Ranking the Chicago Blackhawks' Biggest Problems in 2013-14
The Chicago Blackhawks were in peak form last year, and they won their second Stanley Cup in four years.
Despite having the most talented team in the league and performing at the top of their game, it still wasn't easy for head coach Joel Quenneville's team.
They were pushed to the limit by the Detroit Red Wings in the conference semifinal, as that series was not decided until Brent Seabrook's overtime goal in the seventh game.
The Boston Bruins had the Blackhawks on the run through much of the Stanley Cup Final until Chicago used a spectacular rally in the sixth game to take the title.
If the Blackhawks are going to defend their title or even advance deep into the playoffs, they are going to have a more difficult road to travel.
In this piece, we rank the biggest problems that Quenneville and the Blackhawks will have to contend with in order assure their continued success.
6. Keeping Marian Hossa in the Lineup
Marian Hossa is one of the most talented and versatile players in the NHL.
Hossa is a magnificent combination of skating ability, physical strength and skill. While there are many talented players on this team, Hossa is the guy who seemingly can take over the game with his talent.
Hossa has scored nine goals and six assists and has a plus-12 rating through the first quarter of the season.
The 34-year-old has missed three games in mid-November with a lower-body injury. He is scheduled to play in the Blackhawks' Nov. 21 game at Winnipeg.
Hossa was not victimized by any big hit or notable collision. It could be that the aging process is starting to catch up with him.
If Hossa starts to miss games on a regular basis due to nagging injuries, that could be a big problem for the Blackhawks as the season progresses.
5. Coming Back from a Deficit
A team with overwhelming talent like the Blackhawks should not have any problems coming back from a first-period deficit.
While all NHL teams would rather play with the lead than have to come from behind, a strong puck-possession team like the Blackhawks proved last year that falling behind is not a fatal flaw.
During the 2012-13 regular season, the Blackhawks managed a .526 win percentage when they trailed after one period. That ranked second in the league behind the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The 2013-14 season has been a different story. While they have only completed the first quarter of the season, the Blackhawks' win percentage when trailing after one period is just .286. That's 14th in the league, and that's not good enough for a team with championship aspirations.
The Blackhawks need to find a way to stay alive when they fall behind and show more grit than they have to this point.
4. Blackhawks Are in Every Opponent's Sights
Uneasy is the head that wears the crown.
The Blackhawks learned this during the 2010-11 season. They were the defending Stanley Cup champions, and everyone they faced wanted to take them down.
The Blackhawks are getting nearly every opponent's best effort on an every-game basis. When the Nashville Predators returned home from a long road trip Nov. 16, they played their best game of the year, overpowering the Blackhawks 7-2.
Three days later, the Blackhawks went to Colorado, and the upstart Avs showed the Blackhawks no respect in rolling to a 5-1 victory.
There may be some nights where the Blackhawks luck out and play a tired or injured team, but they can expect to be in the sights of most opponents the rest of the year.
The Blackhawks were one of the best teams in the league when it came to penalty-killing last year.
They are anything but this season.
The Blackhawks led the NHL last year, as they killed 87.2 percent of their short-handed situations. Their speed, intelligence and know-how kept most opponents from gaining a high comfort level with the man advantage.
This year, it's been nearly the opposite. The Blackhawks seem to be a half-stride behind their opponents in most games, and they are killing just 74.2 percent of their short-handed situations. That ranks 29th in the league, and the only team they are better than in this important category is the struggling New York Islanders.
This is not acceptable, and Quenneville must get this situation turned around quickly.
2. Backup Goaltending
One of the reasons the Blackhawks were able to enjoy such a magical season last year was the nearly perfect partnership of No. 1 goalie Corey Crawford and backup Ray Emery.
The two split the workload during the regular season, and Emery was every bit as good as Crawford, putting up a number of memorable performances along the way.
By the time the playoffs started, Crawford was not overworked and was ready to do his best work of the season. He did not win the Conn Smythe Trophy (that award went to Patrick Kane), but Crawford was in contention.
The Blackhawks lost Emery in the offseason to free agency and the Philadelphia Flyers. General manager Stan Bowman brought in former Blackhawk Nikolai Khabibulin for a second tour of duty with the team.
Nothing is written in stone, but it is safe to say that it is not working out the way Bowman, Khabibulin or the Blackhawks had wanted it to. Khabibulin has a 5.00 goals-against average and an .811 save percentage in four games. He is also out of action with a groin injury.
The Blackhawks have brought up Antti Raanta to fill in. It seems unlikely that Raanta will solve Chicago's backup goaltending woes.
Bowman may have to act quickly to repair this problem.
1. Overall Defense
The backup goaltending may have something to do with it, but the Blackhawks are not getting the results on the defensive end that they did a year ago.
Corey Crawford has been under heavy pressure more often this year, and the defense has not always held up its end of the bargain. Crawford has a 2.55 GAA and a .905 save percentage. That's decent, but it's not at a championship level.
The Blackhawks are giving up 2.91 goals per game, leaving them in a tie for 22nd with Columbus in that category. The Blackhawks gave up 2.02 goals per game last year, and that was the best of any team in the league.
The Blackhawks don't have to be first in that category in order to have a successful year. They can score and they can hold on to the puck, so that gives them some leeway with their defense.
But they can't settle for the bottom third of the league. If they are going to defend their title, they must improve dramatically in this category.