I know the Blackhawks’ marketing department is really pushing this whole “One Goal” idea, but it might be time for the Hawks offense to think about three or four.
A sign of a good hockey team is their ability to overcome mistakes and shortcomings, and great hockey teams can win despite themselves. In the month of December, the Blackhawks haven’t played great hockey, but they’ve won some games they shouldn’t have already.
In five games this month, the Hawks have scored just nine goals (1.80 per game average, 25th in the NHL in December). In fact, they haven’t scored more than two since their 4-3 shootout victory over Columbus on the Dec. 1. When you factor into that number that three of the nine goals have come with a man advantage, two during four-on-four overtime hockey, and one was shorthanded, the Hawks have disappeared during even strength hockey this month.
If you look back even further than the beginning of December, in the seven games since the Hawks’ incredible 7-2 win at San Jose, the Hawks haven’t been able to put together anything consistent on offense. In those seven games, the Hawks have scored only 10 goals, with still only three coming at even strength. In those seven games, the Hawks have been shutout once and scored only one goal on three other occasions; maybe it’s time for a new marketing campaign?
The team with so many offensive weapons can’t get the puck in the net, and the struggles have coach Joel Quenneville scratching his head.
After Friday night’s 2-1 loss in Buffalo, most of Quenneville’s comments were about the offense – or lack thereof. Quenneville is regarded as a good strategist who mixes lines well and effectively mixes talent on the ice to maximize his roster, but right now he’s struggling to find the magic.
In December, five of the 12 regular Blackhawks forward do not have a point yet through five games.
Let me say that again: five of 12 Blackhawks forwards have not scored a point in December yet.
Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager, Troy Brouwer, Colin Fraser and Tomas Kopecky have all been shut out so far this month, as have both Brent Sopel and Cam Barker, one-third of the Hawks’ defensemen. John Madden, Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson have only been able to contribute one point each so far, also a cause for concern.
So even though Marian Hossa has five points in five games, and seven in his eight games this season, the rest of the team has taken a step back in his presence.
The position that is causing the biggest issue in the rotation is the second line’s center spot, usually filled by Dave Bolland. Madden is winning just 50.7 percent of his faceoffs to go with his one point this month, but has played well as the third line center. Fraser has almost completely disappeared in December, with zero points and winning only 39 percent of his faceoffs in the month. He’s also minus-3 in the last five games.
Quenneville has tried both Kris Versteeg and Patrick Sharp in the second center spot, and both have been effective in the circle: Sharp has won 65 percent of his faceoffs, while Versteeg has won 57 percent of his. But the flow of the offense is different when two players that excel at wing are asked to play in the middle. Both Versteeg and Sharp are playmaking snipers, not players that post up in front of the net. That’s where you should see Byfuglien, Brouwer, Ladd and Eager. Jonathan Toews gets to the front of the net as well as anyone, and he has been rewarded with three goals in his last five games.
On Saturday, the lines Quenneville tried in practice made some dramatic changes to the Hawks’s offense. The lines at Saturday’s practice were:
Patrick Kane – Jonathan Toews – Troy Brouwer
Andrew Ladd – Patrick Sharp – Marian Hossa
Dustin Byfuglien – John Madden - Kris Versteeg
Tomas Kopecky – Colin Fraser – Ben Eager
Earlier in the season, Quenneville tried separating Kane and Toews to “spread the wealth,” and it didn’t work; both players play better when they’re together. But the issue has been that Kane’s a right wing, and so is Hossa; neither has played on the left side, and the experiment didn’t last. The flip side of the argument had been that Quenneville had to put the team’s expensive investment, Hossa, on the top line. Now that Toews and Kane have a higher cap number, though, it appears Quenneville can have the freedom to put arguably the best player on the roster on his second line.
Because of the Blackhawks pending salary cap issues before 2010-11, the offense could become enough of an issue that GM Stan Bowman makes a move to fill a hole somewhere. There have been rumors that Cam Barker and/or Brent Sopel have been discussed with a number of other teams, and a move to add a center to the mix that also helps provide payroll flexibility might be in the cards during this season still.
It is a great testimony to the Blackhawks’ defensive strength and the continues strong play of Cristobal Huet that the Hawks continue to roll in first place in their division. For all of their offensive struggles, the Hawks are killing 91.7 percent of opponents’ penalties in December and rank ninth in the NHL allowing only 2.20 goals per game.
How Quenneville solves this puzzle will be interesting to watch, and whether or not Bowman needs to get involved will also be something worthy of attention. But maybe someone in marketing should start filming commercials with the theme “Three goals”…