Jan 142011

The following is my column which ran in Wednesday night’s Committed Indian.

One thing struck me going back and watching last Friday night’s broadcast of the Hawks-Senators game that I felt shined a spotlight on what’s wrong with the Blackhawks this season.

In breaking down and assessing blame for the Senators’ power play goal at the start of the first period, Eddie Olczyk put Fernando Pisani under the bus for doing the very thing that has been missing since June 9thbeing aggressive.

On Daniel Alfredsson’s goal, 49 seconds into the middle stanza, Olczyk ranted on and on over Pisani putting too much pressure on Sergei Gonchar as the top pointman quarterbacking the Sens’ power play.  How soon we forget how these things were done for the last three years.  Olczyk tried to make the point that Pisani’s over-pursuit of Gonchar disassembled the Hawks’ zone coverage.  If Joel Quenneville and his staff have instructed their penalty killers to sit back in a passive box, then Olczyk is factually correct in this case.

But I wouldn’t be so quick to take Olczyk’s word for it.  After all, what experience did he ever have playing in his defensive zone?  And ask Mark Recchi how much he thinks of Olczyk’s hockey acumen.

First of all, even if Pisani went into business for himself on the play and pressured the point man against Quenneville’s wishes, it is still the responsibility of the weak side forward (in this case Jonathan Toews) to adjust and keep the box intact.  If that forward, Captain do-no-wrong, takes a stride and a half forward into the passing lane, Pisani’s aggressiveness probably leads to a turnover or a zone clear.

Pisani did everything right on that play.  He stepped up, forcing pressure on the last guy back (Gonchar).  In doing so, Pisani positioned his stick to his left, sealing off the return pass to Alfredsson along the half wall.   What Olczyk failed to point out, or perhaps didn’t understand, is that Pisani’s pressure left Gonchar with two options.  What he wound up doing which was a 35 foot pass to the top of the left circle where Erik Karlsson was positioned for a feigned one-timer, or force the puck through the middle of the ice where the Hawks defense would outnumber the Sens at least initially.

This was a textbook example of how Blackhawks penalty kill units of the past three years would pounce on their opponent’s power play and create offense with their aggressive defense, even when they were outnumbered.

At the very least Toews needs to adjust to Pisani’s push on Gonchar and step up into the middle and keep the Hawks’ box (passive or not) in tact until Pisani can readjust.  Or, seeing that Gonchar is being forced by Pisani’s pressure into the long pass to Karlsson, Toews could make a play to intercept and for an odd-man break the other way or simply a dump-in so the Hawks could change and reset with four fresh skaters.  Instead, Toews stood still and watched a Gonchar-to-Karlsson-Alfredsson passing series turn into another PPG against.

There a many issues with the penalty kill right now and its not entirely Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith or what style of “box” the Hawks set up in.

Mike Ribeiro’s game-winner last Wednesday night wasn’t the result of an unfortunate bounce of Niklas Hjalmarsson’s knee.  Had Hjalmarsson had his stick in that passing lane, that 50 foot feed from Brad Richards would have never made it to Ribeiro and that puck would have been cleared.  Keith’s lazy foot in cement, two-handed axe-handle attempt as Brendan Morrow was trying to settle a puck that had just struck him in the face exemplified his lack of enthusiasm for protecting the front of the Hawks net.  Bad bounces and bad breaks happen.  But not like those last Wednesday or in Toews’ case on Friday.  Those were gifts of laziness.

It’s easy to jump on John Scott, Quenneville’s wacky line combinations or Stan Bowman’s love of seventh defenseman, but the culpability lies with this team’s leaders.

Did you know that Marian Hossa’s drawn just three penalties all season?  Yeah.  One per month so it should be coming again any time now.  Heck, Viktor Stalberg’s created four times as many power plays on his own.

Troy Brouwer is an impending RFA who the Hawks may or may not have dough for next season.  His intangibles make him difficult to part with.  Brouwer is the Hawks leader in hits and is the best secondary option they have on the power play.  But that also makes him the most desirable asset Stan Bowman may be willing to part with and the Hawks have needs.

For various reasons, mostly self-inflected and salary cap induced, the Blackhawks have been in a constant back-peddle mode since they touched down at O’Hare the morning after raising the Cup after Game 6 in Philadelphia.

Giving Stan Bowman the benefit of the doubt now, which I don’t believe he’s earned, but I’ll award him in this case only, the signing of several nothing players on minimum contracts over the summer has given him the flexibility now to improve his roster for a playoff push.  If he planned it this way  I’d be willing to bet he didn’t think his precious “core” would have let him down to the point they stand today.   Bowman could be a “seller” in a few weeks if the team hits the skids.

Now, granted, had he re-signed just Jordan Hendry and not John Scott and Nick Boynton, Bowman could have brought a professional defenseman to town instead and perhaps the need to cannibalize floundering NHL rosters wouldn’t exit today.  But again, we’ll play along.

While Bowman simply didn’t have the cap space to replace all of the components of the Stanley Cup team, he has enough now to get the job done.  But, like his team, the need to get aggressive starts now.

The guys Bowman would be most-willing to deal would include Jack Skille, Brouwer, Kyle Beach, Tomas Kopecky and possibly Viktor Stalberg.  I say possibly because its hard for me to believe Bowman would be willing to admit a mistake this early in his tenure, but if he got the right return, he could spin it any way he wanted.

Guys like Pisani, Boynton and Ryan Johnson can easily be released or buried in Rockford.  John Scott has another year left on his deal.  You figure that one out.

First and foremost, and like tomorrow, the Hawks need another defenseman.  The target should be a two-way guy, mobile who skates top four minutes anywhere else in the league, but slides in here as the # 5 guy.  The perfect acquisition would be Buffalo’s Steve Montador.  He should be the first and primary target on Bowman’s radar and it’s a deal he can get done very soon with the right parts.

After that’s done, Bowman should address a group of forwards that’s softer than my midsection these days.

Here’s a list of suggestions for Stan, starting with Montador.  I’m sure Stan will appreciate it.

Steve Montador: D – Sabres, 6-0, 207, $1.55M, UFA (31)  Tough as nails two-way defender who can play either special teams unit and is one of the league’s better shot-blockers.  A late bloomer, Montador is one of better bargains around.  That also makes him a valuable commodity for Buffalo and thus the rate of return they seek won’t be cheap.  If they like Beach I’d make him a part of the deal.  Montador is a B.C. boy too, so he’d fit right in.  Montador leads a bad Sabres team in plus/minus (+10) and skates more than 20 minutes a night in all situations.  There’s no reason to doubt he wouldn’t thrive here playing 14-18 minutes a night alongside Hendry or Hjalmarsson.  Montador’s moved around a lot in his career and Chicago would no doubt be a nice place for him to settle in at a reasonable number next year skating with Nick Leddy or Dylan Olsen.

Curtis Glencross: LW – Flames, 6-1, 200, $1.2M, UFA (28)  Again, because of Glencross’s cap hit, this is a deal that could get done tomorrow with no trouble.  While Jeremy Morin excites fans, Glencross is a complete forward who can bring the physical every night and doesn’t mind getting involved in the high traffic areas.  Not a fighter, but would add an element of team toughness the Hawks sorely lack right now.

Ben Eager: LW – Thrashers, 6-3, 225, $965k, UFA (26)  Given recent developments and the fact Eager has been on the outs with coach Craig Ramsey for some time would lead you to believe Eager is available to whomever presents Rick Dudley with the least insulting offer.  Eager, in addition to Glencross, assuming Skille and another winger (Stalberg/Brouwer) moving in a deal for a defenseman would immediately address the issue of the Hawks being too soft up front.  Eager, Dowell and Kopecky sounds like the perfect fourth line.

Other options:

Craig Rivet: D – Sabres, 6-2, 207, $3.5M, UFA (36)  Consummate team player whose spent the latter half of his 16-year career sticking up for teammates on smallish teams.  He’s a bigger, older, less mobile version of Montador and has very little value to the Hawks beyond this season.  So, Bowman would want to be stingy on the exchange.  His cap hit would also likely prevent the Hawks from doing this deal until closer to the deadline.

Chris Phillips: D – Senators – 6-3, 220, $3.5M, UFA (32) This 13-year NHL vet turns 33 in March.  Phillips is the former 1996 1st overall draft pick who never sniffed the Brian Leetch type prospectus, but the Senators are hoping to get a good young player and middle round draft pick in return.

Marty Reasoner: C – Panthers, 6-1, 205, $1.15M, UFA (27)  Acquired this summer originally in the Byfuglien deal, Bowman sent him to Florida for Jeff Taffe when he suspected he’d need the room for Antti Niemi or another goalie’s contract.  Reasoner’s having a good season centering Florida’s third line and would be a nice throw-in if you could do the following….

Stephen Weiss: C – Panthers, 5-11, 195, $3.1M, (exp 12-13) This is a shot in the dark but I’ll throw it out there.  Check with Dale.  How much does he love Dave Bolland, really?  Weiss would push Sharp back to the left wing where he wants to be and then you wouldn’t have an overpaid, brittle third line center who your coach insists on pushing on the power play.  Weiss isn’t as useless in his own zone as he once was and he’d fill the void at center on the second power play unit as well.


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  5 Responses to “Jan 12th Committed Indian Column”

  1. Chris, very interesting take on the current situation.

    I feel way too much is made of the John Scott signing. Had Bowman not been submarined by Doug Wilson’s offer sheet for Hjalmarsson, there probably would have been enough money to sign either Andrew Ladd or a value-priced veteran d-man (that said, who knows who was out there and what they would have signed for).

    While I find your ‘acquisition candidates’ well thought out, I don’t believe Ben Eager, with his propensity to take bad penalties is necessarily a good idea.

    You’ve mentioned Steve Montador, a big favorite of our colleague Al Cimaglia, but not Matt Carkner ($875K through 11-12), nor Anton Babchuk ($1.4M, pending UFA).

    Montador is good. Carkner is tough, if a touch slow-footed…Babchuk, meanwhile, has turned out to be quite useful in CGY on the PP and clearing the crease. Anton has learned a few things while in KHL exile it seems. 5 points in the last three games, 6 goals/15A in 44 games. Not bad.

    IF Bowman makes a move, Babchuk would be my choice, swapping Skille/Hendry (total of $1,2M, and both of whom Feaster would find logical additions with no long term committment); and promoting Morin to fill the vacated forward spot (bumping someone down if he is given Top 6 time) .

    This assumes the money works, BTW, which it’s impossible to know for sure.

    • Hey Dave,

      I wouldn’t make much of the Scott signing if it weren’t that Hendry, Boynton and Cullimore were the other defense signings. That’s where I take issue with the waste of a roster spot. And the extra year. Nonsensical.

      I agree that Hjalmarsson signing the offer sheet probably prevented Bowman from getting a better defenseman or keeping Reasoner, but Ladd was gone in the deal to Atlanta nine days before Hjalmarsson’s offer sheet.

      I would’ve gone on to list more potential options, but 1,700 words is about my Committed Indian cutoff. I strain the reader’s eyes enough I think. Carkner is not an upgrade in my view. And then you’d have two defenseman (& Scott) under contract for next year who should never see the ice. I’d have to watch Babchuk more closely. I saw him a lot in Carolina but I avoid Calgary games now when I can. To me, Montador is more of a playoff guy. Yeah he’s matured in recent years, but Babchuk has a history of quitting on his team. And I really don’t see the point of acquiring a specialist if Quenneville will insist on putting a forward on the point for the power play. Especially Bolland.

      The point I’d like to see get across is this is a new era. Aim high. These aren’t Brian Sutter’s or Lorne Molleken’s or even Orval’s Blackhawks. The Cup is there for the taking again this year. Even where the Hawks are today. They have a ton of talent. They are really only of few spare parts and a few new spark plugs of care into Hossa and Kane from repeating. If Stan’s been saving money for this moment, then use it wisely. Don’t be a thrift shopper. That’s exactly why he’s in this position today. He general managed his team for February 28th, forgetting that 3/4 of the season comes before then. So many people seem to have this mentality like “yeah they’re too good. They’ll win again.” Forgetting they were one bad bounce away from facing a game seven against the East team that needed a shootout to get into the post season last year. As good as they were last year, it almost didn’t happen. Dale Tallon’s aggressiveness is what brought a Cup here. Whether people want to acknowledge that or not, its true. Stan needs to put a little urgency into his gameplan. Piddling is what led to 49 years of frustration.

      Al Cimaglia made a great point on Eager at Hockey Independent on Friday that I had not considered pointing to the fact with Eager now coming off this most recent suspension and with his history, he’ll be under the microscope and 1-that could hinder his aggressiveness, 2-Eager could be facing a long-term suspension if he gets in trouble again due to his multiple-offender status. So, yeah, I’m less inclined to see Eager back than I was when I wrote the above on Tuesday. Glencross would always be my first choice though.

  2. Chris, one of the things I truly appreciate is your thoroughness, and I stand corrected on the timing of the Ladd trade (7/1) and the Hjalmarsson offer sheet (7/9, per TSN).

    Thanks for that.

    But then with so much activity having happened this summer, one’s memory does come up short at times.

    I suppose I could shift my logic to suggest the Hjalmarsson money COULD have been used to sign a ‘Ladd-type’, but the real point was that the extra dollars Nik got appeared to throw the budget out of whack.

    Again, the Scott signing (also on 7/1) could be characterized as a ‘wasted roster spot’ but IMHO it would not be discussed in that light, if the middle of the roster and a number of other more high-profile players had not been under-achieving, especially early in the season when the Hawks were losing close points and what has proved to be important points.

    But again, we are looking back and the Western Conference is, meanwhile, about as close to ‘parity’ as one could imagine.

    As the gap in GP closes up, the Hawks are 1 point out of 5th and 3 points out of 4th, which isn’t disastrous by any means. Obviously, every win is in a sense, a ‘must’.

    Not calling you out in any way regarding your options, BTW. I’ve watched Babchuk in several games and he looks quite reliable as a 5/6 guy. One should be wary of history that says a player ‘quit on his team’, as there may be mitigating circumstances. Or even if he did ‘quit’, hockey is a sport of redemption among other things.

    I am not as big on Carkner as Al is, but then I see more of MC than Al does, being here in Ottawa.

    As far as urgency is concerned, I don’t know that hockey teams can be managed with that emotion predominating. Pro sports being cyclical, there are windows of opportunity that open and close for a variety of reasons, so timing, and the quality of the competition, has a big say in how things work or don’t work out.

    I remember how really good some of the Hawks teams of the late 60s and early 70s were, but they kept running into Toronto and then Montreal.

    Tallon was aggressive, but he overspent wildly and now Bowman has to put the balance sheet back in order. Not exciting, but that’s business.

    As always, it’s a great pleasure to talk Hawkey with you.

  3. I’m with you on the supposed ‘core’ being responsible for where the Hawks are, but it still doesn’t excuse the Scott signing. It goes against the foundation of how this team achieved its success. Show me a player and I’ll ask you ‘how does he make our team better?” All he can do is fight, and even when he does that, as we’ve seen, its as much as an emotial boost for the other team if their guy puts up a decent fight. So again, how exactly can he contribute? He doesn’t. I’m sure he’s a great guy and its not his fault he’s here. But he doesn’t have a place here and he should’ve never been signed. Its not 1989 anymore.

    I think we can acknowledge by now that it was as much of an organizational decision to spend aggressively than it was Tallon’s. He’ll forever be the maker of record because of his GM status, but there were factors beyond hockey decisions that went into checks cut to Campbell, Huet, Hossa, and co. And he did it all under the watchful eye of McDonough. As we’ve learned, nothing happens without McDonough’s nose hovering over it.

    Putting the “balance sheet back in order” would refer to something like trading Seabrook in lieu of a long-term extension or short-term big lump of money. We’re talking about how they’re allocating 3-4 million dollars. What I’m looking for is a definition of “one goal.” A lot can happen in a month, a year or five years. You note how the league can be cylical. True. But how many teams have stumbled into a Stanley Cup? One doesn’t make up for 49 years. Fans should demand more. Sitting back a year is inexcusable. The landscape can change completely over a year. They’re very close now and have opportunity to do something very special. I’d hold them to a higher standard. But that’s just me.

  4. Chris, just to be clear, I don’t consider that Dale Tallon operated in a vacuum of decision-making. Of course, one can speculate about who drove the decisions, but none of us really know what went on except those who were there.

    My experience in large corporations is that the people at the top hire operations people who they entrust with shaping and executing policy. Rocky Wirtz appears to be someone who tries to hire the best people, and then lets them do their jobs.

    There is a very cynical view that emanates from certain parts of the Hawkey blogosphere about John McDonough, and that view colors those cynics’ comments about him.

    Dale Tallon made some good decisions, and some bad decisions. The fact is, he spent liberally and handed out contracts that would inevitably create a cap crunch. His handling of the Khabibulin-Huet logjam, from a managerial perspective, was, from my vantage point, one of the reasons he was eventually replaced.

    When I say Bowman had to put the balance sheet in order, he was tasked with reducing the salary mass dramatically. It’s not that one man is a hero, and one is a villain; Tallon and Bowman represent different phases of the evolutionary process.’

    The John Scott signing is, in the overall picture, a relatively small occurence, especially when compared with the multi-million dollar committments made to players, one of whom have had to be sent to Europe to get him ‘off the books’, though the organization is still paying out.

    Having followed the Blackhawks since 1961, I attribute the so-called ‘Cup Drought’ to a variety of factors. For fans to ‘expect more’ presumes that fans have any control whatsoever, which they do not, concerning what takes place on a hockey rink.

    Some of the Blackhawks teams I have watched were, arguably, better than the ’61 team; but in those years, there were, as Fate would have it, teams who were that much better or more fortunate, or both.

    For me, as a spectator, hockey is a game, a form of entertainment that also entails a visceral quality, and intellectual exercise.

    But knowing it is a business, I know the jobs that hockey executives have, are extraordinarily challenging. So I am less acerbic and absolute in my views, and try to maintain a wry sense of humor about it all.

    I played junior hockey VERY briefly, and one of the reasons it was brief, was that I didn’t see the point of getting my teeth bashed in and my limbs broken while wearing a colorful costume and chasing a frozen rubber disc, with a coach yelling at me all the time.

    However, I do admire the courage and ability of those who make their living at it. And I do enjoy getting out on the rink in winter and having fun with the kids from eight to eighty who play for the heck of it.

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