Friday, November 20, 2009
Grading the Hawks at the quarter mark
By Jesse Rogers
It’s that time again. Every 10 games, I’ll give you an assessment of where the Hawks are, just as the coaches do internally. They hit the quarter pole of the season with that resounding 7-1 win in Calgary on Thursday, and so they’ll start the march to the midway point with a stellar 13-5-2 record. Here are 10 more things to know about the first 20 games:
No. 10 -- A Star is Born: OK, maybe he’s not a star just yet, but the surprising emergence of Troy Brouwer has been as pleasant to watch as anything. He’s become a go-to guy of sorts, playing in all meaningful situations, and he’s delivered. Brouwer has three goals and three assists in his last five games, but more important than the production is the confidence Joel Quenneville has shown in him. He’s a penalty killer and a power play guy. He’s on the ice protecting leads late in the game. He was out there in overtime last Sunday when he and Jonathan Toews set up Brent Seabrook for the game-winner. In fact, get this: You won’t find many players in the NHL who play wing on the penalty-killing unit, then go down low to stand in front of the goalie during power play time. It shows his versatility. He’s hard to move, yet he’s quick enough to be a good defender. Quenneville has tried Dustin Byfuglien in front of the net as well as Tomas Kopecky, but Brouwer has taken to the role better and quicker than either of those guys.
No. 9 -- Maddening: In the last 10-game assessment, I said John Madden was playing as good as advertised. I was wrong. He’s been better. Did you notice he’s moved up to sixth in the league in faceoffs? That’s due, in part, to an incredible two game stretch where he won 22 of 25, including a perfect 9-9 against Joe Thorton and the best faceoff team in the league, San Jose. His role got even bigger during this second 10- game stretch, when it was announced Dave Bolland would be out after back surgery. Madden becomes the only true lockdown center and will be seeing the other teams’ best lines even more now. Great pickup by the Hawks.
No. 8 -- Captain Intangible: While Toews was out of the lineup, the Hawks looked sluggish. They won some games, but didn’t do it in the dominating fashion we’ve become accustomed to. His return sparked the club in a way that’s hard to define. It’s not like he’s getting all the points. He has one goal and two assists in five games, but they’ve won all five and the Hawks’ motor seems to be running at another level. It doesn’t hurt that the second best faceoff man in the business was back dominating the circle. Puck possession got a whole lot better again when he returned. If the saying, “as he goes the team goes” applies to anyone, it’s “Taser.”
No. 7 -- Contractually Speaking: Leave it to team president John McDonough and the Hawks to pull off what should be an unprecedented announcement. Three stars, all signed to long term deals, at the same time. I can’t remember an organization in any sport doing such a thing. Barring any weird salary-cap issues, this should happen when the Hawks return from their road trip.
No. 6 -- Tagging Room: Speaking of weird salary-cap issues, I may be off about whether this is affecting the Hawks and those new contracts or not, but many people don’t realize a team is not allowed to commit more than this year’s salary cap ($56.8m) to a future year. If the contract extensions of Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith put the Hawks over that number for next year, then a trade to get under that number has to happen right away, or the extensions need to be delayed. You can’t wait until the offseason to lower your cap number if you’re over. But it is a complicated formula, which is just par for the course with this collective bargaining agreement.
No. 5 -- MVP: Maybe one of those stars should hold out for more as he continues to pile up points and be a presence on the ice that every opponent has to account for. Just like after the first 10 games, Kane remains the team MVP after 20. Averaging over a point a game he’s become a human playmaking machine. It’s not often you can say about a player, “every time he touches the puck, something amazing might happen.” Alexander Ovechkin is described that way. So are a few others in the league. Add Kane to that mix.
No. 4 -- Not to be Negative:Brian Campbell has reverted to some of his softer play of late and Dustin Byfuglien, despite seven goals, has been very quiet and is a minus-4. The only player worse is Tomas Kopecky who is minus-6. Not good for a fourth liner. The Hawks power play was once considered a negative, but it’s taken a huge jump lately (thanks to the Flames) to 11th in the league. As Quenneville put it in Calgary, “It’s trending upwards.” And who decided to sign a player with a back problem to a five year deal? I’m just asking.
No. 3 -- Who’s on First, What’s on Second, I don’t know is at Center: The Hawks thought they had their centers figured out and then Bolland went down. So who takes his place? In just a few games since the Bolland announcement, here’s who’s had the job: Andrew Ebbett (lasted about four shifts), Tomas Kopecky (took over for Ebbett), Patrick Sharp (only for a cup of coffee), and Kris Versteeg (had it, lost it, and has it again). Until Friday, I thought Sharp would end up there when Marian Hossa returned. A source tells me that probably won’t be the case so it’ll be “by committee” as Quenneville has indicated. They just might be good enough to do it that way.
No. 2 -- The Hoss: This one might be better suited for the next 10-game assessment, but the Hawks haven’t had a player with his talents since, well, I can’t remember that far back. Marian Hossa is simply a presence on the ice like very few in the league. His size and skill are attributes that every coach would salivate over. When he takes the ice in San Jose, he immediately becomes a difference-maker. And, in my opinion, a fan favorite.
No. 1 -- Facing Off: I saved the best for last. Many may not give it the same importance I do, but you can’t deny when the Hawks win as many faceoffs as they have been, good things tend to happen. Everything, I mean everything, starts with winning the faceoff. Quenneville has noted the Hawks faceoff improvement is basically why their penalty killing is at the top of the league. Puck possession game? That’s about the faceoff wins as well. Improved power play? Win the faceoff, get it back to the defense and fire away. Detroit has been the model for success this decade. They’ve also been the best faceoff team. The Hawks are second in the league this season, up from 23rd last year. Case closed.