50-game review: Defense still priority

January, 26, 2012
1/26/12
10:09
AM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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Nick Leddy and James Wisniewski Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty ImagesThe Blackhawks need to acquire a defenseman to drop down Nick Leddy to the final pair with Steve Montador.
CHICAGO -- Every 10 games I’ll give you an assessment of the Chicago Blackhawks just as the coaches do internally. With 50 games complete and a 29-15-6 mark at the All-Star break, the Hawks aren’t exactly sitting pretty in fourth place in the Central Division and sixth in the conference.

But the standings change on a nightly basis so by next week they could be back on top -- that is if they can successfully navigate an upcoming nine-game road trip.

Here are 10 things to know about the first 50 and a peak at the next 32:

1. Defense, defense, defense: I’m not breaking any news here. The Hawks need help in their own end. That means a trade. But it also means a commitment by the forwards to help more and the defense to simply bear down around the net. It’s true the Hawks are playing one short on the blue line, but they know that. They know that because they jettisoned money in the offseason so they could add it back in a way that works best for them at the time. Simply put, they need a No. 3 or 4 defenseman in order to drop Nick Leddy down to the final pair with Steve Montador. Leddy hasn’t played a full year in the NHL and is 20 years old. End of story. Too much, too soon -- no matter what his offensive numbers say. But they also need a new commitment from their forwards like they had in San Jose on Nov. 23. It remains the Hawks' key game of the season. The Sharks could barely get a shot off as they were swarmed by the back-checking of forwards. More of that and a few more blocked shots near the point during penalty kills and the forwards will be doing their job.

[+] EnlargeCorey Crawford
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyAfter 50 games Corey Crawford's numbers are near the bottom of the NHL.
2. Goaltending: Another year means another goaltender debate. It is impossible to say Corey Crawford is having a very good season. An OK season? Yes. Very good? No. It’s impossible because after 50 games his numbers are near the bottom of the league. Numbers might not mean everything, but they mean something. If he was mid-pack we could argue about bad luck or bad defense. He’s 35th in goals against and 36th in save percentage. And Crawford isn’t completely passing the eye test either. He makes big saves but not enough of them and there have been weak ones along the way as well. Now he’s not in Cristobal Huet or Marty Turco territory. Those were easy calls. He has to raise his game to be able to match some of the other netminders in the West. But he’s talented and showed enough last postseason that to simply say he can’t get it done would be foolish. However, all eyes are on him for the stretch run. And Ray Emery waits in the wings if Joel Quenneville desires.

3. The good news: As much as at times it doesn’t feel like the Hawks are 29-15-6, they really are. In 35 games out of 50 they’ve earned at least a point. No matter what the other teams in the division are doing, that’s still pretty impressive. Maybe their wins haven’t lifted spirits as much as some of their losses have sunk them, but the fact remains they can compete with anyone, even if they don’t show it every night. Bad losses have been followed up by good performances more often than not. Their record says so. As explosive as their offense can be when all are healthy, it would be hard to count them out of anything, including a surge to the top of the division.

4. The rookies: The Hawks got a boost of energy when they brought up Andrew Shaw and Jimmy Hayes. Shaw was the talk of the twitter world as #Shawfacts went viral. Quenneville and Marian Hossa said feeding off their energy came at the right time. Games 40-60 can drag on, but Shaw and Hayes brought some new life to the ice and dressing room. The question then becomes how big a part do they and other youngsters play down the stretch and into the playoffs? Quenneville has shown a lot of faith in Shaw. He played the most minutes of any forward in Game No. 50 against Nashville, and he’s playing in all important situations. How he’s used now tells more about his future than anything. The coaches trust him and that means he sticks around. They trust Marcus Kruger as well so he stays. The rest are fighting to earn that trust. With a healthy team there isn’t much room for more than a couple of rookies, and that’s before the Hawks possibly trade for another forward.

5. Patrick Kane: He’s been better lately, but that’s probably not going to save his season in the eyes of fans. Unless he’s a playoff hero people are going to remember a year in which Kane struggled to score goals. It’s not downright awful by any means but his play is not to the standard he set for himself. And this comes after a very good first month of the season. His passing is still top notch, and he’ll draw some penalties with his stick-handling but people want to see goals. He wasn’t born to win faceoffs or play defense. He was born to be a playmaker and score. He’s doing one out of two this season and nothing says he can’t get hot. But with just 11 goals so far, it’s yet to happen. His play with Jonathan Toews and Viktor Stalberg over the last 5-10 games has been very good so it would be hard to label his year a disappointment just yet. Thirty-two more games and the playoffs will tell the complete story.

6. Michael Frolik: As much as the Hawks hit by re-signing Stalberg to a contract, were they fooled into thinking Frolik would be better than he is? It appears so. Frolik sat behind five rookies on Tuesday who make little money compared to his $2.3 million per year average, and he’s signed for two more seasons after this one. Frolik’s playoff run fooled everyone into thinking his scoring touch had returned. In fact, it’s been gone for quite some time. His five goals stick out like a sore thumb when you consider Shaw and Hayes have similar numbers in many fewer games played. Quenneville undoubtedly sent a message to the veteran, who was in street clothes for the first time this season, as a morning recall from Rockford played ahead of him in Game No. 50. At this rate Frolik is trade material only in the sense that he’s the money they send back if they are acquiring a big salary. He’s the throw-in that another team takes. It’s a far cry from his playoff series against Vancouver when he played his best hockey as a Hawk.

[+] EnlargeJoel Quenneville
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesJoel Quenneville must ratchet up the defensive pressure in the final 32 games of the season.
7. Coaching: Hawks leadership has been top notch since Toews became captain and Quenneville took over. But when it comes to the defensive issue facing this team it’s Quenneville’s job to rattle some cages. He’s the former defenseman who excels in working with blue-liners. Toews can’t go to Niklas Hjalmarsson and tell him what needs to be done for example. That has to come from the coach. As does the entire team concept of defense. There’s little doubt he’s been preaching it all along but talking about it and doing something about it are two different issues. If this was Game 25 or even 30, he can say there is plenty of time to fix things. With 32 contests remaining those bad habits have been formed and still need breaking. Quenneville needs to go into playoff mode very soon when it comes to his defensive coaching. After the All-Star break is as good a time as any.

8. The competition: It’s been well documented how lethal the Central Division has become. The resurgence of St. Louis is scary in that they play the best defense in the NHL behind Ken Hitchcock. But being the new kid on the block, do they have staying power for the playoffs? Detroit is unstoppable at home but kind of ordinary on the road. Nashville is primed to be the Nashville it's always been: a pest that still goes home earlier than most. The dogfight isn’t about February and March. It’s about April and May. When healthy, the Hawks are loaded with players who have been there before and that will count come postseason. The one equalizer -- as it always is -- stands in net. Jimmy Howard of the Wings, Pekka Rinne of the Predators and the combination of Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak of St. Louis are all having outstanding seasons.

9. Stan Bowman: The upcoming month of February could define his early legacy as a general manager. He has a Cup-contending team that is flawed. Can he fix it in time for a postseason run? Can he beat out other general managers as they vie for that coveted defenseman and/or top-six forward? Bowman and his front office team will have to make some tough decisions about trading some prospects they’ve probably grown to like. Shaw or Hayes could be part of that group. Or Kruger or even young Brandon Saad, who was sent back to juniors the first month of the season. This is Bowman’s time to show Hawks Nation he knows the major issues facing his team and do his best to fix it. The good news is he should know what he needs -- defensive responsible players. At any position.

10. The road trip: One of the longest road trips in Hawks history is approaching, and it will test them like no other. Three different sets of three games, in different parts of the U.S. and Canada. After each three-game segment they’ll come back to Chicago for a change of clothes and then head right back out. There will be some bad losses and people will panic. And as the Feb. 27 trade deadline inches closer, people will be screaming for moves to be made. You’ll read a lot of things about a “defining stretch” for the Hawks. But in truth, it’s just another nine games off the schedule. It will be difficult and it will be tiring, but unless an extreme meltdown happens, the Hawks will probably be in the thick of things after its over just as they are now. Could they meltdown? Of course. Is it likely to happen? No. We’ll find out soon.

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