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Saturday, January 7, 2012
Blackhawks' midseason awards

By Jesse Rogers

As part of a mid-season report on the Blackhawks, here’s a report card based on the first 41 games.

MVP: Jonathan Toews

Jonathan Toews
With 41 points, Jonathan Toews has been the Hawks' best player this season.

The vote is closer than you might think. Patrick Kane wins the award for October, but his heroics as a first time centerman only lasted so long. He’s been slumping for quite a while. Patrick Sharp has been steady, and on most teams he might be a clear-cut choice. But Marian Hossa and Toews simply make the people around them better, have more responsibility and are putting up the numbers as well. It’s hard to argue against Hossa. He started the season with Kane -- hence Kane’s great first month. When moved to wing with Toews, the captain started streaking. Even when dropped back to play with Marcus Kruger and Sharp, it was Sharp who went on a tear. All the while, Hossa was helping on defense with newbie Kane in the middle and then rookie Kruger. But Toews edges him out for the amount of responsibility he takes on as captain and as the top center. Winning the most faceoffs in the league is no small statistic. He’s the only player, as of Saturday, with more than 500 wins (502), and he’s taken the third most faceoffs in the league, which makes his 60.8 percent winning percentage all the more impressive. And considering his defensive responsibilities and a the lack of a reliable left wing playing with him, Toews’ 22 goals and 41 points stand out even more.

Biggest surprise: Viktor Stalberg

Some may say they saw Stalberg's success coming, but in reality, all they saw was great talent. He’s still not quite at an elite level, but for the price at which the Hawks signed him -- an $875,000 cap hit -- Stalberg has already outperformed his contract. Now able to play on any line, he has become a valuable piece for Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville. His speed has ignited slow-producing lines and he’s no longer a major defensive liability. In fact, if the playoffs started after 41 games, odds are he takes the important third-line role next to Dave Bolland. Even with his stellar play, Stalberg has left some points and goals on the ice, although his nine tallies and 13 assists have been achieved with virtually no power-play time. He’s still learning, but as Quenneville likes to say, he’s trending in the right direction. And his speed is killer.

Biggest disappointment: Michael Frolik

Most fans might think this could be a tie between Michael Frolik and Bryan Bickell. Unfortunately for Frolik, he just signed a three-year deal this past offseason for $2.3 million per year, which places him squarely in the spotlight. Right now that’s not money well-spent. He started off decent enough -- though he was snake-bit around the net. Then the chances started drying up and his defense suffered as well. Frolik is minus-8, just one better than Bickell. They were part of a dynamic third line during the 2011 postseason but haven’t come close to having the success on either end of the ice this season. Frolik, a former 20-goal scorer, is on pace for half that with just five goals and five assists after 41 games. His confidence seems shot and even stints on the top line haven’t woken him up -- he’s usually right back in the bottom six before long.

Most impressive young player: Marcus Kruger

Nick Leddy would have won the award after the first quarter of the season, but he has slumped badly over the last 20 games. He has four points over that span after earning 14 in his first 20 games. And if points aren’t a measuring stick for a defenseman maybe plus/minus is. He’s minus-10 over the last quarter, including a dreadful minus-4 in Game No. 41. His slump allows Marcus Kruger to get the nod for most impressive young player through the first half despite not playing for six of the last seven games due to a concussion. Kruger simply didn’t have the valleys that others experienced. Moving from the fourth line to the second and joining the power play counts on Kruger’s resume in a positive way. He hasn’t slid back from those assignments either as many young players might do. For example, Quenneville raved about Brandon Pirri one night, but after another game or two he was back in the minors. There’s only been an upward trajectory with Kruger and if the playoffs started today -- and he was healthy -- he’d probably be the Hawks' second-line center. That’s saying a lot for the reliable 22-year-old Swede.

Best looking minor league call-up: Jimmy Hayes

The lesser known of the Hayes brothers -- his younger sibling Kevin was a Hawks first-round pick -- he’s turned heads with his improved skating. He has a big body that he can twist and turn like a small man. He was the best player on the ice for the Hawks in Game No. 40 in Philadelphia, nearly getting a scoring chance every shift. His size, puck handling and now skating is what coaches drool over if his game comes along with it. He could be a surprise keeper for the rest of the season, even getting some shifts in the top six as he finally did in Game No. 41. He showed soft hands in scoring against the Flyers, so his game might not fit and mold and that could be a good thing. He’s been intriguing to say the least.

Most perplexing player: Niklas Hjalmarsson

Ask 100 fans "nay" or "yea" on Hjalmarsson and you’d probably get a 50/50 split. He’s a tough read. With Hjalmarsson eating up $3.5 million per year in cap space, he needs to be solid. But his salary isn’t too far out of line with other inconsistent defenseman around the league. Leading the league in blocked shots is worth more than a passing mention, but most would still say he’s underachieved since signing his big contract two summers ago. Physical play isn’t always part of his game as much as it should be and his offense is nearly non-existent. Skating with as dynamic of an offense as the Hawks possess, Hjalmarsson should have more than seven points. It means he’s not around the play enough or initiating from his own end. But there are other nights you don’t hear his name because he’s simply playing his game, blocking shots and having a good stick. He’s plus-2, also proving his season -- and game -- is a hard one to read.