Friday, March 2, 2012

Bowman bows out of trying to improve team through trade(s)

Despite the Blackhawks losing 9 straight and 12 of 16 in the stretch immediately prior to the trade deadline, Stan Bowman decided to stan(d) pat for the most part, adding Johnny Oduya, Winnipeg's 5th defenseman (in terms of minutes played) and dealing big John Scott to the Cup contending New York Rangers as the only roster moves at the trade deadline.

Earlier last month, he had added often scratched Brendan Morrison from Calgary to supposedly "plug" the hole at 2nd line C...which unfortunately is still leaking badly, especially with Jonathan Toews now out of the lineup due to an "upper body injury".

The trade for Oduya is particularly strange, considering his UFA status and current $3.5M salary despite being at the bottom end of Winnipeg's defensive depth chart and considering Bowman's unwillingness to pay Chris Campoli, last year's deadline UFA defenseman acquisition.  The price to a acquire Oduya, a 2nd & 3rd round pick in 2013, makes absolutely no sense for a mere 5th Dman rental...and to pay a 5th Dman double the salary what Campoli is making just to re-sign him (& avoid the appearance of wasting two draft picks) makes even less sense.

The conclusion?  This trade was simply cosmetic and on the verge of panic so that Bowman could say to the media that he actually made a deal to add defensive depth that he said he was trying to do.

Compared to the moves division rival Nashville made, adding Gill, Gaustad & Kostitsyn, Bowman looks like the small market operator.

The hawks now find themselves relying on their farm team for support for a playoff push that is anything but certain.  After playing strong, disciplined games at home vs. St. Louis & Detroit last week, where their priority finally focused on preventing goals rather than scoring them, they came out against Dallas with an inexplicable anemic effort.   Facing a rookie NHL goalie Richard Bachman and a team missing Jamie Benn, its top scorer, the hawks went through the motions, managing only 6 shots on net in a scoreless 1st period, and allowing Bachman to settle in, get comfortable and gain confidence.

After Hossa feasted again on a teammate's hard work, picking up a rebound after Frolik drove hard to the net in the 2nd period to put the hawks up 1-0, he once again was directly responsible for the play that led to Dallas' equalizer midway in the 3rd.   Having the puck along the right boards in his own zone, he tried to knock it past the Dallas defenseman, hoping for a breakaway or odd man rush.  Instead, his offense-first thinking predictably backfired again, with the Stars defenseman holding the puck in the hawk zone as Hossa failed to take the body but simply glided by him, as the defenseman easily sidestepped him.

Hossa made his usual wide turn back (after all, a hard stop & restart requires a lot of effort) and actually had a chance to block the point shot from the other defenseman, but in his usual style, he made himself as small as possible so he wouldn't be hit, but nevertheless still made for an effective screen, and the shot was tipped in behind Crawford and Dallas had life.

The hawks on the other hand, failed to respond but continued to play lethargic and not surprisingly gave away an important 2 points at home to a team not far behind them in the standings. 

They failed to respond to such a devastating loss in their next game in LA, another team not far behind them in the standings - getting shut out yet again (8th or 9th time? this season) 4-0 to the Kings, with Dustin Brown registering a hat trick after his name had come up in trade rumours.   The hawks unfortunately, had no one's name come up in trade rumours, aside from the not credible Patrick Kane for Ryan Miller suggestions and consequently, they had no one who responded.   The next day in Anaheim, the hawks finally managed to score their 1st powerplay goal in 40 (FORTY!) chances, but when the Ducks were awarded a goal after video review late in the 1st, the hawks simply folded their tents and enjoyed the laid back California lifestyle for the next two periods.

Of course, the wonderful excuses for the team's demise are built-in - injuries to Toews, Sharp, Hjalmarsson, Montador, etc., contributed to the decline - though these excuses require that you don't look too closely at the 9 game losing streak & realize almost all of the above players were in the lineup for that awful streak.  And you certainly don't want to compare the hawks troubles coping with injuries to their major stars with a real team like Pittsburgh which has been without Crosby, Staal and Letang for major stretches of the entire season, yet their record is much better than the hawks despite playing in the Atlantic, a division even tougher than the Central.

And then there is the excuse of bad goaltending - Crawford & Emery to a lesser extent, simply have not provided good enough goaltending, which has sapped the team of confidence.

This certainly is a great excuse since it shifts focus off the skaters (& coaches) onto just one simple position.  The problem with that excuse is that it masks the real problems with the team - the players "offense-first" thinking leftover from their Cup win simply doesn't work unless you have 4 good lines you can roll (and who can threaten offensively) and you have good, smart, puck moving defensemen to provide the quick transition (either outlet passes or skating with the puck).

The loss of Campbell has hurt that game plan - Leddy is good, but by no means at 20 yrs old, ready yet to fill Campbell's skates, yet that is what he has been asked to do all year.  Montador, O'Donnell & Lepisto aren't up to that job either.

At forward, the hawks 3rd line has been a bust most of the year - Frolik & Bickell & even Bolland have not performed up to expectations.   Stalberg has set career highs in production, and has great wheels, but he is too inconsistent to be counted among the top 6 forwards.  Kane has not scored goals as in previous seasons, though his playmaking still is as good as ever - it makes one wonder if the move to center (and wrist injury) to start the season may still be having lingering effects on his game.

The hawks forwards as a group have a decided lack of toughness - Mayers is about the only one who is able to stand up for teammates - but by himself, he is simply overmatched.  It was not more evident than the recent game vs. San Jose, where Toews was made a frequent physical target of the Sharks, at one point taking shots to the head from opposing captain Joe Thornton, including one after his helmet was knocked off.     When Keith and a few other hawk players moved in to protect their captain, Ryan Clowe, the man publicly called out by Marian Hossa as a "coward" in an earlier season game in Chicago, jumped into the melee, while Hossa stood by & watched.  Needless to say, that image called into question just who the real coward was.

While the hawks have since called up rookies Jimmy Hayes, Andrew Shaw & Brandon Bollig to beef up the forwards, it is a bit rich to expect raw rookies to somehow step up and assume leadership roles on a recent Cup team.

The fact is the hawks core has been overused for the first part of the season, which saw the team competing for 1st overall in the league, though they were also benefited by an easy early schedule against weaker teams with a disproportionate number of them at home.

As the season ground on, it became clear that the heavy workload was taking its toll, especially on Keith & Seabrook, and on Toews, Sharp & Kane, and if those players aren't at their best, the hawks are in trouble.  In fact, early season losses to Edmonton (9-2) and later back to back home shutout losses to LA & Colorado were signals that not all was right with this hawk team, yet Bowman continued to say he was happy with the roster.

Perhaps there are deeper issues to explain the apathetic play in the second half, but aside from legitimate cup contending depth,  it seems obvious that the hawks also lack toughness - they are soft in front of both nets and too often are unwilling to pay the price at both ends to score & prevent goals.  The need for real reinforcements at defense and center were obvious (except apparently to Stan) and with the dealing of Gill, Vermette & Gaustad to western rivals the message that has been sent to  players and fans alike is a very disappointing one where management is ok with settling for mediocrity.

That message sounds very familiar to long time hawk fans who lived through the old William Wirtz/Bob Pulford era - the team was content to just make the playoffs - not do all it could to seriously compete & contend for championships.  It is a message that discourages players who hunger for more - Bobby Hull perhaps being the most notable.  

I've mentioned before, that Bowman's hands may have been tied regarding trade acquistions by Wirtz & McDonough's internal cap - that includes the salaries of Huet & Olesz unreduced by escrow (which coincidentally would put the hawks at or near the real cap if those players were playing in the NHL).   Bowman's tepid moves at the deadline do nothing to dissuade such thinking.

Could Jonathan Toews, when he grows older & more wiser (of the historic business side of the Blackhawks), tire of a management that is content to live off its latest Cup win (maybe for the next 50 years) and content with cutting costs & counting cash instead of celebrating another Cup, especially seeing how he is giving his all on the ice (exposing himself to potentially life-altering concussions), while management fails to give their all off the ice?  The team is still owned by a Wirtz, just as it was in the mid 60's heyday of Bobby Hull & Stan Mikita....and the apple never falls far from the tree...

Unless Stan makes a splash in the off-season with Huet's $5M coming off the books (and buys out Olesz's $3M+) and uses those dollars to land a name free agent (like Suter or Parise) and utilize his cap room & prospect depth to reload & reinforce the core of the team to serious contender status, I suspect the Toews to Winnipeg rumours will start surfacing in another year or two...