Once again, and this was a mistake I made a ton in the past and shouldn’t have given my family’s proclivities, the Hawks are not at “the quarter pole.” That’s when there’s a quarter of the season left. Anyway, the Hawks played their 21st game last night, which crosses the 1/4th threshold. So let’s do a basic version of what you’ll see at times like this, and try and suss out what the fuck these Hawks are, hmmm?
Duncan Keith – I know, it’s kind of ridiculous to categorize a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer (and a genuine one at that, not some ridiculous Hockey Hall of Fame version of that) as a surprise. But Keith has been fading for at least the past two seasons previous to this, and you could argue it even started the season before that which became evident when the Nashville Predators turned him into a fine paste in the Hawks’ ever so brief appearance in those playoffs.
Keith had been openly prickly with his coach last year, and it was not outlandish to suggest he had just checked out and if you squinted you could see a path to him asking out and playing somewhere else (despite his denials of that late last season). Before this season, Keith’s current rep wasn’t all that much higher than Seabrook’s, if you were honest with yourself. It was thought that he could still have use as a second or third pairing player, but that would still leave the Hawks with a major gap at the top. And that would only be if he felt like it, no sure bet, and was willing to shape his game to compensate for his age.
Well, Keith has been better than that, for the most part. It hasn’t always been perfect, but there certainly have been a few games or more where he’s at least reminded of you of what he was, which is the best Hawks d-man there’s ever been. Not to say he’s been at that level, but it at least looked like that same guy who could once do that, where before it just seemed like an alien form. Especially with Connor Murphy, which hadn’t worked in the past, Keith was again stepping up beyond his blue line–and successfully–while playing the angles only he could see again. Of late, he’s actually been happy to play free safety for Erik Gustafsson, something he’s blanched at before.
Keith’s actual metrics mirror the team’s in the “horror show” category, but his relative marks are the highest they’ve been in three or four seasons. The Hawks are simply better when he’s on the ice, and that hasn’t been the case in a while.
Biggest Disappointment/Question Mark
Jonathan Toews – This may not be the time to write this, because the past three games have been better from Toews. He managed CF% of 54, 64, and 63 the past three, which is far better than when he was getting his skull kicked in earlier in the year. We’re used to slow starts from Toews, last season aside, but he had looked particularly behind the play in the season’s first month or so.
Still, four goals and 11 points has him on pace for just 15 goals and 42 points, and and the 3% shooting-percentage at evens and 8% overall would suggest that he’s due some correction. But his individual attempts and chances are down to 2016 levels, which is when all this talk of decline started. And for the most part he’s been paired up with the Hawks most consistent forward in Brandon Saad.
It’s left a question as to how exactly the Hawks can, should, and will be able to use Toews going forward. He no longer is the center who can do everything, which is fine. He shouldn’t have to be at 32. But can he actually slide down the lineup to accommodate Kirby Dach and play more of a checking role? Is he up to that? Can he score enough from here on out to justify manning the top line? What is he willing to do? He’s never been asked that, and the time may soon be coming. He can avoid that with a binge, but it hasn’t really looked like coming.
And if it doesn’t, there will be more ugly questions for a coach and front office that has done its best to duck them for as long as they can.
The Seabrook Saga – It’s going to hang over the Hawks all season, and it didn’t have to. Perhaps the AHL’s more physical/neanderthal ways will keep Adam Boqvist from really lighting up the statsheet and causing more pressure on the Stan Bowman and Jeremy Colliton. They’ll never admit it, but somewhere within them they may be hoping for that. But as the Canes showed last night, the Hawks simply aren’t quick enough or anywhere near it to compete at the top of the NHL, and maybe not even the middle. Boqvist proved already he’s an NHL player, and can help them with they speed they lack.
This is only going to get worse as the season rolls on, and the Hawks can’t always count on injuries to help them shuffle the deck to keep avoiding the question. Well, maybe with Connor Murphy they can. Maybe they can start to pin it on Olli Maatta to keep avoiding the big decision. But his double scratching earlier in the year will not be the last time this rears its uncomfortable-looking head.
Robin Lehner – With Corey Crawford taking a couple weeks to find his rhythm, which much like Toews has usually been the case, the Hawks would have been utterly buried without Lehner. Even when they did lose, he kept them from truly morale-sapping results in Nashville and San Jose that might have turned things for the organization. There are seven or eight or even nine points on the board right now that he had a major hand in, and without even half of them the Hawks would be rooted to the bottom of the NHL standings. Crawford is joining him now, which has led to this streak of competence (or competent results), but it wouldn’t have mattered in the least without Lehner’s season-long efforts.
Solid B – We may look upon last night as some sort of turning point, as for the third period Dach replaced Dylan Strome with DeBrincat and Kane. That line produced both goals, and while I doubt that’s how they’ll start Thursday, you can bet this is a switch that Colliton will pull again.
Dach has been pretty well sheltered, as he should be, mostly playing on the third and fourth line 10-12 minutes and almost always starting in the offensive zone. Which is how he should be spoon-fed at his age, and the Hawks have the flexibility to do that. But that might be running out, thanks to Toews’s waywardness and Dach’s precociousness. He’s sixth in rookie scoring even though he’s played six to eight games less than everyone ahead of him, and has made a play or two every night that makes you take notice.
We’re not too far off from Dach having to play higher up the lineup, which is exciting and daunting. He’s already gotten less and less of his tendency to glide out of his game, and has not shied away from doing the work low and on the boards to make plays. He still can get a little lost in his own zone, but so can the whole team, and the Hawks have tried to keep him from being there at all as much as they can.
Now get him on the power play and stop with this Nylander nonsense on that unit.