It’s been awhile, but its time once again for another round of “blogger” symposiums. Credit McClure of SecondCityHockey.com for moderating this one and setting the topics. Seated at the table as always is the mysterious “Forklift” of Hockeenight.com fame; John from the Fifth Feather, Jeff Bartl of BlackhawkUp and Sam Fels of The Committed Indian and NBC’s Madhouse Enforcer blog. As well, I join in on a list of five hot topics. Enjoy.
1) What do you see as being wrong with Duncan Keith to this point in the season, and can it be fixed?
Forklift: I’m hoping it’s something as simple as him being a little overwhelmed at being paid $8 million, and is trying to do too much. You can see where he’s just not simplifying his game – looking for that one extra pass, shooting where there’s no lane, playing with the puck too much. All things that are not part of the Duncan Keith game. I’m envisioning the solution being R. Lee Ermey walking into the Hawks’ dressing room and yelling at him “What’s the matter with you, boy? You’re DUNCAN KEITH!!! Start playing like you’re DUNCAN KEITH!!! Do you understand me???”
Fifth Feather: At this point in the season, other than blasting shot after shot off shin guards, he’s been alright. His start to the season is what everyone remembers now, but the mistakes Keith has been making lately (poor angles, firing the puck away without looking, etc.) are all things he’s been doing his whole career. So I’m not sure those things will ever be wholly rectified. The difference between last year and this year was his shot finding the back of the net with a bit more regularity and his mistakes weren’t as glaring because when he did make them, it was Huet’s fault or the opposition didn’t capitalize on them.
Jeff Bartl: I’m inclined to side with The Feather here, because a lot of his mistakes are things we’ve seen before. The difference seems to be they’re happening a lot more frequently than last season. Maybe he’s over-thinking, trying to anticipate the opponent’s forecheck rather than than reacting to what it gives him to work with. The blind passes are more frequent, and when he does hold possession, he seems to be holding it too long. Far too many times he’s been caught dilly-dalying with the puck as the opposition moves on in him force a turnover or at least slow down the ‘Hawks attack. Then there’s the obvious blind shots without finding a lane before firing. Whether or not it can be fixed depends on him dealing with the mental side of getting over his mistakes, in my opinion.
Sam Fels: I heard Barry Rozner on the Score say something to the effect of he’s thinking too much out there. So because it’s Rozner I have to go 180 degrees on this and say he’s not thinking at all. Everything seems in such a rush with Keith, he’s gotta make this pass RIGHT NOW or rush this puck around the boards instead of taking the extra second to make a better decision. It’s the same in the offensive zone, where instead of walking a d-man it’s just fire it now. He’s trying to play at such a high speed, instead of playing at a normal speed that would be faster than most everyone else’s game anyway. I thought his offensive numbers last year were a bit of an anomaly, so that’d doesn’t bother me, but I wish he would just breathe in his own zone. I think it can be fixed though, he hasn’t this prolonged a slump in a long time but it was just a couple weeks ago he was very good in that four game winning streak.
Chris Block: I know this is a tough sell and hard to do logistically given other limited options, but I’d like to see Keith taken off the power play. Save his energy for the tough matchups 5-on-5 and the penalty kill. For the good of the team, recent failures of that PK unit is something the reigning Norris Trophy winner needs take ownership of. I’m tired of Toews being the only consistent (at least vocal) stand-up guy in that room. His game really began to tail off before the halfway point of last season, but for various reasons, Keith’s mistakes stand out more obviously this year. What strikes me is a total lack of enthusiasm in protecting the front of his goal. Also missing are the defensive reads and one-on-one defensive stands resulting in takeaways and the odd-man chances-for in transition which makes a big difference in that team-worst -7 plus/minus ranking not to mention the team’s win/loss record. As far as the power play, there’s a misconception of Keith being a huge contributor to that unit. Only 23 percent of his points came on the power play last year as opposed to 42 percent this year as he’s on pace to see better than a 20 point drop in overall production this season. Keith has been on the ice for 6 of the last 14 goals scored by way of the power play (one being an empty-netter) and it’s the Seabrook and Sharp tandem that have taken over first pairing responsibilities. On the short-handed side of things, Keith has been involved in 9 of the last 14 power play goals scored against the Hawks. Head up; stick on the ice. Keith needs to simplify things. Get defensive.
2) Based on the season thus far, is Corey Crawford a long-term solution in net? And if so, will his price tag being a problem?
Forklift: Based on the season this far, Corey Crawford is a much better goalie than anyone I’ve ever seen named Corey Crawford. Part of the credit has to belong to Stephane Waite, as this is two years in a row you’ve seen big improvement from a young goaltender under his tutelage. He has the same misfortune as Antti Niemi had last year, being an RFA in a summer where there will be a glut of UFA goalies hitting the market. He won’t be able to get above the $3 million mark, which won’t be that tough for the Hawks. They will have money to spend next summer. For under $3 million? Sure, I’d sign him.
Feather: I don’t think anyone can truthfully answer that. Goalies are incredibly unpredictable and one good first half doesn’t promise a decade worth of quality. That being said, Crawford is a bit different than most other first-year starters thrust into the number one role. He spent a lifetime in the AHL and at 26, he’s probably a bit better to handle adversity than someone like say, Carey Price, who’s had to deal with his failure at the most elite level and ridiculous expectations. As for his price tag, if Antti Niemi couldn’t get more than $2 million with a Stanley Cup under his belt, I don’t think we have to worry about him demanding anymore than that.
Bartl: Not only is it waaayy too early to tell, you never know when it comes to goaltenders and the Blackhawks’ mentality when it comes to paying for them. The ‘Hawks are trying to do goaltending on the cheap since the Huet Debacle, and I’m not sure that will change. The only thing that will differ from the Niemi situation is that they don’t seem to have a true Plan B behind Crawford. If the money isn’t too much of a stretch (about $2 million), he’ll be locked up depending on the years. Not only are the ‘Hawks going to be frugal with their goaltender money, they’re going to be stingy on length, too. But as I said, unless something develops through an offseason trade or a bargain UFA, the ‘Hawks will realize they’re not going to do much better in terms of age, money and talent and lock him up.
Fels: Lifetime? We won’t know that for two to three years. But he’s appearing to be every bit the solution that Antti Niemi would have been. This question can’t be answered until we see how he finishes the season, but I really can’t see how he could make more than 2-2.5 mildo.
Block: Well, based off of 21 starts, sure. But before I give him a lucrative long term commitment, I’d prefer to see how he does if and when he’s actually getting the majority of the starts. Crawford’s status at this point is similar but not identical to Niemi’s of a year ago. Crawford is too a RFA, one year away from unrestricted status. However, with Niemi, Tomas Vokoun, Ilya Bryzgalov, Jimmy Howard, J.S. Giguere and Craig Anderson all set to hit the market, there will be more teams potentially seeking cheaper options in goal this summer. If Crawford was willing today to take $1.25 next year and $1.5M the year after, I’d sign him right now because that’s not unreasonable back up money if he turns out to be just that. If he’s willing to take his chances, I would be too. I ultimately don’t see him getting more much more than $2M unless he leads the Hawks to a back-to-back Cup. Without unloading a big contract, the Hawks won’t be in line to lure any of the top free agents. Before this first half, I wasn’t convinced Crawford could do the job, but honestly, he’s been playing at this level for two and a half years now. So I’m confident he can be at least this good in split-duty moving forward.
3) While he’s been great since returning, as both the numbers and eye-test show, can Brian Campbell keep up this high a level of play for the remainder of the year?
Forklift: As long as he stays healthy, there’s no reason to believe he shouldn’t. He’s playing to his contract, and is currently one of the best defensemen in the NHL.
Feather: If his first two years here are any evidence, we can probably expect a lull in his play at some point. It would be lovely if he could keep up this play for the rest of the year, but if you’re looking at it realistically, his play is probably going to drop off for a couple weeks. Then you’ll hear from the usual places about what a waste he is.
Bartl: I still feel one of the main reasons we’re asking this question is simply because of his contract. While I understand the amount of money a player makes will determine a decent level of evaluation, Campbell has been mainly solid since he’s been here, save for a few publicized moments. Even so, those moments are amplified because of the dough he rakes in. Short answer: Yes, I believe so, simply because he’s playing solid enough to shut up the meatballs, but not outstanding enough for us to start gushing. He’s playing well, and I can see that continuing.
Fels: Don’t see why not. This is kind of the thing he did for like five years in Buffalo which made him so expensive in the first place. If anything he can be better as his offensive numbers aren’t quite where you’d like them, as good as he’s been.
Block: As long as Campbell’s playing alongside a partner who allows him to do what he does best, there is no reason he can’t. If Hjalmarsson’s play were to drop off for a stretch, I’d switch the pairings and put Campbell with Seabrook right away because Campbell is far too important to what is intended to be a puck possession offense to have his efforts fatigued in any other way. Not to beat on Keith, but when Duncan Keith is on the bottom and Brian Campbell is on top of your team in the plus/minus category and there’s 26 +/- points separating the two, there’s no denying the former isn’t taking his defensive responsibilities seriously enough.
4) Since returning to the Hawks after the WJC, what have your impressions of Nick Leddy been, and do they differ at all with what you saw in the first 5 games of the year?
Forklift: Goddamn, this kid is fast. You can see that he’s going to be good – really good. Seeing him paired with Jordan Hendry is actually been pleasing to the eye, especially since their speed allows them to recover from whatever mistakes they’ve made. For the first time all season, you get the feeling there isn’t a defenseman playing who is a liability. Now excuse me while I pat myself on the back, as I have liked Leddy since the Hawks got him in the Cam Barker deal – before that, actually. I will not call any doctors for the boner I will have for more than 4 hours at the prospect of a future pairing of Leddy and Dylan Olsen.
Feather: The latest Leddy audition seems like a last-ditch effort by the Hawks to see if they can avoid acquiring a veteran d-man with hopes that Jordan Hendry and Leddy can carry the load. He looks a lot more patient now and his play has at least resembled an NHL player. Then there are times when he looks like a 19 year-old playing against men. Another thing to keep in mind with Leddy is how his presence has reminded Jordan Hendry what made him so successful here during his first couple stints. Few recall now, but when Hendry debuted with the Hawks with in ’07-08, he was a Hjalmarsson-lite, providing steady defense and making the correct decision with the puck almost 100% of the time. After being partnered with the likes of Nick Boynton and Brent Sopel the past couple seasons, Hendry was trying to be someone he wasn’t, i.e. a puck-moving defenseman. If Leddy continues to let Hendry play a simple game, then it’s only going to help the Hawks that much more.
Bartl: Leddy has been up-and-down, which is actually a compliment for a 19-year-old kid thrust onto a team maybe a year too early because of lost players and, more alarmingly, poor play from the guys we hoped would produce even minimally. His adventures are less threatening than what we were getting from Nick Boynton on a nightly basis. Having a 19-year-old kid fuck up every once in awhile compared to Boynton fart away pucks twice a game is easier to deal with. And as both Fork and the Feather said, he seems to make Hendry better. This seems like it’s going to be the best third pairing we role out this season, baring any moves by Bowman.
Fels: To be honest I haven’t noticed him all that much, which is probably a good thing. He’s definitely playing with more confidence as some rushes up ice would attest, as to the non-panic in his own zone. But Wednesday is the last game he can play without starting his contract clock, and I don’t know if he’s the answer to the third pairing problems. And if you’re not sure, then he should probably go down.
Block: Not really. Considering Jordan Hendry was carrying most of the load on that pairing, we don’t have much to go on. Also, you can’t base much off of home games against two of the worst teams in the Eastern conference. Leddy is remarkably composed for a 19-year old and if Stan Bowman manages him the right way, Leddy should be a very good NHL defenseman one day. And that day is probably expedited to next fall after Bowman trades Hjalmarsson in the upcoming off season. But I don’t see Leddy as the missing piece now, so why burn a year on his entry-level if you don’t have to? If they choose to, it speaks to the larger problem right now; and that’s bad general managing. Leddy played 30 games last year in the WCHA. What is he going to look like come game 65, 75 or 90? We don’t know and I’d rather learn that by watching him in Rockford. He’s been fine and he’s the darling of a lot of fans because in their minds the unknown is greater than the ‘knowns’, but a great GM wouldn’t hedge his bets on a 19-year old kid during such a playoff endangerment the Hawks find themselves in currently. We knew Bowman was making a mistake when he wasted cap space on John Scott instead of securing a real defenseman and the fact that Jassen Cullimore was an understated savior in the first half is all you need to write in Stan Bowman’s summer performance review.
5) Lastly, how nice of a guy is Sam for giving away copies of the Indian for free on Sunday?
Forklift: My love for Sam knows no bounds (pause). In fact, he was the second most benevolent soul this weekend, after Dean Lombardi…thanks Dean, for signing Jack Johnson for less than $5 million/year. This will go a long way toward setting Seabrook’s price.
Feather: Considering his heat was just shut off and he hasn’t electricity in two years, I’d say the guy is preparing to sit in his throne at the right hand of God.
Bartl: What a swell fella. I had my money out and ready to go before I walked into the UC. I guess I should feel even more lucky that one of his Craigslist fellons didn’t just try and take my money anyway, only to see the bold FREE TONIGHT! in the corner when I sat down.
Fels: Considering he only did it so everyone would tell him what a nice guy he is, that makes him a total asshole.
Block: I’d double up what Sam wrote.