<
>

Integrating new faces is no problem for the Chicago Blackhawks

Andrew Ladd, center, celebrates a goal with Duncan Keith, left, and Jonathan Toews. AP Photo/Duane Burleson

Beware: It might seem like the Chicago Blackhawks are vulnerable, but don't let that fa├žade fool you.

Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman went all in before the trade deadline with the additions of Andrew Ladd, Tomas Fleischmann, Dale Weise and Christian Ehrhoff. They have all played well, but the Blackhawks are struggling to find chemistry. Since the trade deadline, the Blackhawks are 2-3-1 and with 12 games remaining in the regular season, they enter Wednesday's game against the Philadelphia Flyers in third place in the Central Division with 88 points.

Captain Jonathan Toews, a three-time Stanley Cup champion, has witnessed plenty of roster turnover in Chicago, and he understands it takes time for new players to mesh and for a team to reach its potential.

"There is no doubt we have had situations like this in the past, but this year especially, sometimes it's been challenging to have different guys in and out of our lineup every single night," Toews said. "So now it's nice to finally have some consistency in the personnel that we're going to see in the locker room every night. We're happy about that and we're happy about the group we have. We have the right amount of skill and size and grit and type of character guys that we're going to need down the stretch to make our team better on the ice and in the locker room, and we're excited about that.

"Guys that come here are always excited for the opportunity to play for this organization. Everyone knows that this teams wants to compete and believes it can win a championship every year. So, it's nice to have guys with that predisposition, if you will. They're ready to jump on board and be a part of it."

A season ago, the Blackhawks acquired forward Andrew Desjardins from the San Jose Sharks before the deadline in exchange for winger Ben Smith and a conditional pick. Chicago went 6-0-1 in the next seven games and, despite a four-game losing skid to end the regular season, eventually finished as Stanley Cup champions.

"At the deadline every year, we've made one, two or three additions and maybe this year a little bit more. The one thing [for players] coming into our team, there's a really good core group of leaders and experienced guys that are great teammates," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "They are very welcoming to the guys coming along on our team. Skill-wise, everybody has a different level of ability and everybody gets an idea of their role and expectations.

"We're pretty comfortable with trying to get the most out of each and every guy, and guys come in here pretty excited about the opportunity and having a chance to win. It's a pretty special place in Chicago, so every player probably has a different level of expectation, but we certainly try to get the most out of everybody and I'm sure everybody is excited about the chance."

Quenneville has been pleased with the team's newest additions. He likes Weise's energy and versatility, his the north-south style of play and his willingness to drive the net and score goals. He plays a simple game. Quenneville believes Ehrhoff's presence on the blue line helps shore up the defense. The coach also likes how Fleischmann brings purpose, responsibility and hockey sense, while helping out on the penalty kill.

The post-deadline wins might not be there yet, but knowing the Blackhawks, they will come soon enough.

"They are well-managed from top to bottom. They're well-coached from top to bottom," an Eastern Conference scout said. "Ultimately, when you have Toews, [Patrick] Kane, [Marian] Hossa, [Brent] Seabrook, [Niklas] Hjalmarsson and Corey Crawford, things get settled quickly. Those guys lead the ship, and obviously it's no doubt Quenneville's the boss, but these guys go out and perform every night and when the chips are down they find a way to make big plays and score big goals, which helps their team get to the apex of this league. Those guys continually find a way to do it and that's the making of a great team."

The Blackhawks are trying to become the first team since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. It helps that Chicago's core is led by Crawford, who should be mentioned in the Vezina Trophy race this season. Sure, anything can happen in the playoffs, but teams around the league understand the Blackhawks are the team to beat.

"Even when they're depleted, even when you think they're tired, they find a way to win and that comes right from No. 19, the captain, and right on down," said the scout. "You can never count them out. You can say they're down. You can say they're in a lull; they've been in lots of lulls before, but they've proven time and time again that in the big games they play their best hockey."

Plus, it helps that forward Marcus Kruger is on the verge of returning to the lineup. He suffered a dislocated left wrist in early December, was placed on injured reserve and needed surgery. He was slated to miss four months and recently began practicing with the team in hopes he could return before the end of the regular season. His return would add more depth to an already potent lineup.

"There's more opportunity to make different lines," Quenneville said. "There's more opportunity to have more balance in our ice time. We do like when we get a four-line rotation, that's when we're deeper and we're more effective."

The Blackhawks need to find that cohesiveness soon, and finding it at the right time could mean another short offseason.