Holiday Wish List for the Chicago Blackhawks in 2014-15
After a rough start to the season that saw the Blackhawks play mediocre hockey through the early part of November, Joel Quenneville's team is on a roll and has moved all the way to the top of the NHL's Central Division.
It has won nine of its last 10 games and is second in the Western Conference to the Anaheim Ducks and is once again one of the elite teams in the league. By the time the playoffs start in April, there's no reason the Blackhawks shouldn't be able to make a legitimate run at their third Stanley Cup in the last six seasons.
But that doesn't mean the organization and its players couldn't use a few holiday gifts to keep spirits up from this point forward. In this piece, we dole out a holiday wish list that should make the Blackhawks and their fans happy.
Patrick Kane: Reach the 40-Goal Mark
It's easy to see what separates the Blackhawks from most of their competition around the NHL. It's talent, pure and simple.
And few players personify that talent any better than Patrick Kane. He is perhaps the best stick-handler in the game, and that ability allows him to buy time that leads to scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates.
He has scored a slew of huge goals in his career, and many of them have come when the Blackhawks needed them in the postseason. The Stanley Cup-winning goal vs. the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010, the series-winning goal in double overtime vs. the Los Angeles Kings in 2013, two goals vs. the Boston Bruins in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final and an overtime series-winner vs. the Minnesota Wild last year.
But when it comes to the regular season, Kane has not been able to put eye-catching goal totals on the board. He scored 30 goals in 2009-10, and that's his career high. It seems shocking that Kane has reached the 30-goal plateau just once in his career.
So far this season, Kane has scored 14 goals in his first 31 games. If he stays on his current pace, he will hit the 37-goal mark. That would be an excellent total, but it would be truly memorable if he could reach a round number like 40 goals.
Kane is a superstar, and a 40-goal season would put a little more polish on his resume.
Kris Versteeg: Remain on Fire
The Blackhawks may have a roster full of superstars like Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and Duncan Keith, but it's not just about the big names putting the puck in the net.
When a team has dreams of lifting the Stanley Cup at the end of the season, it must have some other players step up and handle some of the scoring load.
That's where Kris Versteeg fits into the equation. After an injury-plagued 2013-14 season, Versteeg came to camp in excellent shape and with renewed spirit. While he suffered a minor injury in training camp, it did not derail him and he has been producing at a high level.
Versteeg is third on the team in scoring—behind Toews and Kane but ahead of Marian Hossa and Brandon Saad—with eight goals and 15 assists. He is also leading the team with a plus-14 rating.
Versteeg is now fully recovered from 2013 ACL surgery, and Quenneville believes that's why he has been so effective this season.
"I think he’s back to where he was or where he wanted to be," Quenneville told Scott Powers of ESPN.com. "He’s coming off that injury. I can go back to every single guy that had an ACL injury. It takes a year to get back to Square 1. Square 1 was training camp, and he had an excellent camp. You got to commend him on preparing and getting excited about the year."
Versteeg wants nothing more than to remain healthy so he can continue to contribute at his current level. He is on fire, and he wants to stay hot.
Marian Hossa: Take the Force Field Away from the Net
Marian Hossa remains one of the Blackhawks' best all-around players in 2014-15, but it's hard to put that designation on him when his scoring totals are examined.
Through the team's first 31 games, Hossa has scored five goals and 15 assists. Throughout his career, Hossa has scored 469 goals and has reached the 30-goal mark eight times.
Hossa has played in 1,121 games during his 17 years in the league, and he has scored on 12.6 percent of his shots on goal. This season, Hossa is connecting on a measly 5.3 percent of his shots.
Some of this is on Hossa, because he has been firing too many shots right at the opposing goalie's midsection, and that results in easy saves. However, he has also been robbed a number of times, and that is one of the key reasons he's tied for seventh on the Blackhawks in goal scoring.
Hossa remains a first-rate skater who excels in the defensive zone. However, he needs the invisible force field in front of the net to come down. He needs a couple of easy goals to break the logjam so he can raise his scoring total to a respectable level.
That would be the perfect holiday gift for Hossa.
Ben Smith: Rewards for His Hard Work
Ben Smith is a fourth-line right wing who has earned a spot on the Blackhawks roster the last two seasons because he is hard worker who is skilled at killing penalties. He will sacrifice his body if it allows his team to gain possession of the puck or creates a scoring opportunity.
He is not going to whip through the opposing defense with a series or moves or dazzle fans with his wicked shot. He is a tough, grinding bottom-six forward.
He has won the admiration of his teammates and his coaches through his effort.
However, this tough foot soldier deserves a few rewards. He goes to the front of the net, he takes abuse from the defense and he hunts down rebounds and deflection opportunities. He rarely gets to cash in.
Smith has scored three goals and two assists in 31 games, and he deserves a better showing based on his effort. Smith scored 14 goals last season, and there's no reason he couldn't reach double figures again based on his overall effectiveness.
Smith is frustrated and would like to light the lamp more often. “I think that as hockey players, we put all the heat on ourselves,” he told Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times. “We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to contribute and play well and play our roles. I haven’t heard anything from the coaches about offense. But I definitely would like it to start coming. You’re a hockey player. You want to score goals.”
Joel Quenneville: A Reliable Power Play
While the Blackhawks are rolling right now and playing exceptional hockey, they have at least one discernible weakness, and it has been an issue for several seasons.
Despite all the talent on the roster, the Blackhawks have a substandard power play. Chicago is connecting on 17.6 percent of its man-advantage opportunities, a figure that ranks 18th in the NHL.
While the Blackhawks had the 10th-best power play during last year's regular season, they ranked 19th in 2012-13 and 26th in 2011-12. Power-play issues have regularly dogged the Blackhawks.
There are several reasons for their problems, but the biggest is that the players Quenneville sends out on the ice with the man advantage tend to look for the perfect pass. They simply don't shoot enough, and they pass up opportunities that could result in goals and scoring chances.
“It doesn’t matter how fancy you want to get, shooting the puck is always the No. 1 recipe for a good power play,” Brad Richards told Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times at the start of the season. “You can’t be on the perimeter the whole power play, you’ll just kill it off yourself. You have to have a shooting mentality.”