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Thursday, November 17, 2011
Smith's return a boost for Hawks

By Jesse Rogers

CALGARY -- Most Chicago Blackhawks’ observers saw this one coming. Rostislav Olesz was sent packing and 2011 playoff hero Ben Smith was recalled from Rockford, mostly likely to make his season debut Friday night against the Calgary Flames.

Ben Smith
Ben Smith will find a spot on one of the two bottom lines.
Some might say "what took so long?" After all, Olesz had shown very little and Smith was on track to earn a roster spot before a preseason concussion sidelined him.

But the Hawks can afford to be diligent instead of hasty. They’re off to a good start and needed to know if Olesz could bring anything to the table. He had a few moments in training camp, showing some skill, after shaking off his knee problems, but he regressed in games and confirmed his reputation coming over from Florida. The fresh start did him no good.

But if the Hawks judged solely on reputation and small sample sizes then Steve Montador would still be languishing as a sixth or seventh defenseman and Marcus Kruger would be in the minors. Bottom line: Olesz was given limited opportunity but did nothing with it. It’s exactly the opposite of Smith. He was thrown into the fire at the end of last year and thrived.

Where Smith fits in


Smith’s return bolsters an already deep team, playing their best hockey of the season. Four wins in a row -- all by three goals or more -- highlighted by a 5-1, penalty-free, rivalry win in Vancouver on Wednesday. Yes, the Hawks are rolling. So where does Smith fit in?

“There are some options,” coach Joel Quenneville said after practice in Calgary Thursday. “I think Kaner’s line and Johnny’s line was stable the last four games. I don’t think we want to mix that up right now.”

So the top two lines will remain intact for now. Viktor Stalberg and Dan Carcillo will stay where they are. Stalberg, Toews and Marian Hossa are clicking. A case could be made Smith would fit nicely next to Kane and Patrick Sharp while Carcillo could move down, but that’s a move Quenneville could go to when another major shake-up is needed.

So for now Smith finds a spot on one of the bottom two lines. Conventional thinking has Bryan Bickell in jeopardy of losing playing time to Smith. Bickell was dropped in-game Wednesday from the third line to the fourth while playing only 10:08 overall. He was also a recent healthy scratch for a game, and he might be again. He’s simply not playing with the passion he displayed in the first five games of the season and Quenneville might be tired of sending messages.

The fourth line seems intact as Kruger, Andrew Brunette and Jamal Mayers are playing well enough. The two former players see power play time and Mayers is as solid as they come for the role he’s being asked to play. So for the moment, Smith probably slides into Bickell’s role but the arrival of fan favorite No. 28 will provide competition up and down the lineup. Stalberg, Carcillo, Bickell and a few other role players as well as Smith himself will have to earn their ice time.

Come spring there’s still a good chance Bickell, Dave Bolland and Michael Frolik will be reunited for the playoffs, but for now it would behoove Quenneville to try different combinations. His decision on Friday might be made for him as Frolik is questionable but when all are healthy, let the competition at forward begin.

Smith also gives the Hawks another right-handed option on the power play. If Montador hadn’t worked out in the slot, or cools off, look for Smith to grab that role. He seems perfectly fitted for it.

Rostislav Olesz
Rostislav Olesz didn't take advantage of the chance he was given by the Hawks.

Olesz demotion


Give Rocky Wirtz some credit. He’s paying big money to yet another player to play elsewhere besides Chicago. Cristobal Huet is making $5.6 million while Olesz is collecting $3.1 million and neither is contributing to the Hawks.

Despite the hole in Wirtz’s pocket it was the right move because when the Hawks are healthy Olesz was going to be on the bench anyway. Why not make him earn his money “riding the buses” in Rockford? Pay him in the minors or pay him to sit in the NHL, the Hawks still have to pay him. It does add another NHL salary to Wirtz’s payroll but Smith is “only” making $812,000.

Olesz’s salary comes off the Hawks’ salary cap which means they are in even better position to make a trade if they want or need to. With nearly $6 million to play with, general manager Stan Bowman can scour the league and not have to worry about cap implications.

Don’t look for a trade anytime soon, though. The Hawks are playing well enough as is and to make a major trade and use up the cap space before understanding what the injury factor for the long term is going to be would be foolish. Besides, the addition of Smith is almost like making a trade. The Hawks just added a good player to an already good team.