By JESSE ROGERS
Pierre LeBrun is one of the national hockey reporters for ESPN.com. He sees and talks with teams around the league on a daily basis. His blog is a must read. This past weekend I presented him with some questions for an NHL observer stationed outside of Chicago.
Going into the season the Hawks were probably known for their offensive skill, but they have put up great defensive numbers. No team since the lockout has given up two goals or less for an entire season. The Hawks are right there. What is the national perception of them defensively?
Pierre LeBrun: I don't think for a second the word has really made it way around the league to the degree it should when it comes to Chicago's defensive play this season. But when you watch the Hawks, you don't see defensive hockey, what you're seeing is good-old Detroit-style puck possession hockey.
The Wings came out of the lockout in 2005 under Mike Babcock and preached puck possession, the theory being that if you have the puck, the other team doesn't, which means it doesn't get as many scoring chances. As such, the Wings led the NHL in both 2006-07 and 2007-08 with the fewest shots allowed per game. That bodes well for the Hawks, who currently lead the NHL with the fewest shots allowed per game at 24.2, and have a huge lead in that statistic with the next batch of teams over 27 shots per game.
You want more proof how important this statistic is? The Edmonton Oilers were a surprise Cup finalist in the 2005-06 season, but they led the NHL regular season with only 25.5 shots against per game. It's a very revealing statistic in my opinion, and one Hawks fans can really hang their hat on right now. Only Detroit at 23.5 shots against per game in 2007-08 averaged a lower shot total since the lockout than Chicago's current average.
Considering those defensive numbers, if the season ended today, they should be up for some awards. I think we can agree they don’t have a Vezina winner, but what about the Norris and Selke? Would John Madden and Jonathan Toews be considered for the latter?
PL: I think Madden for sure. He's always a perennial contender for the Selke, and obvioulsy a former winner. He also seems rejuvenated to me this season in Chicago.
Toews is an interesting case. On the one hand, given that his plus-17 rating is top 5 in the NHL, and that he's also a very good faceoff man, that should open the door for him for Selke talk; especially since Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk opened the door really for star players to get consideration for this award.
On the other hand, Toews doesn't rank that high in the NHL in short-handed ice time, to me a key ingredient in Selke talk. He's sixth on his own team at 1:37 per game; compare that to 3:06 per game for example for a guy like Pittsburgh's Jordan Staal or 2:44 of San Jose's Joe Pavelski. Madden is Chicago's leader, as you'd expect, at 2:39 and really would be the better bet I think for a Selke nomination than Toews. As for the Norris, if Duncan Keith keeps up his play, I'm pretty sure he'll be among the five names I put down on my official ballot when I do my voting as part of the Professional Hockey Writers' Association in April.
Give us all your award winners at the halfway point.
Hart -- Sidney Crosby.
Vezina -- Ryan Miller.
Norris -- Dan Boyle.
Selke -- Jordan Staal.
Adams -- Joel Quenneville.
Calder -- Tyler Myers.
I know you've had the Hawks up near the top of your weekly rankings for quite a while, but handicap things if the playoffs started today. Are they ready to beat a "big boy" in a seven-game series? I'm talking about San Jose, a healthy Detroit, or one of the beasts from the East.
PL: Chicago and San Jose are the best two teams in the West, they're a step above the rest. I think if they meet come the spring, we're talking seven games and flip a coin. The Sharks are quite hungry to get over the hump finally and have more experience. But the Hawks, to me, have the more balanced lineup in the NHL. On paper, the Hawks can beat anyone in the NHL come spring. But will they be ready between the ears? That remains to be seen. Pittsburgh quickly became a playoff monster while Washington has struggled a bit more. My sense is that Chicago is more like the Pittsburgh version.
Is there a prevailing thought outside of Chicago that Cristobal Huet can or can’t be the man come April, May, and June?
PL: I can't speak for other media around the league, but the way I look at it is the way I saw Chris Osgood over the years in Detroit. The Wings when they were doing their thing didn't need great goaltending, they just needed their goalie to be decent and not give up bad goals. They were so stacked on defense and up front and controlled the puck that having a Vezina-worthy goalie wasn't necessary. I think if Huet just does his job and stays within himself next spring, the Hawks have a shot at the Cup. He doesn't need to be as good as the top goalies in the league for the Hawks to win.
We know the Hawks have talked to a lot of teams about a lot of things. No surprise there. In your opinion, are they still going to try and shave salary while also trying to pick up a defenseman for the stretch? Or is the shaving to be done after the season? Or is it too fluid to predict?
PL: As I reported in my blog over the weekend, one interesting theory thrown at me by an NHL executive recently was that he believed the Hawks might be a surprise entry in the Illya Kovalchuk sweepstakes if the Thrashers do indeed decide to move him. At first blush, it doesn't make sense given Chicago's cap issues, but the executive told me that's exactly the point. Because Kovalchuk is UFA July 1, his theory is that the Hawks pick him solely as a star rental, trade to Atlanta a couple of signed players (let's say Versteeg/Barker for the heck of it). So in one fell swoop, they gear up for the Cup with Kovalchuk but also alleviate their off-season cap issues with dumping two salaries players. Again, it's just a theory from another executive, and at this point I don't think Chicago and Atlanta have talks, but it is food for thought.