Despite leading Western Conference, Blackhawks want more consistent play in season's second half

Despite leading Western Conference, Blackhawks want more consistent play in season's second half

The Blackhawks headed into Saturday liking how they fared the two previous nights, taking four points and busting out of a pre- and post-Christmas slump.

Are they happy with their overall game? Well, not quite. Just past the midway point of their season — they played their 42nd game on Friday, a 2-1 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes — the Blackhawks will take where they are in the Western Conference standings. But they know that playing complete games was an issue through the first 42 and that they have to shore up a few things in the final 40.

“I think the last couple we’ve started well and before that, we weren’t starting the way we liked,” Trevor van Riemsdyk said. “We just have to find that consistency, making sure you start on time, making sure you’re setting the tone for the games so you don’t feel like you’re chasing it the whole night.”

The starts, or lack thereof, have been a nonstop narrative for the Blackhawks this season. The Blackhawks were out-shot in many first periods this season, though we have to be careful in judging off that. In a lot of those games, Friday night’s included, they led after one despite being out-shot by a solid margin. It’s more about the lack of energy they’ve showed and the quality scoring opportunities they’ve allowed.

What’s helped the Blackhawks out of those sluggish starts is their comeback ability and, more than anything, their goaltending. What the Blackhawks are ultimately looking for in the second half is more consistent outings to help that goaltending.

“We need to play all 60 because in the past we’ve had bad starts but good finishes and sometimes we have good starts but not good finishes,” Artem Anisimov said. “We just need to play all 60 minutes, how we can play.”

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There’s another, more positive way to look at the Blackhawks’ first half. Despite a horrendous start to the penalty kill, they’re leading the conference. Despite several key injuries (Jonathan Toews missed nine games, van Riemsdyk missed 20, Corey Crawford was out 10 and Marian Hossa missed five), they’re still in good shape. Despite less depth at forward and the ongoing search for a top-line left wing, the Blackhawks are winning.

Credit young players for progressing well, perhaps faster than expected. Ryan Hartman is emerging as a strong player who has seven goals and draws more penalties than he commits. Vinnie Hinostroza is gaining confidence in his game and trust from his coaches.

But if you’re looking to make the postseason and go on another playoff run, you don’t rest on being satisfied with where you are. The Blackhawks have scratched and clawed and goaltended their way to a very good first half. They’ll have to be better in a few areas to replicate that in the second half.

“Obviously we have to step everything up,” Dennis Rasmussen said. “Play better as we get to the second half here, work on the small things and do them right.”

Blackhawks Notes: Coaching changes and Marcus Kruger’s status

Blackhawks Notes: Coaching changes and Marcus Kruger’s status

Coach Joel Quenneville didn’t mince words. Finding out his good friend, former assistant coach Mike Kitchen was fired not long after the Blackhawks’ postseason ended, frustrated him.

“That day, I was not happy. I was a little disappointed,” Quenneville said on Thursday. “We lost a great coach and somebody I had been working with for a long time. It was tough and we’ve moved on now, but I wasn’t excited at the moment.”

In moving on the Blackhawks have revamped their coaching staff, adding another old friend and teammate of Quenneville’s in Ulf Samuelsson and a former member of his St. Louis staff in Don Granato. Quenneville said Samuelsson will take over Kitchen’s responsibilities while Granato will handle a number of tasks.

“Whether he’s pre-scout, helping Kevin [Dineen], helping Ulfie, helping me. He’s helping the young guys like Stan [Bowman] said,” Quenneville said. “We have input with all areas and all coaches and it’s a fun thing, drawing up practices or talking to guys, preparing meetings and evaluating performances. But I think he’s excited to be a part of that as well and Ulfie, he’ll be doing something he’s been doing and he’s excited to work with some of our defense as well.”

As far as the Blackhawks’ defensive style, Quenneville doesn’t foresee it changing.

“I think there are some areas how it ended or after a playoff series, there’s always some tweaks we like to do in games, in playoffs or in series," Quenneville said. "It’s obviously disappointing. But I think there’s a lot of positive things we accomplished last year and how we played without the puck, I don’t think that was too much of an issue.

"But we have a defense that can play both ways and we still want offense from our defensive part of our game. That’d be one of our strengths. But when it’s time to defend, how we want to play in our own end without the puck is something that’ll be very close to how we play.”

Kruger’s situation

There’s been plenty of talk regarding Marcus Kruger, and whether or not he’ll remain with the Blackhawks. Whatever the future holds for the center, general manager Stan Bowman wouldn’t say on Thursday.

“Yeah, there have been a lot of these rumors around, but Marcus is no different than any other player. I’m not going to comment on rumors out there, but people are stating it as if it’s a fact,” Bowman said of Kruger being at the center of trade rumors. “There’s a lot of speculation, but it’s not fair to the players for me to be commenting on what’s been rumored out there. I don’t really have anything to add on that front.”

Trevor van Riemsdyk was Vegas’ selection in Wednesday night’s expansion draft. But a source said it’s still possible the Blackhawks trade Kruger to the Golden Knights.

Why placing Marian Hossa on long-term injured reserve wouldn't help Blackhawks' cap issues

Why placing Marian Hossa on long-term injured reserve wouldn't help Blackhawks' cap issues

When the news came down that Marian Hossa would miss the 2017-18 season, most first thoughts were about his health. But it was only natural to look at the business implications, and the possibility of Hossa going on long-term injured reserve (LTIR).

That would solve the Blackhawks’ cap issues, right? That would give them more money to spend, right? Well, not exactly. See, the LTIR can be a bit complicated. It can also be tricky to explain. And right now, even Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman is trying to figure out how this all develops for the team.

“I think there’s a little bit of a misconception on the LTI provision in the salary cap, and understandably so. It’s very complicated. It’s not as simple or as easy as people think it to be,” Bowman said on Thursday, the day before the Blackhawks hosted the 2017 NHL Draft. “I don’t want to get into too many details because it’s hard to explain it all, but there’s a couple different ways it can work.

"You can use offseason LTI and in-season LTI and there’s drawbacks to both, and there’s limitations the way that the league handles those things. It’s not as simple as people might think that we just have this ability to suddenly replace Marian with another player. It’s way more involved than that.”

Here are two basics about the cap: a team can be 10 percent over it during the summer, and a team must be at or below it the day the regular season begins. If the Blackhawks place Hossa on LTIR, it wouldn’t take effect until the second day of the regular season. So on Day 1 of the season, the Blackhawks would still be carrying Hossa’s $5.275 cap hit.

Once the LTIR would take effect, though, the Blackhawks would have wiggle room. If they spent to the $75 million cap, they could utilize Hossa’s entire $5.275 million cap hit on other players.

It’s not about the Blackhawks finding a guy this summer that makes an equal cap it.

“If you did that you would be essentially starting the year with an inability to make any transactions," Bowman said. "And that’s why, it’s a harder discussion to have because you’ve got to give you examples of if this happens. But it just doesn’t work that way. I wish it were that simple, but it’s not. It’s a much more complicated provision than people think. It’s not some easy cap solution where we just go sign a player for the same amount and off we go. It’s much more problematic than that.”

The NHL will be looking at the situation, although there doesn’t seem to be anything that would keep the Blackhawks from putting Hossa on LTIR. Bowman wasn’t concerned about it.

Still, the Blackhawks will still be doing their share of offseason math.

“I know how it works. What’s going to happen is a different question," Bowman said. "You don’t make those decisions overnight, but I think that understandably there’s probably a lot of confusion, because it’s not your job to run the salary cap for a team. So, I can get why you don’t know all the little details, and it is a very intricate provision in the CBA. So, we understand it. We’ve used LTI before, so it’s not like it’s something we’ve never been faced with. It’s just a factor that we’ll get through.”