It’s always unfortunate when injuries strike a roster, and the Hawks have certainly been more fortunate than some of their Western Conference rivals like Vancouver and Detroit. Chicago hasn’t been immune to the ijnjury bug, but that hasn’t kept them from accomplishing one of their goals – beginning November in first place.
Now that November has started, the return of injured players is expected to begin as well. Brent Seabrook came back on Thursday night last week and was a noticeable influence on the flow of the defense in both Thursday and Friday’s games. Seabrook, of course, isn’t the only key player to be missing from the regular Blackhawks rotation.
Forward Ben Eager has been out since the first week of October with what appears to be post-concussion symptoms. The team, and the fans, had great expecations for an enegetic fourth line of Eager, Colin Fraser and Adam Burish this year, but Burish went down with a torn ACL in the preseason and Eager has only played in two regular season games.
From watching the Hawks over the last couple weeks, it’s been clear that Eager’s physical presence has been missed. According to reports over the weekend, Quenneville and Eager both indicated that Eager’s head appears to be back where it belongs (he no longer thinks he’s Batman), and now it’s just a matter of him getting his legs back to full speed before the Hawks put him into a game.
Eager’s an important player in the Hawks’ lineup, but certainly doesn’t carry the cache of a name like Jonathan Toews or Marian Hossa. Hossa hasn’t stepped into a game for the Hawks yet because of summer shoulder surgery, but there’s no questioning his status as an elite scorer. The Hawks offense has been above average to start the year (2.92 goals per game, 15th in the NHL), and adding Hossa to the mix undoubtedly brings another fear factor to playing Chicago.
The loss of Toews, and the duration of his absence, has been troublesome, though. The Hawks’ 21-year old captain took a nasty shot from Vancouver’s Willie Mitchell on October 21 and hasn’t skated with the team since. In fact, it now appears that Eager is closer to returning that Toews; if Toews misses the same four weeks Eager did because of his concussion, the Hawks will continue to experiment with lines and hope for results.
Toews’ presence has been obvious on the stat sheet. With their captain in the lineup, the Blackhawks averaged 3.75 goals per game, and Toews was winning over 60 percent of his faceoffs. Without Toews, the Blackhawks are averaging just 2.00 goals per game, their power play has disappeared, and they’re breaking even in the faceoff circle.
Playing without Seabrook, Eager, Hossa and Toews has allowed coach Joel Quenneville to play with his lines like a fantasy hockey team, mixing up the talented players he has available to find a winning combination. It’s also presented a golden opportunity to youngsters like Jack Skille and Jake Dowell to get quality ice time with the big club. Even Jordan Hendry got time as a forward in Nashville.
But what happens when Eager, Toews and Hossa return?
When Toews was healthy, Quenneville appeared to be a big fan of a second line of Dave Bolland between Dustin Byfuglien and Patrick Kane. In Toews’ absence, he’s stuck with Byfuglien and Kane being together, but has placed John Madden between them more often.
On the third and fourth lines, the wing and center situation has been mixed up pretty regularly in Toews’ absence. The team acquired Andrew Ebbett from Anaheim, a younger player with the ability to play both wing and center, and he’s played both positions in the last few games. In fact, he played center between Kris Versteeg and Andrew Ladd in Nashville.
Depending on who returns first between Eager and Toews, it appears the first decision will come down to either Ebbett or Fraser.
On paper, it would appear that Ebbett has been more productive and, based on ice time, has more of Quenneville’s confidence than Fraser. But that’s where statistics fall short of telling the story.
First, let’s not discount the fact that Fraser played well between Eager and Burish last year. When Eager returns, Quenneville might believe he can recapture the Energy Line’s effectiveness from last year by putting Eager and Fraser back together. In that case, it would be up to Tomas Kopecky or Ebbett to complete the line by trying to replace Burish.
Secondly, Fraser has been more involved in the Hawks penalty killing unit in Toews’ absence. that isn’t going to help any player accumulate points or have a solid +/- rating, so there needs to be some concession in the argument in favor of Fraser there.
Finally, Fraser has been center that has suffered from the revolving door between Chicago, Rockford and the injured reserve. He’s played next to Skille, Dowell, Kopecky, Ebbett and Hendry to name a few of the rotations Quenneville has tried recently.
Fraser, though, was apparently the final player to make the Hawks roster when Quenneville put the final roster together for the season; he won a stiff competition with Dowell for the fourth center position. Ebbett has a lot of skill, versatility, and upside, but Fraser is a known commodity.
In Ebbett’s favor, the Blackhawks are about to play a long stretch of games against faster West Coast teams, and Ebbett’s quicker on his skates than Fraser. His speed, and familiarity with teams like Phoenix, Los Angeles and Anaheim from his time on the Ducks’ roster, might make him a valuable asset in the coming weeks.
Either way, Quenneville has an interesting decision coming up.
As far as production on the ice, I would have to think Hendry is on the short list to leave town as well. Quenneville playing him at forward was as much a salary cap-related decision because of depth and financial concerns as it was because of Hendry’s ability to play the position; Hendry only played five minutes on Thursday and wasn’t effective in the minutes he was on the ice.
But, given Seabrook’s recent return from injury, odds are that Quenneville will keep a seventh defenseman around for depth.
It appears Hossa could be ready to return in just a couple weeks, perhaps in time for Jeremy Roenick Heritage Night on the 15th against San Jose, and Toews hopefully won’t be out much longer. The Blackhawks are off until Thursday this week, giving the roster time to get healthy before they play again.
When Hossa and Toews return, both exceptional two-way forwards, that could easily cost Hendry his position on the roster.
How Quenneville will align the talent he has when this exceptional roster is at 100 percent is another discussion completely, but which young player is on the move as these three veterans begin returning could be interesting over the next couple weeks.