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Tuesday, January 4, 2011
Blackhawks' first-half report card

By Jesse Rogers

THE PLAYERS

Patrick Sharp
With 23 goals in 41 games, Patrick Sharp is the Blackhawks' first-half MVP.
Team MVP: Patrick Sharp

Its close between Jonathan Toews and Sharp, but the latter gets the edge simply based on his 23 goals. He’s had few droughts, playing as consistent hockey as anyone on the team. With 18 assists, he’s also on pace for an 80-point year. That can’t be overlooked. His plus/minus isn’t stellar (minus-10) but this is one of those cases where it’s misleading. Sharp has moved back and forth from wing to center and has emerged as a go-to-guy at the point on the power play. A vote for Toews would never be wrong and, digging deeper, a case could be made for Corey Crawford. By game 82, Toews will probably be the MVP for the season, but for now, it’s No. 10. Honorable mention: Crawford.

Most underrated: Jassen Cullimore

Without a doubt, a controversial pick, but remember, this is based on expectations as well as play. He wasn’t expected to be anywhere near an NHL uniform, yet he’s moved into the No. 5 defenseman role. The numbers don’t lie: seven assists and a plus-4 in 35 games. Now playing at age 38, he spent last year in the minors and worked his tail off to get back to the NHL. If his name isn’t being mentioned on the broadcast that usually means he’s doing well. There have been only a few moments where his lack of foot speed has exposed him, otherwise, his veteran know-how has come in handy. Especially for a team without depth in that area.

Jack Skille
Jack Skille's energy has given the Blackhawks a boost this season.
Most improved: Jack Skille

This was a tough call, as Bryan Bickell has put up some serious numbers in his first full year as a third-line player, but Skille has figured out how to stay in the NHL: play with energy. That’s something the Hawks have needed after some of their offseason roster losses. If he’s moving north and south instead of east and west he’ll be effective. His game isn’t all there yet -- he was a recent healthy scratch – but, in talking to him, he knows what he has to do to be successful. Now he just needs to do it more. Honorable mention: Bickell is just now getting a legitimate shot to play. Joel Quenneville raved about him last year, and the only thing that’s changed is that he’s shooting more. He could still use an uptick in his physical play, but no one is complaining about his 11 goals and 11 assists.

THE COACH

It’s hard to make a half-season assessment knowing the Cup hangover is real, as many teams and coaches have experienced it. Joel Quenneville has kept a positive attitude during times when it’s evident he’d like to blow his stack, and that might be his best first-half quality. There’ll be plenty of time to scream come the stretch run. Quenneville knew an easy walk to the No.1 seed wasn’t going to happen. The time to push the desperation button is coming and he’ll be ready. Much has been made of his line combinations but at the end of the day it’s probably an overblown issue. Little things like staying with a faltering Nick Boynton a game or two too long, or not getting more out of his centers-not-named-Toews in the faceoff circle are legitimate complaints, but coaching isn’t the reason the Hawks are 21-17-3. Kudos to adjustments made on the power play from a season ago, they’ve made a big difference.

THE FRONT OFFICE

There’s still another half-season to play, but Stan Bowman’s offseason doesn’t look as good now as it did a while ago. Viktor Stalberg’s play has leveled off and though they didn’t cost much, Boynton and Jordan Hendry haven’t exactly lit the world on fire. Why bring Hendry back if he’s (almost) never going to play? Re-signing Bickell and Skille at a cut rate were decent moves, and while Jeremy Morin and Nick Leddy (acquired last season) aren’t with the Hawks at the moment, both look like players. The biggest mistake, obviously, might be in goal where the Hawks more than likely went with Marty Turco due to his low salary demands. Whoever scouted him and gave positive feedback to Hawks brass simply made a mistake. And there are many in the business who would have said so at the time. Like Quenneville, Bowman’s real grade will come later, try around Feb. 28, the trade deadline. The Hawks could use a center and a defenseman, but so could everyone. If, when, and how he uses Leddy and Morin could be a key as well.