Reconnect with Coach Paul Vincent
Do you ever wonder how Dustin Byfuglien went from a lumbering nobody to a threat with good hands and a potent shot? Ever wonder how a little known Kris Versteeg figured out ways to navigate through the ice and make plays offensively? Ever wonder how Brent Sopel became a critical part of the cup run in 2010 after being a ghost in the 2008-09 season? Still wondering who the first man Jonathan Toews hugged before he went to accept his Conn Smythe award?
Look no further.
Paul Vincent (pictured above with his wife Gayle, following the 2010 Stanley Cup victory) is the former special skills coach for the Hawks, and boy do they need him right now.
For the last five decades this man has coached kids at all levels and is the finest power skating and skills instructor in North America.
Vincent was part of the Hawks' organization for three seasons, but now he is no longer with the club. For a team with a lot of young prospects in the system and some current roster players that need fine tuning, no one can get the team where they need to go better than PV.
Take for example all of those concerned with Patrick Kane's face-off ability. If you give him time it the dot with Vincent, this could get its due attention.
In football, a quarterback's coach is valued. In baseball it is important to have a hitting and pitching coach. It is time for the NHL to value skills coaches. If the Hawks don't give PV a call, someone else will.
A family man, a guru in the game of hockey, and a coach who knows how motivate and work with different personalities, it is astonishing that the Hawks did not make a point to keep Vincent on their payroll.
Hey Stan, start dialing.