New Year’s Eve marks the 40th game on the schedule for the Blackhawks, and makes for a nice point to break the schedule in half and look for some players that deserve recognition.
The Hawks have been far from a one-man show this year, as five players already have at least 10 goals and four have eclipsed 20 assists. Many of the players on the 2009-10 roster have gone through stretches where they have been the most valuable to the team, but who has been the Most Valuable Blackhawk in the first half of the season? Let’s look at some options.
Brouwer has certainly been the biggest surprise on the roster to date, earning his salary ($1 million) more than anyone else on the roster. He has already posted nine goals and eight assists, and is tied for the team lead with five power play goals. At the beginning of the season, Brouwer was seen as a complimentary forward that could pick up a few minutes as a third or fourth line player, but he’s spent the better parts of the last month playing on one of the Hawks’ top two lines.
Another surprising part of Brouwer’s game this year has been how physical he has been. He ranks third on the team in hits with 99, and has only taken 32 penalty minutes despite his physical play. He has also been one of the more clutch scorers on the roster, ranking second in game-winning goals with four. As the second half of the season begins, Brouwer could see increased ice time and will be looked to for more positive play. The 24-year old’s minutes have increased in each of his four seasons with the Hawks, and he’s now averaging almost 17 minutes per game.
Personally, I’m not riding shotgun on the Buff Bandwagon. Despite his 16 points he’s still minus-two for the season and is the team leader in penalty minutes with 52 already this year. Despite these flaws, there is no denying Byfuglien’s value so far this season. He leads the team with 115 hits entering Thursday night, and is tied for third on the team with 11 goals.
He has been a versatile member of the power play unit this year as well, spending more time recently playing the point. He already has seven points on the power play, which is also among the team leaders. We’ll find out if he’ll be a member of Team USA at the Vancouver Olympics on Friday, but there’s a strong chance he’ll make the roster because of his versatility and size.
What will be interesting in the second half of the season, and in the coming summer, is to see if his abilities and $3 million price tag make him a popular piece on the trade market for the cost-conscious Blackhawks.
I know, I know… everyone loves to hate Campbell because of his enormous salary. And that salary might make him a player that management will try to move this coming summer in an effort to keep the younger nucleus of the team together. But just as is the case with Byfuglien, for all the flaws we can find in Campbell’s game (and contract), he has been an important part of the roster this year and has performed well.
Campbell is one of the four Blackhawks with at least 20 assists already (20), and he is currently tied for second on the team with a plus-13 rating on the season. He has skated very well (with the exception of the shot he took from Craig Adams in Pittsburgh), and hasn’t committed as many timely mistakes as he did late last year. Campbell has also successfully kept himself out of the penalty box, serving only 12 minutes in the box despite ranking third on the team in average ice time per night (23;16).
Whether or not Campbell is a member of the team in October of 2010 has no bearing on the quality of play he’s put on the ice thus far in this critical season.
I’m not sure pants have covered Cristobal Huet’s butt as well as Niemi has on occasion this year. In his first season in the NHL, Niemi has already posted four shut outs in only 12 games (10 starts), and has nine wins to show for his great start. His save percentage of .927 would rank among the elite in the league if he had played in enough games to qualify, and his clutch relief work against Calgary in October and Dallas on Tuesday night kept the Hawks in two games they could have easily lost.
Niemi has seen his share of rookie struggles, and has let a few goals go that weren’t necessarily highlight-reel caliber shots, but he’s still allowing only 1.80 goals per game. A common theme with many of these candidates is how they’ll play moving forward, both on the ice and towards the salary cap. Because of Huet’s struggles and Niemi’s strong play, there has already been a bit of a goalie controversy for the Hawks this season. Whether or not the Hawks will find someone to pick up Huet’s $5.6 million salary might determine Niemi’s future with the organization, but indications are that the coaching staff and front office like what they’ve seen from the youngster.
The captain has been worth every penny of his new contract this year, despite missing six games and a couple weeks with a concussion. He still ranks third on the team in points (31), is tied with Byfuglien for third in goals (11) and is also tied with Campbell for third in assists (20). His plus-17 rating is the best on the team and ranks fourth in the NHL; it is also the top among all NHL centers so far this year.
Toews also ranks second among all players in the NHL that have taken at least 500 faceoffs, having won 59.8 percent of his draws, and ranks second in the NHL with four goals in shootouts already this year (in six attempts). Beyond his exceptional numbers on the ice, Toews has been a solid leader and will be for at least five more years thanks to his new contract. His abilities, both on the ice and as a leader, led to him being one of three Blackhawks named to the Canadian Olympic team on Dec. 30.
He recently received overwhelming praise from the man who’s number he wears, Steve Yzerman, who said Toews was a better player than he was at this age. It’s scary to consider that Toews is still only 21-years old.
Keith, with Toews and his partner on the blue line, Brent Seabrook, will represent Canada in the Olympics in February. It might have taken a 13-year contract extension for many people outside of Chicago to notice him, but Keith has been bringing quality to the United Center ice for most of this decade, and should be at least in the conversation for the Norris Trophy this year.
Keith leads the Hawks in two major categories: assists (29) and average ice time (26:50). In fact, Keith leads the entire NHL in average ice time, and ranks in the top 10 in assists; only Tomas Kaberle of Toronto (32) has more assists among defensemen so far this year. He has also blocked 77 shots this season, which leads the Blackhawks, and has stepped up his scoring with six goals. The 26-year old should easily eclipse his previous career high in points, 44, with 35 already. He is having his best season in the NHL, and has finally been recognized as an elite blue line player.
The refreshing reality for Blackhawks fans is that, unlike Doug Wilson and Chris Chelios and other stud defensemen of the past 30 years, Keith will spend his entire prime, indeed perhaps his entire career, wearing the Indian Head sweater. Keith has a good chance to be the first Hawks player since Chelios in 1996 to win the Norris.
It is the humble opinion of CommittedIndians, though, that none of these great players have been the most valuable to the Blackhawks first half success. Each has contributed in a number of ways, and without all of these players and the other 22 that dress every night, the team MVP wouldn’t have made as much of a difference. But it has been clear, especially of late, who the Most Valuable Blackhawks Player has been in the season’s first half.
The winner is…
Talk about a hot streak! Kane’s smoking December has vaulted him onto the leader board for the NHL in a number of categories. His 44 points are now tied for seventh in the league, his 27 assists are tied for 14th, and his 17 goals rank 17th to date. He trails only Keith on the Hawks in assists, and leads the team in goals and points by a wide margin in each. He is also tied for third in the NHL in game-winning goals, with five already this year.
Despite not turning 21 until mid-November, Kane has shown a physical maturity this year and his evolution from phenom into NHL star has been fun to watch. Even though he was voted a starter on the Western Conference All Star team last year, he has earned a spot on the United States Olympic team this season with improved confidence to go into corners and win/keep the puck, superior puck handling and passing, and a scary shot.
No Blackhawks player has had over 90 points in a season since Jeremy Roenick had 107 in 1993-94; in fact, only Tony Amonte in 1999-2000 (84) has broken 80 points since that incredible season by JR. Already sitting at 44 and just getting warmed up, there’s a good chance Kane could have a season that ranks among the all-time greats in the history of the Blackhawks franchise. As is the case with Toews, it’s scary to consider the numbers Kane is putting up at such a young age. It will be fun to watch him continue to grow into his game over the next five years (at least).
The debate over who is truly the most valuable player on the roster could change three or four times between now and the end of the season, especially when you consider that Marian Hossa didn’t play until the end of November and already has 13 points. There are still 43 games to play, and the Olympics in the middle, but Kane isn’t alone chasing history at the United Center this year. There is a special feel to the 2009-10 Blackhawks team, and a lot of it has to do with there being so many valuable players on the team.