Most Chicago fans felt that the Blackhawks would make at least one major move, if not more, before Wednesday’s trade deadline. After all, there are a few areas (goaltending, goaltending and… goaltending) that most fans and analysts thought could use improving if the Hawks are going to make a run at the Stanley Cup.
But then the deadline came and passed… and the Blackhawks did nothing.
The knee jerk reaction to the lack of action from the United Center is a lot of four-letter words and sweaty palms. How are the Blackhawks supposed to win the Stanley Cup with the guys they have? What are we going to do? Help!
First of all, let’s be realistic about playoff position. The Blackhawks are going to win the Central Division; they have a 14-point lead on second-place Nashville. Despite a few moves by the Predators, it’s unrealistic to think that the Preds will catch the Hawks with 20 games left in the season. By winning the division, the Hawks are assured of one of the top three seeds in the Western Conference in the playoffs.
Secondly, at the top of the Western Conference there are as many issues with the other teams as there are with the Blackhawks. The Sharks are only two points in front of the Hawks for the top seed, and have questions surrounding their own situation between the pipes. While Hawks fans might have reasons to question Antti Niemi’s lack of experience and Cristobal Huet’s questionable, albeit limited, results in the postseason, the Sharks have a netminder in Evgeni Nabokov that not only has a resume filled with recent playoff failure, but he just crapped his pants in the Olympics for Russia.
There’s no reason to think that the Hawks can’t catch the Sharks for the top spot, and should have at least even confidence with the Sharks, if not better, in the goalie situation in Chicago. With Vancouver nine points behind the Hawks in in third, and with a tough division chasing them, to assume that the Blackhawks will end the year in one of the top two seeds in the West isn’t far fetched.
So the Central Division and seeding in the playoffs shouldn’t be a concern.
The Blackhawks, despite their offensive droughts and struggles in net, still rank near the top of the NHL in most statistical categories. This team is not bad. It’s easy to scream about soft goals and a bad night when the team’s playing for a championship; remember, two years ago the Blackhawks were trying to remember how to spell the word “playoffs.”
Also consider the reality of what’s left this season.
Because of the Olympics, every team in the NHL will have to slam 20 games into the next five weeks. Simple math indicates that teams will average four games per week, with travel, before the playoffs begin. Whenever a trade, no matter the profile of the player, takes place, there is always an adjustment period that will take place. Before the Olympic break, the Hawks added Kim Johnsson from Minnesota and are still working through who will play how many minutes on the blue line.
Practice is where players get to know each other, and where coaches are best able to gauge how players work with each other. It’s hard, in any sport, to establish flow to a game plan when you’re mixing up players that don’t know each other. But with teams having only two, sometimes three days off per week to not only travel but also practice, working new players into the rotation is going to be hard to during the rest of this year’s regular season.
Another factor the Blackhawks had to consider at the deadline is that Dave Bolland has only played a couple games after returning from injury, and Adam Burish is coming back on Sunday. Adding two smart players to the mix, along with Johnsson, gives coach Joel Quenneville too many pieces to have in uniform every night already. The Blackhawks will have enough trouble picking someone to watch from the suite every night.
Let’s not ignore the reality that every team that will compete for the Stanley Cup this spring had players in the Olympics. This presents a few situations for teams to deal with when considering a trade.
First, the immediate impact of a trade on contending teams is players missing from the ice. On Wednesday night, the Blackhawks host the Edmonton Oilers, who will be without Denis Grebeshkov and Lubomir Visnovsky on their blue line; both players were dealt before the deadline. The Oilers received only a draft pick for Grebeshkov, and won’t have Ryan Whitney (acquired for Visnovsky) in uniform yet for the game. So the Blackhawks will face a depleted defensive unit a night after getting their tails whipped in New York.
The Oilers are just one of many teams that will be without players in key positions tonight. If points are at a premium at this time of year, can a team trying to gain the best position possible in April afford a night with two or three AHL guys playing a major role on the ice? No.
Second, the medium-term impact is trying to work new players into the rotation and still get Olympians the rest they’ll need to be fresh in the postseason. Look at Anaheim, for example. Ryan Getzlaf and Cory Perry played seven games in Vancouver for Canada, and now they’re not only losing Whitney but they’re looking at a roster that is adding Aaron Ward and Visnovsky on the blue line.
The on-ice chemistry will either remain a work-in-progress that will have to be figured out during games (again, potentially costing the team valuable points), or will be achieved through practices on the limited off days the team has in the coming weeks.
The long-term impact on a roster is dead legs. Both Ward and Visnovsky should be key contributors for the Ducks down the stretch, but at what expense to the odometer of their Olympians’ legs? With limited time for rest between now and the end of the season, finding time to be off the ice will be crucial for teams hoping to make a deep run.
Look around the Western Conference. Phoenix improved the most, moving underwhelming Peter Mueller out and adding Wojtek Wolski and Lee Stempniak up front and Matthieu Schneider and Derek Morris on the blue line. The Los Angeles Kings also made a couple solid moves, adding Jeff Halpern and Fredrik Modin. But outside of Phoenix, LA and Anaheim, nobody in the West did much to make a dramatic improvement.
In the East, the Washington Capitals certainly made some strong moves, as did the Pittsburgh Penguins. But only one of those teams can play the Blackhawks for the Stanley Cup, and anything can happen in a seven game series.
If the Blackhawks were good enough to be at the top of the conference with what they had, if they stay together and avoid the potential headaches that other teams will have to deal with moving forward, they’ll have a great chance to run deep into the playoffs and possibly compete for a Stanley Cup.