Effort at the heart of Hawks' poor defense

February, 4, 2012
2/04/12
4:22
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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The Blackhawks returned home to Chicago to lick their wounds from yet another disastrous trip to Western Canada.

[+] EnlargeCorey Crawford
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyCorey Crawford mistaken-prone play of late hasn't helped the Hawks' suspect defense.

They’ll take the day off on Saturday before getting a couple of practice sessions in. Then they’ll return to the road for the second leg of their nine-game trip, trying to break a season-high five-game losing skid.

An 0-2-1 start is an ominous beginning to a stretch that could derail their high hopes for a monster season and division title. A road-weary February could produce the unthinkable: The Hawks fighting to make the playoffs for a second consecutive year.

No matter what the Hawks have done in Edmonton and Calgary this year -- they were 0-4, losing by a combined total of 25 to 9 -- -they still possess too much talent to fall very far in the standings. But this is a perplexing group, even for the most erudite hockey people.

Consider this: Since the NHL expanded to 30 teams, no squad has ranked lower than 18th in goals-against per game and won a Stanley Cup. Only four teams have finished outside the top 10 and won a championship. The Hawks currently rank 25th.

There are two possible reasons for optimism on defense. Neither have to do with a trade. Any addition via a trade is unlikely to make a major impact. If you think the Hawks will jump 10 spots in defense by picking up Chris Campoli, you’re sorely mistake. There is no denying they need a defender, it’s just not the big-picture answer. No, this is larger than a defenseman.

Ray Emery is almost assuredly going to get a chance to get the net. Any goalie or coach will tell you the first job of a netminder is to make the saves he is supposed to. Corey Crawford was doing that for a time -- even if he wasn’t making enough of the big ones to go along with the easy ones. But too often lately Crawford is not making those simple saves.

In the Edmonton loss, for instance, Crawford gave up some easy ones, especially the first tally by Taylor Hall, and the tide of the contest completely turned. So a change in goal – or improved goaltending by Crawford -- could make the big difference.

The Hawks have never been a great in-their-own-zone team. They need their goalie in those situations. Better goalie play could go a long way to reducing the goals against problem.

The other reason for optimism is based more on hope than anything else. Maybe the Hawks can roll when they get to the playoffs simply because they are waiting for spring to arrive. The Hawks aren’t committed to playing defense right now. Come April and May, it’s safe to say they’ll care. Both Joel Quenneville and Stan Bowman have essentially said the same thing recently: These individuals and this team have done good things previously, so they expect them to do it again. The problem with that line of thinking is the Blackhawks have not played well defensively at any point this season.

You would assume they would turn it on in the postseason. The leaders on the Hawks know what it takes to win -- they do have pride. They simply don’t care enough about games in January and February until they’re embarrassed to care or fall enough in the standings it wakes them up.

The problems on the blue-line have been well documented. There isn’t enough clearing of pucks or men in the crease. But again, that defense isn’t built to play in its own zone. Other than Brent Seabrook, the unit is undersized. The success they had in 2010 was built around team defense and puck possession. So what about the forwards? They seem less committed than anyone to playing defense.

And some of the sacred cows of the team -- Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Dave Bolland – should be faulted. The Hawks possess three of the pre-eminent defensive forwards in the league, each of whom plays on a different line, but the team’s defense has been subpar.

One great example of the Hawks’ lack of commitment to keeping pucks out of their net comes on their atrocious penalty kill – the league’s 27th ranked unit. There are too many pucks getting to the net.
Chicago’s penalty kill is designed to allow shots and actually prevent forwards from blocking them. Point men are pushed to the faceoff circles by the forwards to seemingly bad angles. But in reality, those shots aren’t so bad when they have a clear path to the slot with traffic in front of the net. Bolland and company simply won’t block shots for fear of getting hurt, hence the strategy of the forward pushing the D-man over instead of simply getting in front of the shooter as most teams do.

Without Michael Frolik in the lineup in Edmonton and other times, Bolland leads the Hawks in blocked shots with 25. That is 100th among forwards in the league. Even with Frolik, he’s ranked just 67th. Do those numbers scream going all-out to win a game? When is the last time a Hawk forward blocked a shot at the point giving them a short-handed chance the other way?

This strategy is making their D-men -- and subsequently their goalie -- look bad. Obviously the coaches approve of it or it would change, but here is the bottom line: Maybe that strategy is alright because it’s keeping Hawk stars healthy. But come playoff time, they must lay out, and odds are, they will.

Now here is the bad news: This season the Hawks have proven they can win only one way. With offense. Goaltending hasn’t won them much and neither has team defense. Their dynamic offense will most assuredly win them many more games the rest of the way. But at this moment, they are a one-trick pony. When they even try to play defense, it takes away from their offense because they don’t know how to find that balance.

It’s hard to imagine all of the bad defensive habit will just disappear because the calendar turns to April. Haven’t all those poor defensive teams that made the playoffs over the years wanted to tighten up in the postseason?


After the all-star break, the Hawks said the final 30 games were going to have a playoff feel to them. Though the performance in Vancouver was fine, after three games, observers are still waiting.

Jesse Rogers | email

Chicago Cubs beat reporter
Jesse joined ESPN Chicago in September 2009 and covers the Chicago Cubs for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN Radio 1000.

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Patrick Sharp
PTS GOALS AST +/-
78 34 44 13
OTHER LEADERS
GoalsP. Sharp 34
AssistsD. Keith 55
+/-M. Hossa 28
GAAC. Crawford 2.26