Blackhawks plan to "stay the course"

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Blackhawks plan to "stay the course"

General Manager Stan Bowman answered questions for 25 minutes Wednesday at the United Center. The impression he left was more "stay the course", rather than "shake it up."

Blackhawks fans, columnists, and Twitter accounts are already in debate on whether that's the right course of action after a second straight first-round playoff exit -- this time without the short summer or before opening up salary cap space that allowed him to shape this past season's roster as he saw fit.

The remainder of the week will include coaching and management skill sessions about the areas that need shoring up, either from the outside or from within. But as I wrote in my Blackhawks Talk post back on March 28th, a lot of what you've seen is probably what you'll get. Sure, this week's meetings may end up determining from within that there's more that needs fixing than Bowman shared on Wednesday, but unless there's a taker out there for a few of the Hawks' more inconsistent players who have yet to reach the organization's projections, there's a lot of money already committed within the present roster. If not, they need to gamble with packaging some promising youth for veteran pedigree and production.

It sounded as if it's been already been decided that Patrick Kane's a center next season, that he can reach his full potential in that role, rather than staying on the wing with Jonathan Toews or an imported second-line pivot. If that's the case, Kane's summer should be spent preparing himself for eight months of more defensive responsibility, and trying to make the opposition adjust to his speed and quickness over any adjustments he'd need to make against bigger opponents in a 200-foot game. But as my pre- and post-game colleague Steve Konroyd has pointed out several times, Kane loves a challenge, and has spent 23 years proving people wrong. If that's his assignment, and his immediate future, he'll try to do that yet again.

I asked Duncan Keith about the toll of all the hard minutes he and Brent Seabrook play as their careers go on, and whether they would benefit from more consistently reliable blueliners behind them to pick up at least some of the slack. I'm with him when he calls Nick Leddy reliable -- as long as Leddy uses the summer to bulk up. But he also called Hjalmarsson and Montador reliable. I wasn't about to get into a public argument with him about his teammates to his face, but there's a contractual commitment to those two to fill out the defensive corps, and they'll need to have better seasons next year. Whether the size they need for a sixth defenseman is served by Dylan Olsen or an import, the second and third pairings need more positive consistency to make Keith and Seabrook even better, not to mention Corey Crawford.

That brings us to an interesting observation by Bowman that brought some perspective about the secret to success of this year's Western Conference final four. Everyone can't help but see the keys for St. Louis, Los Angeles, Nashville, and Phoenix: Great goaltending and solid defense surrounding the net. Those four teams finished in the top ten in regular season goals-against average. After Corey Schneider in Vancouver (hellooo, Bobby Lu?), Elliott, Quick, Rinne and Smith own the next four GAA's and save percentages among the regular starters through round one. So, obviously, the Hawks need to go out and acquire an elite goaltender, right?

Said Bowman:

"It really is something that changes year-to-year, or every couple years. Styles change. Two years ago, we won the Cup, and two unheralded goaltenders went to the Finals in Niemi and Leighton. Everyone was saying, 'I guess goaltending's not that important. You don't need to have a supposed great goaltender to win the Cup.'

"Here we are, two years later, and it's shifting back the other way. Whatever's happening that season, people put emphasis on. This year, goaltending had really ruled the league. Is that the way it's going to be, going forward? It's tough to predict. You can't be too re-active to what other teams do. You have to look at your strengths and play to what they are. We have a lot of talented offensive players, and you don't want to take away from the strengths of this team. I think getting them to play responsible hockey, and not giving up too many opportunities is something we want to focus on."

Based on the tone of that, as well as other comments Wednesday, it's how the Blackhawks intend to move forward. If they do, indeed, "stay the course," we'll know a year from now whether that call turns out to be the right one. It sounds like that's what Bowman's banking on.

Johnny Oduya feeling better, more up to speed with Blackhawks

Johnny Oduya feeling better, more up to speed with Blackhawks

Perhaps the best thing about the Johnny Oduya trade back to the Blackhawks, for both parties involved, was that Oduya wasn't needed immediately.

It's not that the Blackhawks didn't want the veteran defenseman, who helped them win Cups in 2013 and 2015, back in the lineup as soon as possible. Oduya was coming off an ankle injury, one he re-aggravated and missed about a month when he was with the Dallas Stars. He needed time to fully heal and with the Blackhawks in good shape in the standings and with solid depth at defense, he could.

Now with the playoffs right around the corner, Oduya is feeling more like himself.

Outside of missing two games that were the second halves of back-to-backs, Oduya has been playing steadily since March 9. Oduya's minutes have ranged from around 16 to 21 in games. He said he's now 100 percent healthy from his injury and he's feeling the difference on the ice.

"It makes a big difference," Oduya said on Thursday, prior to facing the Stars for the first time since his trade back to Chicago. "I mean, obviously sometimes you get more or less lucky, depending on what you get and the style of play and what you do or not. Skating is a part of my game I try to use as much as possible to get in good position and try to take away time from the opposition as much as possible.

"Even with battling and things like that, of course it's nice to feel more confident," Oduya added. "In any situation, you're in you want to feel confident on the ice."

The Blackhawks have seen that confidence in previous postseason runs and are looking to see it again in Oduya. Coach Joel Quenneville considers Oduya, "Mr. Reliability."

"You look back at what he delivered for us, not just the regular season, but he's been solid and reliable in the playoffs. He's assumed some important matchups and important minutes," Quenneville said. "Last year, we didn't have him on the back end and watching him this year, it was the perfect fit him coming back."

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The Blackhawks' defensive group hasn't changed much since Oduya's first stint here. The system probably hasn't been altered much, either. Still, Oduya's not taking anything for granted and is trying to get back on the same page quickly.

"Same as the last time I came into a great hockey team and I really just want to get up to speed and up to date as quickly as possible," Oduya said. "Little things that may have changed. I want to fit in as well as I can. That's the idea anyone has coming in late in the year. The guys here make it pretty easy; the coaching staff is familiar with the way I play and helps speed up things a little more."

The Blackhawks are trying to be their best heading into the postseason. So is Oduya. He needed a little extra time to get back to health and he may still need a little time to get back to speed, but he's just about there. 

"I feel pretty good. Of course it's a lot easier when you have guys around you you've seen before, a coaching staff," Oduya said. "It's a work in progress, anyway. I want to be better, I want to evolve with the team and want us to be better, too. It's a work in progress."

Quick Hits from Blackhawks-Stars: Another slow start but better finish

Quick Hits from Blackhawks-Stars: Another slow start but better finish

It wasn't pretty, but the Blackhawks found a way to pick up another two points and improved to 6-0-1 over their last seven games, and 18-3-1 over their last 22.

With Minnesota's loss to Philadelphia, the Blackhawks have taken an eight-point lead for first in the Central Division and are only two points away from the Washington Capitals for home-ice advantage throughout the entire Stanley Cup playoffs.

Let's take a look at Quick Hits from the 3-2 shootout victory over the Dallas Stars on Thursday night:

What Worked: The finish and shootout. While the Blackhawks scored the game's first goal, it was another slow start by a team that has had a few of those over the last several outings and has preached working on turning in more of a complete effort. They recorded only 14 shots on goal in the first two periods, and it took more than six minutes after Patrick Kane's goal to record their next one.

But they finished on a positive note yet again, and went 2-for-3 in the shootout thanks to Kane and Artemi Panarin, who potted the game winner. Kane said after the game that he tried his move on Scott Darling during morning skate and it worked. So he went with it tonight in an effort to snap a mini shootout drought and he did.

What Didn't Work: Controlling the puck. The Blackhawks seemingly have the puck more than their opponent does almost every game, but it doesn't reflect in the shot department because they often look for the perfect pass or shot and fail to record one at all. They had 50 shot attempts with 26 of them on goal compared to the Stars' 64 attempts with 44 on goal. They know they must get better at that.

Star of the game: Corey Crawford. After allowing four goals on only 10 shots in Tuesday's overtime loss to Vancouver, the Blackhawks netminder bounced back in a huge way. He matched a season-high with 42 saves, and recorded his 30th win of the season.

He Said It: "He played amazing tonight. Reason we won the game. Hats off to him, he's done that a lot this year. For a goalie it's probably tough to show up every night, even the goals he let in last game you can't put all the blame on him, but he was outstanding tonight." — Kane on Crawford's performance

By the Numbers:

167 — Niklas Hjalmarsson blocked one shot in the win, and it was enough to set a new career high in that department, previously established during the 2010-11 campaign (166).

15 — Trevor van Riemsyk assisted on Marian Hossa's goal in the third period, giving him a career-high 15 points on the season in 50 games. He had 14 points in 82 games last year. He also extended his point streak to three games.

6 — With the victory, Crawford has earned at least 30 wins in six of his seven NHL seasons as a full-time starter. The only time he didn't reach that mark was during the lockout-shortened year in 2012-13 when he went 19-5-5.