The mail has really piled up this week. Time to open it:
Q: Do you think the Hawks' shootout woes will ever come to an end? -- AJ Porto, Chicago
A: Absolutely I do. They were better than .500 last year and the year before that as well. Good teams find ways to win and they will find ways to win in the shootout over time. It usually all evens out in the end. Is it possible to have that one really bad year in shootouts? Of course, but I don’t see that happening with this team. Corey Crawford’s style may not lend itself to be one of the best shootout goalies, but I’m sure he can be more than adequate.
Q: Jesse, last week you said none of the big, big name players on the Hawks were on the last year of their contract. Isn't Dave Bolland on a contract year? – Alex, California
A: Bolland is signed through 2013-14. In fact, the only players who are in contract years (again) are all the ones they just signed this past offseason. Every returning player from last year’s squad is signed through at least next year, save John Scott.
Q: There's been a fair amount of Pat Foley and Edzo [Eddie Olczyk] bashing on the blogs lately. Based on their contract extensions, I'm thinking that the Hawks brass thinks most fans -- like me -- think they're great. What do you think the average fan thinks of them? – Tom, North Side
A: I have no idea what blogs you are referencing. They are about as good as it gets from everything I can tell. Admittedly, I can’t listen intently because I’m at almost all the games but I pick up enough through replays, etc. and they seem as good as ever. I would bet the average fan feels the same way. In fact I’m sure of it. One guy could do play-by-play in his sleep and is a 25-year pro at it. The other guy is the preeminent color analyst in the business. Having said that, everyone’s tastes are different and it’s impossible to please all viewers. As for complaining, people don’t post compliments in blogs (usually), they’re there to sound off so they’re likely to read more negative in general. Doesn’t mean it’s fact.
Q: Which assistant coach is in charge of which special team this year? It seems like they keep switching who is in charge of which and at the same time, the penalty kill/power play switch between being amazing/awful. Is there a chance that one of the assistant coaches just isn't getting the right messages across? If so, is there a chance that they can be replaced? – Sam, Chicago
A: I don’t think it’s as simple as that. I’ve seen both assistants and Joel Quenneville working the chalkboard during power-play practice as well as penalty killing. They all absolutely have a say in it. In-game it looks like Mike Kitchen takes charge, but unfortunately, assistant coaches aren’t allowed to give interviews so it can be hard to get to the bottom of such matters. I think if you have a problem with the power play or penalty killing look to Quenneville. He’s the guy in charge. If he wants to pass it off to one of his assistants, that’s up to him but I think he’ll take the responsibility and he should.
Q: There have already been a few big trades this season. Are the Blackhawks going to pursue another Top 6-caliber forward to take over Daniel Carcillo's spot on the Patrick Kane-Marian Hossa line? If so, what are the chances that the Hawks bring back a power forward like Rene Bourque? -- Ryan, Chicago
A: That’s an interesting question and name. Bourque could be a good fit, although though he does have a decent price tag ($3.3 million per year). Money shouldn’t be a problem though. Some people are worried about Andrew Brunette, but I think it’s way too early to make those big assessments. The Hawks have the money and prospects to make a major splash before the deadline, but unless the train goes off the tracks, Stan Bowman and company will give this group a minimum of 20-30 games before doing anything drastic. With the center position maybe a little deeper than first thought, it does leave the possibilities at defense and wing a little more wide open.
A: Of course it’s possible, simply because that line isn’t set in stone this early in the season and a guy like Smith, if and when he returns, might be the gritty player they need in the Top 6. As for probable, that’s another story. Smith is behind several players right now and probably needs to make a splash in the minors before returning. Brunette looks fine on the power play. Five-on-five, that line is still finding chemistry, but again, I think it’s too early to make any definitive statements -- even if you might be right in the end. Give it 10-20 games. That’s not that many and knowing Quenneville he might switch tomorrow, but I’m willing to give a newcomer more time.
Q: I was wondering what you think Viktor Stalberg's role on this team is and on what line could he be most effective in that role? – John, Chicago
A: Good question. I think he’s still searching for it. It seems he’s perpetually on a roller coaster with Quenneville. He can fly, but let’s not confuse activity with accomplishment. He’s really not a playmaker, so is he a finisher? He’s close but not quite there. Right now I think he’s the depth they need when there are injuries but I don’t think he’s broken through to be a Top 6 guy every night. Could he be? Yes, but the jury is still out.
Q: Last year the Hawks had one of the best power-play records but one of the worst penalty-kill records. So far this season, it looks like the Hawks special teams strengths/weaknesses have reversed. How would you account for the difference? – Brian, Chicago
A: My theory involves chemistry. I think a good penalty-killing team has good on-ice chemistry. They communicate and support each other -- both essential when playing 4-on-5. We know that wasn’t the case last year with this team. After addressing the chemistry issue I think we’re seeing it come through on the ice. Jamal Mayers might be the glue to the whole thing in that respect. But I think it’s almost the opposite with the power play. These guys know each other too well and it’s become predictable. Who doesn’t know that Kane is going to try and find Sharp for a back-door one-timer? And that Toews is going to try a stuff shot or pass through the crease when he gets the puck on the goal line. They also need some blasters from the point because that starts the chaos. Brent Seabrook is growing into that role. If I’m Quenneville, I mix up the units to find new chemistry. Maybe not yet, but soon. Make sense?
Q: Reports out of the junior league is that Brandon Saad is tearing it up with eight goals in five games. What’s the potential of this kid? Is he a regular next year? – Michael, Chicago
A: I can’t tell you if he’ll be a regular next season because I can’t get into an 18- or 19-year-old’s mind and know if he’s ready for the full grind of the NHL. However, physically he’s just about there so as long as the Hawks bring him along the right way mentally, I don’t see why next year or worst case the year after he won’t be a regular.
Q: Despite Kane's excellent start at center this season, should the Hawks still make an attempt to pick up a No. 2 centerman? If so, who could be some options? -- Sam H., Mendota, Ill.
A: The obvious answer is yes, because no team ever made a mistake having too many centers. They don’t need to do it tomorrow, but if something comes down the pike that’s too good to pass up I think you have to take it. Now, if it comes down to making one big move and the Hawks’ four centers are still playing very well come the New Year, that’s a different story. But as of this moment, I would say you look for one as if you’re still short one and deal with the consequences of having too many later.
Q: With all the miscommunication between Nick Leddy and Duncan Keith, when do you think it's time to call it quits on that pairing? It seems like they make a lot of bad mistakes at bad times. -- Kenny G., Naperville, Ill.
A: It’s not like they’re both minus-7 on the season or something. There have been a few mistakes. They’re still learning to play with each other and who is to say whoever is paired with Leddy isn’t going to go through some growing pains. Anyway, like most of my answers at this time of the year, it’s still a little early for big changes, although Quenneville will be quick to examine a major defensive issue since it’s so vital to their game. Give it a little more time but maybe not the 20 games I indicated for a Top 6 forward.