Chicago Blackhawks: Biggest Surprises of the Season Thus Far
There have been a number of surprises among the Chicago Blackhawks' personnel throughout the early goings of the 2011-12 season—and that's not including the rollercoaster ride of success the team has taken thus far.
A number of players on the Hawks' roster have emerged for the better, and it looks as if they're ready to take on more responsibility as the season progresses.
On the other hand, some players have not fulfilled the hype they had coming into the season—especially considering the longer offseason the Hawks had after not repeating as Stanley Cup champions last season.
Despite all of the surprises the Hawks have experienced, for good or bad, they are still one of the best teams in the Western Conference, and arguably one of the top teams in the NHL.
Ray Emery's Emergence
A significant cause of Ray Emery's emergence is Corey Crawford's struggles throughout the 2011-12 NHL season. Emery wouldn't have as many opportunities to showcase himself if Crawford hasn't played as poorly as he has.
Emery wasn't guaranteed a roster spot during Blackhawks training camp. He was battling with Alexander Salak for the backup goalie spot, and he obviously ended up getting the nod over Salak.
Corey Crawford has made it easy on Emery to get positive attention. Crawford's struggles have given Emery the opportunity to gain recognition from his coaching staff and teammates as more than just the team's backup goalie.
Emery is slowly but surely taking over the Hawks' starting goaltending position, but that's nothing new in Chicago. The Hawks' starting goaltender in each of the previous three seasons lost his starting duties at some point during the following season.
Nick Leddy's Emergence
Nick Leddy played just 46 games in the 2010-11 season, and he tallied a mere seven points. Barring any setbacks, Leddy is on pace to surpass those numbers with flying colors.
Leddy is just 20 years old, and the improvements he shows on a nightly basis are invaluable.
Leddy isn't afraid to embrace a hit like he was last season, and he has much more confidence and instinct when he has the puck on his stick.
Leddy isn't perfect by any standards, but there's still plenty of time for him to improve the areas of concern, as well as the areas in which he's already made significant strides in the right direction.
Duncan Keith's Inconsistency
I was expecting Duncan Keith to have a more impressive 2011-12 season than he has, considering he had a longer offseason as compared to the previous summer, and GM Stan Bowman has increased the Blackhawks' depth at the blue line.
After the 2009-10 season—the year the Hawks won the Stanley Cup—Duncan Keith and the rest of the team had a shorter offseason because of the extended season that comes with winning in the playoffs, as well as all the celebration that followed after hoisting the Cup.
It wasn't too much of a shock that Keith didn't have the freshest legs, especially with the lack of defensive depth the Hawks had going into the 2010-11 season.
The Hawks had a longer offseason after losing to the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the '11 playoffs, meaning Keith had more time to rest and prepare for the upcoming season.
Stan Bowman added much-needed depth on the Hawks' defense, so you'd think that would have helped Keith, too.
Duncan Keith hasn't been bad this season. He's been inconsistent. He's had a number of good patches of productive hockey, but there have been many bad streaks, as well.
All this despite the fact that Keith had a longer offseason, that Bowman provided him some help with the acquisitions of Sami Lepisto and Steve Montador, and that Nick Leddy has taken on a more significant role than he had last season.
Marian Hossa's Health
The 2011-12 season marks the third for Marian Hossa as a member of the Blackhawks. Big Hoss hasn't been able to avoid the injury bug in the previous two.
Hossa has been healthy for nearly the entire season this year, and that's something Hawks fans aren't used to seeing.
Hawks fans may be used to seeing Hossa play at the level he has throughout the '11 season, scoring a point per night and sometimes more. It's difficult to remember the last time Hossa was able to be as productive as he has been in '11 without any setbacks due to injuries.
It's truly a thing of beauty.
The Hawks have thrived with Hossa in the lineup; his health is one of the reasons the Hawks have been as successful as they have been this season.
Ben Smith's Short Stint in the NHL
In Ben Smith's first stint with the Blackhawks in the 2011-12 season, he played just seven games and scored just one goal. His stat line wasn't too impressive, but sometimes stats don't explain everything a player brings to the ice, and that's the case for Smith.
Smith has been reassigned to the Rockford Icehogs, and it's a shame because he worked his tail off every time he took the ice.
The things Smith do on the ice don't show up on the score sheet. He isn't afraid to take a few hits while fighting for a puck in the corner, and he has impressive control of the puck for someone who's played in just 20 career NHL games.
If indeed reassigning Smith is about giving him more playing time down in the minors, then you can't disagree with Coach Q, but it's disappointing to see Smith go back down after the effort he put in during the minimal time he got at the NHL level.