Sam Fels is easily one of my favorite writers to cover the Chicago Blackhawks because while he’s quick to throw a funny jab at rival teams, he’s also never hesitated to be fair and critical of his own beloved Hawks while still having a good sense of humor about it all. He not only covers the Blackhawks and hockey in general on his site Faxes From Uncle Dale but he also writes about the Chicago Cubs and has been known to have opinions about Da Bears as well.
You should follow him on Twitter @FelsGate, you know, as a way to say thank you for giving us some great and thoughtful answers to questions we had about the Chicago Blackhawks…
JN – It looks like it could be a very tough season for the Hawks in an amazingly competitive Central division, is there hope with Hawks fans that the mix of grizzled vets with uber-young talent can make a playoff run this season, or have fans pretty much accepted that the team may be bystanders in a brutal division while waiting for a true rebuild?
Sam – Let’s say we’re just a tick north of accepting our fate. If Corey Crawford can stay healthy all season, and be as good as he’s been the past couple seasons, and if Schmaltz, DeBrincat, Sikura can all take a step forward, and if they have one more kid step up, they could actually scrape a playoff spot. That seems the ceiling though. They’re clearly not the Jets or Press. The Blues showed the urgency in the summer we wish the Hawks would have. I don’t ever buy the Wild or Avalanche, so I can make a case the Hawks can overhaul them. But any injury or dip to Crawford and they’re totally boned.
JN – Both Brandon Saad and Jonathan Toews spent a lot of time together on the same line and both faced criticism for having poor years. That kind of begs the question who needs to pick up who? Does Saad have to be better offensively to help lift Toews or does Toews need to improve his offensive game to set up Saad for more scoring?
Sam – Basically, they both need some luck. Their underlying numbers were really solid last year, they just couldn’t buy a goal. If they do the same possession- and chance-wise this year, and just see their shooting-percentages spike a tad, they’ll both put up 25-30 goals and no one will say shit. That said, the two of them together lack a little dash. Neither is a great playmaker, per se. It worked when they skated with Hossa because they were all three battering rams that could just force the puck into scoring areas and the net. They can’t do that now. They could use DeBrincat or someone like him who can make a pass or deke a guy to open up space, but Saad doesn’t really play on the right and DeBrincat is kind of wasted on the right side. I hope they try it more this year though.
JN – Most fans know about Alex DeBrincat and Nick Schmaltz and expect strong seasons from those youngsters, but there are some possible roster spots open for the taking so who else should hockey fans outside of Chicago be on the lookout for?
Sam – Well, the Hawks would tell you Dylan Sikura. He came up for the last five games last year after finishing a brilliant season at Northeastern. They tried to get him to sign for a couple years. I’m not sure his college numbers weren’t just a product of playing with Adam Gaudette, but we’ll see. The Hawks could use either him or Victor Ejdsell, whom they got for Ryan Hartman, really popping this season.
A name I’d like to see is Henri Jokiharju, their first-round pick from ’17. He’s a silky-skating, push-the-play d-man, and the Hawks quite simply don’t have that on the blue line anywhere. Keith can’t do it any more, Erik Gustafsson is most likely a 4-A player, and that’s it. They’ll hem and haw about him only being 19 and needing more seasoning or some bullshit, but he’s honestly already one of the best six d-men they have. Put him on the third pairing, give him sheltered starts, and basically let him be what Sergachev was in Tampa last year. If they do that and he succeeds, the Hawks have a much better chance at being interesting.
JN – Rocky Wirtz recently was quoted as “nothing lasts forever” which many took to mean as a subtle message towards long time GM Stan Bowman and long time coach Joel Quenneville. Rocky then said he didn’t really mean anything by it, but just between you and me and nobody else of course… He was sending a message to Stan and Joel wasn’t he?
Sam – I don’t think a message really needs to be sent. It’s kind of an open secret that Stan and Q don’t see eye-to-eye, and another playoff-less season is going to see Q axed. Even a shitty start could do it. My hunch is that Stan has sold the higher-ups on whatever his “rebuild on the fly” plan is and it would be asinine to fire him halfway through it. He’s added some intriguing pieces in Schmaltz and DeBrincat. Sikura, Ejdseel, Jokiharju are at least hopeful. They’re already leaking to the press how much everyone loves their coach in the AHL Jeremy Collition, so don’t be surprised at all if he’s installed at the top job within the calendar year. I also get the sense the veterans, who can’t go anywhere, could probably use a new voice. It worked in Pittsburgh, after all.
JN – Let’s assume that Corey Crawford is 100% healthy and ready to go opening night for the Hawks – is that possible and if it is, is he enough to be the difference and get the team into the playoffs, or will the defense (or lack thereof) in front of him be even too much for him to overcome?
If he’s the Crow that played last year, then yes I think he can be. They were on the cusp of the playoff picture when he went down last year, and that’s with Saad and Toews not being able to hit a bull in the ass with a snow shovel and Q screwing with DeBrincat before letting him just run wild in the.top six. The defense is going to blow, even if they let Jokiharju play (why they did simply nothing to address it is beyond me and they should be backing up the truck for Karlsson or should have for Justin Faulk or Dougie Hamilton but whatever) but if your goalie is throwing a .927 at the world you can sort of cancel that out. Maybe Keith has one more year of brilliance left in him (I doubt it). Maybe he and Murphy can finally combine well (Murphy played well with everyone BUT Keith last year, which is really strange). But the whole team, the team’s direction, the future, the coach, the GM, it all hinges on the health and form of Crawford. No one seems to know this but he’s a top-five goalie in the league. Jets fans should be well aware of what a good goalie can do over a bad one.