As the Hawks' losing string reached seven last night, it's my hope that expectations within Blackhawk Nation are getting a bit more realistic.
Yes, there have been moments where this team has been 100% healthy that it's looked like a playoff team. And though the injuries have been ridiculous and crippling of late, they haven't been throughout the season. And injuries do happen to all teams.
Hysteria aside, the cold, hard truth is the Blackhawks are a very young team, a growing team and a team with some holes yet to fill.
In all sports, young teams have fragile psyches. They go on long winning streaks and long losing streaks. Just like the 07-08 Hawks. And as bad as things have been lately, the Hawks are about to play 11 of their next 14 on the road.
The Hawks have a few players who are budding stars, but who need further development. Specifically, Patrick Kane and Dustin Byfuglien. As good as Kane's been this year, he's going to get a LOT better. He just turned 19, and is only going to gain some things he's lacking: confidence in all situations, physical strength and focus. In a recent interview, responding to a question about the effect of the injuries on the Hawks' defense, Coach Denis Savard again showed his feelings regarding Byfuglien: he has defensive liabilities. One has to believe that Savard still feels Byfuglien is better at forward long-term.
And as far as holes, the Hawks really lack a power play QB (although many fans would like to think Byfuglien is that) and a #1 defenseman. If they have that player, then they have a top four of Player X/Seabrook, Keith/Wisniewski. Not bad. Byfuglien can then be moved to forward, filling another hole in the Top 6. As many Hawk fans are ready to book reservations for Kris Versteeg's induction ceremony at the Hockey Hall of Fame, Byfuglien was better (scoring, hitting and defensively) at forward than Versteeg has been.
Cam Barker was supposed to fill the power play QB and #1 defense roles when he was drafted 3rd overall in 2004. He hasn't. And he probably never will. In my opinion, the Hawks should not give up on Barker just yet. But they should also now be seriously pursuing other options— obtaining a #1 defenseman either via trade or free agency as soon as possible, which would most likely be at the trade deadline or in the off-season. Until the trigger is pulled on that deal, Barker has some time to get his game together. But he should be on warning. He does not play physically enough. He does not play with enough urgency. He has flashes, yes. But he seems to just not want to "lay it all out there" effort-wise. Any coincidence that he and off-ice buddy Tyler Arnason are from the same hometown?
Perhaps Barker goes the other way (along with other assets) in return for a deal for an established veteran. Or he gets packaged in a deal for a #1 goaltender, another part of the stocking that is wearing thin. At this point, he very well might still develop and another team will give you value for him. Another such player is Troy Brouwer. Scratched the last two games by Savard, after a so-so debut against Detroit, Brouwer clearly is not held in high regard by his coach, most likely because of his skating deficiencies. There is an eerie similarity to the Brandon Bochenski experience here. And it leads one to believe that Brouwer, because he has perceived potential and thus trade value, might also be ticketed to a new organization.
In the end, the Hawks' season is going to get worse before it gets better. Posters on various internet sites will be screaming for trades so the Hawks can make the playoffs or "keep the good vibe going." Tallon and Savard will both be blamed, when in truth, both deserve credit for what is clearly a team that has turned it around. The team just had a long way to go.
The good news is, both recognize that the real prize is a season or two away, and they will not panic. If a deal is made at the deadline, it will be for missing pieces to the long-term puzzle, or to shed a burdensome contract (can you say "Nikolai Khabibulin?"
. This team will make a serious splash in free agency, if for no other reason than marketing. John McDonough did it with the Cubs. My guess is they will throw serious dollars at the best defensemen on the market. And someone good will bite— it's a team on the rise that's going to play before packed houses for the next decade. And it's one of the premier cities in the world.
Toews, Kane, Sharp, Byfuglien, Keith and Seabrook will all have another year under their belts. Bill Sweatt, Igor Makarov and Niklas Hjalmarsson will all be a year closer to wearing the Hawk sweater.
It's going to be all right Hawk fans. it's going to be all right.