Many factors conspired to end Blackhawks’ playoff run
BY MARK LAZERUS Staff Reporter June 2, 2014 11:04PM
Some five minutes after he slowly skated off the United Center ice for the last time this season, the last thing Duncan Keith wanted to do was take stock of the previous nine months.
“I don’t know, it’s just frustrating right now,” he said. “It’s tough to analyze everything right now. I think as time goes on, we’ll kind of analyze it a little bit more.”
When the Blackhawks do look back and figure out what went right and what went wrong, they’ll see just how fine a line they walked — just how close they were to history, and just how close they were to a first-round playoff exit against the Blues. If T.J. Oshie’s shot in the third period of Game 4 had gone a half inch to the left, maybe the Hawks would have spent the last month golfing. If the NHL war room had decided that Jeff Carter’s stick was an inch above the crossbar rather than a hair below it on his first-period goal in Game 7 on Sunday, maybe the Hawks are playing for their third Stanley Cup in five years and their second in a row.
It’s hockey, and it always will be an inexact science. But here are five things that went just wrong enough to cost the Hawks a shot at another Cup.
Out of their depth
Last spring, with barely a minute left in a suddenly tied Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final, on the road, Joel Quenneville sent his fourth line of Marcus Kruger, Dave Bolland and Michael Frolik over the boards. He had full faith in that line to keep the Bruins off the board and get the game to overtime. All it did was score the Cup-winning goal.
This spring, in Game 7 of the Western Conference final against the Kings, Kris Versteeg played four shifts in the last two-plus periods, including one that lasted seven seconds. Michal Handzus came out for nine seconds in the last 12 minutes of the third period, just to take a faceoff. Brandon Bollig spent the last 46 minutes of the game on the bench.
The 2014 Hawks simply didn’t have the depth that the 2013 Hawks did. Quenneville was loath to admit it, but the Hawks were basically a three-line team for much of the postseason, and in a grueling series like the one against the Kings, that’s not enough. General manager Stan Bowman had high hopes for Brandon Pirri, Ben Smith and Jeremy Morin to fill the skates of Bolland, Frolik and Viktor Stalberg. Only Smith earned a regular job. Pirri never earned Quenneville’s trust and was traded. Morin’s chance came too late to crack the postseason roster. Joakim Nordstrom wasn’t a difference-maker. Midseason acquisition Peter Regin didn’t get much of a chance in the postseason.
Smith is a restricted free agent, and his agent has had no talks with the Hawks yet. Bollig and Versteeg are locked up, and Handzus might retire. The Hawks need the next generation to step up this fall — Morin, Nordstrom, Teuvo Teravainen, maybe even Mark McNeill and Phillip Danault — and Quenneville needs to give them a fair shot to make the Hawks a four-line team again.
Center of attention
Here’s a breaking story: The Hawks still don’t have a second-line center. It hasn’t stopped them from winning two Stanley Cups in the last five seasons, but it didn’t help them win a third, either. Just look at how the Kings are built — with unrivaled depth down the middle, four quality centers who can win faceoffs and play a 200-foot game — and you can see how important centers are. The fact that this season began with Quenneville trying Brandon Saad, a career winger, at center in the preseason was a clear indication that this problem had yet to be solved.
Handzus, one of Quenneville’s veteran security blankets, filled the role for most of the season and the first two rounds of the postseason. Handzus plays a nice defensive game, but his slow footspeed was anathema to Patrick Kane’s speed game. Andrew Shaw found instant success with Saad and Kane in the Kings series, but Shaw is better suited to that third-line role he’s played for most of his career.
Saad and Kane should be etched in stone on that second line for the next 10 years — their games are made for each other — but who will fill the void between them? The Hawks hope it’s Teravainen. The playmaking Finnish phenom got a cup of coffee with the Hawks late in the season and hardly was overwhelmed. But he needs to add size and strength to handle the rigors of the NHL. In the meantime, Shaw can hold down the fort, or Smith.
Or who knows? Maybe Bowman says the heck with it, offers up Patrick Sharp (whose stock never will be higher coming off a career season) and makes a massive deal with the Sharks to bring Joe Thornton to town. That would do the trick.
The ‘big move’
As the trade deadline passed quietly, Bowman said the acquisition of Versteeg in November was the Hawks’ “big move.” After all, Versteeg is a three-time 20-goal scorer, and he played a key role in the Hawks’ 2010 Stanley Cup run. Quenneville loves Versteeg’s versatility — he played seven of the eight wing spots this season — and he comes at a relatively cheap price, with the Panthers paying half his salary over the next two seasons. But he never really looked like his old self. He had 10 goals in 63 games but just one goal and two assists with a minus-5 rating in the playoffs. He was a healthy scratch four times.
Versteeg hasn’t been the same player since he had season-ending knee surgery last March. It can take a full year to fully recover from an injury like that, so there’s hope for a Versteeg turnaround next season. But the Hawks’ “big move” played just 3 minutes, 44 seconds in the biggest game of the season Sunday.
Last season, the Hawks won the Jennings Trophy as the stingiest team in the league, allowing just 2.1 goals per game. This season, only three of the 15 other playoff teams allowed more goals than the Hawks did — 2.7 per game. In the postseason, after two solid rounds against the Blues and Wild, the typically low-scoring Kings averaged four goals per game. Corey Crawford wasn’t at his best, but much of the blame falls on the Hawks’ defense, which allowed Kings forwards to camp out in front of Crawford untouched and failed to clear rebounds or block enough shots to justify their positioning.
Michal Rozsival, so solid during last season’s playoff run that he earned a two-year contract, struggled for much of the postseason. Brent Seabrook was caught flat-footed numerous times. Even Keith — the favorite for the Norris Trophy — had his share of uncharacteristic turnovers. With Jonathan Toews and Kane due for monster contract extensions and Saad ready to cash in, too, not everybody will be back next year. Johnny Oduya and his $3.375 million contract could be on the trade block on draft day, for example. And with a bevy of talented defensemen in the system — big, bruising Stephen Johns, power-play specialist Adam Clendening and defensive-minded Klas Dahlbeck — the Hawks can afford to be aggressive.
It’s really hard
This isn’t the NBA. The Stanley Cup Final is never preordained, the favorites are never obvious, the road is never easy. The Hawks were running on fumes by the end of the longest, most exhausting and most exhilarating 17 months in franchise history — and they still were just one goal short of the Final. The Hawks are flawed, but not fatally. There’s talent in the system, ready to take the next step. There’s a market to be had for some Hawks veterans if Bowman wants to be bold. And there’s still a ridiculously talented core, now with Saad and Shaw counted among them.
The Hawks can’t win the Stanley Cup every year in the modern-day NHL. Nobody does. But they’ll be in the mix again next year and for several years after that. And as this year illustrated, the right tweak here and the right move there could make all the difference.