In a season that features 82 games, the All-Star break comes at a time where most teams have played close to 50 games. Although that's clearly more than half, it seems like the appropriate time to reflect on the first "half" of the season and look critically at all aspects of the team. Let's take a look, thus far, at the 2011-12 Chicago Blackhawks.
Stan Bowman kicked off the season by trying to change the look of the team; he brought in veterans like Jamal Mayers and Sean O'Donnell, added toughness in the form of Steve Montador and Daniel Carcillo and then saved a lot of salary cap space on top of all the signings. After the 2010 Stanley Cup team was broken up due to payroll concerns, Bowman vowed to not be handcuffed by the same situation while in pursuit of another Cup. His grade is incomplete for this season, however, because his team has a few gaping holes that need to be addressed before the deadline; a fore-checking centerman and a defenseman who can kill penalties most specifically. The February 27 trade deadline is looming, so expect to see Bowman kick the tires around the league, especially after the potentially season-defining nine-game road trip after the break. Grade: B+ (incomplete)
Joel Quenneville earned his 600th career coaching victory and has been given a bobblehead in his honor, but more importantly, his team is near the top of the Western Conference. The Central Division is shaping up to be the tightest race in the NHL as Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis continue flip-flopping anywhere from first to third seemingly every day. Coach Q has done an effective job managing his streaky team while dealing with the injury bug that keeps biting the 'Hawks. Injuries will plague every team at some point during every season, but so far, the Blackhawks have been without forwards Patrick Sharp, Dave Bolland, Daniel Carcillo, Marcus Kruger and defensemen Brent Seabrook and Steve Montador all for extended periods of time. Quenneville has seen a flurry of young talent called up from Rockford (Chicago's AHL affiliate) to fill in, and he has had to continually shuffle the lines to find some continuity. If he can find a way to get his guys to shore up the team defense and start performing on special teams, Quenneville might lead his team to a President's Trophy this season. Grade: B
The revolving door from Rockford has made it tough to get consistent play from all four lines because Coach Q is always changing them up. However, these guys make up one of the most explosive offensive units in all of hockey (first in the West, third overall). Over the last couple of weeks leading up to the break, the top line of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Viktor Stalberg has been playing out of this world, spending a majority of their time on the ice in the offensive zone. Hopefully this trend continues and filters down to the other lines. Aside from the top 2 forward lines, there isn't much to speak of other than disappointment. Michael Frolik has to be the biggest of all with just 5 goals (2 empty net) and 13 points while posting a -6 through 47 games. If he, among others, steps up even a little, the 'Hawks offensive juggernaut will be hard to stop. To this point in the season, the good has been that much better than the bad. If the top lines start to slump, they could be in trouble. Grade: B
The signings of Montador and O'Donnell were supposed to add depth and grit to a blue line crew that needed both. The much beleaguered unit has faced a lot of criticism this year and it's been deserved. The Blackhawks rank in the bottom third of the NHL in goals allowed, and yes, the goaltenders are partly to blame (we'll get to them next). Duncan Keith, former Norris Trophy recipient, has been streaky, but overall pretty solid as he tries to regain that Norris form. After a nice finish to last season, it appeared as though Nick Leddy would be ready to step up to a top-four defenseman role, but at times has looked completely lost and over-matched. If the Blackhawks D-men were a bigger part of the offense, we wouldn't be as critical, but they're not scoring either. For the most part, every blue liner has much room for improvement as the season winds down and it will be interesting to see if there's any shakeup if Bowman is able to make a deal. Grade: D+
At this juncture of last year, Corey Crawford had surpassed Marty Turco on the depth chart and carried the Blackhawks into the playoffs. Although they were bounced in the first round, Crawford was lights out as he outplayed his counterpart, Roberto Luongo. As a sign of commitment, Bowman signed Crawford to a nice contract extension over the summer. It's possible that the pressure of being a number one goaltender got to him, because he hasn't performed all that well. He's giving up almost three goals per game and saving a shade over 90% of the shots he sees. His backup, Ray Emery, who emerged in training camp after signing a one-year contract, looked to be supplanting Crawford a la Turco in 2011, but he never stole the job. The 'Hawks are the only team in the NHL to not yet record a shutout. On nights that they aren't scoring, the Blackhawks have virtually no shot to win. Crawford might not be the long term answer at number one, but if they're going to make a deep run in the Stanley Cup playoffs, goalie play will need to step up. A lot. Grade: D-
'Hawks MVP: without question, the Captain. Jonathan Toews is on pace to surpass his career high in scoring and his leadership is unmatched. He's a little banged up headed into the break , and will miss Tuesday's rematch against Nashville, so hopefully he takes it easy at the All-Star festivities and heals for the stretch run, especially since he's a legitimate candidate for the Hart Trophy. Marian Hossa is a close second for team MVP.
Unsung hero: Niklas Hjalmarsson leads the NHL in blocked shots, a stat that gets overlooked way too often, and isn't afraid to absorb a hit or make plays against the boards. The Hammer is one of only six 'Hawks who have been on the ice for every game. He's been paired with Leddy most of the season and hopefully some of his play will start to rub off on the offensive-minded youngster.
Rookie of the (half) year: With all of the rookies making debuts with the big club this year, none have been as impressive as Andrew Shaw. Not only has he become an immediate fan favorite, Shaw is like a double-shot of espresso injected directly into the veins of a team who needed someone to step up. With one game left before the break, (Tuesday vs Nashville) Shaw has recorded 7 points in 10 games and has been getting more opportunities playing on the 2nd line with Marian Hossa and on power plays. He has no problem creating traffic in front of the other team's goalie and really has a knack for finding the puck. Hopefully, he's no flash in the pan and continues to grow at this exponential pace.
Blackhawks fans should be generally pleased with how the first 50 games have gone. For as shaky as the defense and goaltending have been at times, this team is within a point of the NHL lead and you'd think they can only get better. Of their final 32 games, the 'Hawks will be in front of the "Madhouse on Madison" crowd just 12 times. The real litmus test will be the nine game road trip right after the break; fans will have a good idea, going forward, of what to expect of this team as they come down the stretch.
It's going to be fun to watch how the West will be won.