Teams in the NHL only get 82 games to prove themselves, so making the most of every night is crucial. Spoiled Blackhawks fans only have to look back three years to see an 88-point season leave them three points out of the playoffs despite an incredible second half push.
And yet looking back at the first ten games for the Blackhawks, there are some points that fans can point to for encouragement despite a few rough losses.
Consider the reality that the Blackhawks have seen more ice time from Brandon Pirri and Evan Brophey in their first ten games than they have from Brian Campbell. Campbell is a critical player on the Hawks’ power play and eats a lot of minutes defensively. Being without him for the first month of the season has not been easy.
Also consider that Campbell isn’t the only player the Hawks have missed to start the year. Niklas Hjalmarsson was suspended for two games. Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane, Nick Boynton and Tomas Kopecky have all missed one. That’s 16 missed games from key players on the roster already in the young season, not easily accounted for in such a tight stretch. Because these issues, three players – Pirri, Brophey and Nick Leddy – have made their NHL debut already this year for Chicago. Depth has been a concern.
Now back up and realize that the 16 games missed by those six key players have been in the toughest stretch to start the season in the entire league. The Blackhawks have played ten games in 16 days; in the Western Conference, only the Anaheim Ducks have played more than eight in the first two weeks of the season. Not only have the Hawks played a lot of games, the stretch hasn’t been against pushover competition, either. Colorado, Detroit, Nashville, Buffalo (twice) and Vancouver were all playoff teams last year.
There are plenty of excuses for the Blackhawks, but they have given critics plenty of ammunition.
Dave Bolland continues to have a brutal season in the faceoff circle. He won only four of 13 opportunities at the dot on Saturday night, another tough performance. So far this year, Bolland has only won 41.4 percent of his faceoffs through ten games. That’s bad.
Because of the Campbell injury, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Boynton have been playing insane minutes. Keith leads the NHL, averaging 29:44 per game. Seabrook, his partner, is playing 26:02, and Boynton is playing 22: 27 per night. The lack of defensive depth that has led to these heavy minutes is also allowing over 34 shots per game on net, almost ten per game more than last year’s team. That is a major concern moving forward.
Bryan Bickell, Viktor Stalberg and Seabrook have scored two goals in the first ten games. So have Kane and Jonathan Toews. For the Blackhawks to be successful, their scoring leaders need to step up at big moments and, so far, Kane and Toews haven’t even been secondary scorers for this team. Toews had a goal on Saturday night, but neither has found the back of the net as often as this team needs them to for the Hawks to win consistently.
Kane is also minus-seven on the young season, and there have been a few indications that he is skating himself in and out of coach Joel Quenneville’s doghouse. The Hawks started Saturday night’s game with Sharp back at a wing position with Kane and Toews, but as the game progressed it was Marian Hossa replacing him with Sharp and Toews; Kane was suddenly skating with Bolland and Bickell. His play has been up and down too much for a superstar so far.
There have also been some awful penalties that have killed the team late in games. Both Boynton and Seabrook have taken crippling delay of game penalties late in losses, and two penalties really handicapped the Blackhawks approach on Saturday night. Troy Brouwer’s major for boarding after Columbus cut the lead to 2-1 gave the Jackets five minutes to tie the game, which they were able to do, and then Bolland took a terrible interference penalty mid-way through the third. Stupid, lazy penalties have cost the Hawks points.
Finally, a couple of the veteran summer imports have been ghosts.
Fernando Pisani has zero points and is minus-three in ten games. He started the year on the team’s second line, and now looks more and more like a fourth line grinder.
John Scott… wow. The Big Backflop hasn’t earned the 7:59 he’s playing per game. He has two statistics of note: he’s plus-one with 11 penalty minutes. That’s it. No points, only ten hits and six blocked shots to show for playing in all ten games. If he plays in the other 72, we’re in trouble.
Despite all of these issues that could keep Blackhawks fans up all night biting their nails and looking for a shot glass, there is a lot to be thrilled about already.
A lot of the other new faces have been exceptional. The new-look fourth line of Stalberg, Jake Dowell and Jack Skille has been fabulous, and a legitimate matchup headache for opponents. Skille and Stalberg have brought overwhelming speed to the back end of the roster, and the effort from all three has forced Quenneville to move them around the roster on special teams and in other situations.
Marty Turco, after a couple rough games to open the season against the Avs and Red Wings, has been a revelation. He’s started the year 4-2-1 with a .921 save percentage and 2.65 goals against average. Despite facing too many shots and playing in an overtime game and a shootout, Turco has been worth well more than the $1.5M salary he accepted from the Hawks this summer.
On the other end of the luck spectrum, Corey Crawford has been on the short end of two tough-luck losses already. Crawford’s 1-2-0 despite a .912 save percentage; he has earned better results than his record indicates.
But perhaps the best takeaway for Hawks fans from the first ten games is the strong starts of Marian Hossa and Sharp. They’re both tied for the NHL lead with 11 points, and Sharp is tied with Steven Stamkos with eight goals already despite missing the Hawks’ home opener.
Overall, the Blackhawks have 11 points after ten games. They’ve lost a few games they should have won, and Friday’s 4-2 loss in St. Louis is the one of their five losses that was by more than one goal. They’ve been in every game, but haven’t finished as often as they could, and should, have to date. As the roster gets healthy and rotation becomes more regular, this team should be able to account for most of their early season blemishes and push for another deep playoff run.
Are there issues? Yes. Is there cause for concern? Absolutely. But there is a lot to be happy about from the Blackhawks early on this year.