Chicago struggles when its stars aren't scoring, and Jonathan Toews & Co. have been held in check since the all-star break. (Getty Images)
This is why I'm not that worried about the Chicago Blackhawks, even though they're flirting with disaster, even though there is talk of firing coach Joel Quenneville and trading Patrick Kane, even though their nine-game losing streak could stretch to 10 on Thursday night when they visit the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden.
Flash back to last April. The Blackhawks backed into the playoffs, losing in regulation on the last day of the regular season when all they needed was a point to clinch, making it in only because the Dallas Stars failed to seize their opportunity afterward against the Minnesota Wild. Then the 'Hawks lost three in a row to the rival Vancouver Canucks, and captain Jonathan Toews was standing in the dressing room, seething.
"We know we can be a better team than them," he said. "We just haven't shown it yet."
The 'Hawks won three in a row after that. They went to overtime of Game 7 before falling to a team that went to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final.
This is not a Cup team as currently constituted. The 'Hawks are not deep enough. They don't defend well enough as a group. Their penalty killing is poor, their goaltending porous. General manager Stan Bowman looks bad for trading defenseman Brian Campbell to the Florida Panthers last summer, even though he cleared Campbell's $7.142-million cap hit, and he needs to find help before the Feb. 27 trade deadline.
But this is a playoff team, and especially if they (please, please) draw the Canucks and good ol' Roberto Luongo again, the Blackhawks still have the potential to be dangerous. Bowman does not need to panic. He does not need to fire Quenneville or trade Kane.
Little has changed since the salary-cap purge that tore off the bottom half of the 2010 champions. The Blackhawks have a strong core: Toews, Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp up front, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook on the blue line. The ongoing question is whether Bowman can find the right pieces to complement that core, and it was always going to be a challenge to replicate the likes of Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, John Madden and Kris Versteeg – not to mention goalie Antti Niemi.
The Blackhawks, in their current form, are bound to be streaky. When their best players are skating and scoring, they can cover up for a lot of deficiencies, but when their best players are hurt or struggling, they can't.
Look at how the season has gone: The Blackhawks started 8-2-2. Then they went 4-5-1, and 11-2-1, and 1-4-1, and 5-0-1. The morning of Jan. 21, they were 29-13-6 and had the fifth-best points percentage in the NHL.
They have gone 0-8-1 since.
Toews (zero), Kane (one), Hossa (three) and Sharp (two) have not been putting the puck in the net during this losing streak. The power play has gone 1-for-24. Defensive stalwart Dave Bolland has gone minus-7 and Keith minus-9 as the Blackhawks have given up at least three goals every game.
But after they face the Rangers – the best team in the league in terms of points percentage – they face the cellar-dwelling Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday. Then they finally return home from a nine-game road trip.
Remember, they haven't played in Chicago since Jan. 24 – before the all-star break. And when you have this much talent, odds are, things will turn around. The Wings went through an 0-5-1 stretch early this season. Then they won four straight and 11 of 13.
"A few weeks ago, everyone thought Chicago was going to win the West," said Wings coach Mike Babcock. "I mean, I wouldn't get in a big panic. … I'm sure Joel's feeling [the urgency] right now. But … a little adversity never killed anybody. It's just how you respond from it."
The 'Hawks have responded before.
"Something's gotta give," Toews told reporters Wednesday after practice in New York. "Something's gotta go our way eventually. As they say, if you keep doing the right things, the hockey gods will reward you in a way, and we're just hoping that's going to happen soon."
The Blue Jackets already have made a big mistake by putting Rick Nash on the trade market, and they could make an even bigger mistake if they actually move him, especially if they rush to do it before the deadline. This sorry situation sums up this franchise.
Drafting Nash first overall in 2002 might be the best thing the Jackets have done since arriving in the NHL in 2000. They have drafted nine other players in the top 10, and none has come close to the player Nash is (though Ryan Johansen has a lot of potential).
Nash has reached 40 goals twice. He has surpassed 30 goals six times. Had the Jackets drafted and developed better, Nash would have had a better supporting cast and might have become even more of a monster, and they would not be entertaining the idea of trading him today.
Desperate for talent last June, general manager Scott Howson acquired Jeff Carter and his contract from the Philadelphia Flyers. Then he traded for the rights to pending unrestricted free agent James Wisniewski and signed him to a huge deal.
He failed to anticipate that Carter wouldn't want to play in Columbus. He took on 17 years and $91 million in contract commitments, and he gave up young talent (Jakub Voracek, a first-round pick that turned into Sean Couturier) and draft picks (third- and fifth-rounders). He did all of this while putting his faith in young goaltender Steve Mason.
Now he can't get rid of Carter, he's stuck in salary-cap hell and he's considering trading his best player – apparently looking for a package of young talent, draft picks and goaltending, the very things he has miscalculated already. Is he going to build around Carter if he can trade only Nash? Why is he being trusted to handle this at all?
Deep down, Nash must be unhappy about the direction of the team. But he is the team captain. He has always said the right things about being committed to Columbus. He has never asked for a trade. He's 27, signed through 2017-18, a guy you can still build around. Why even raise the possibility of waiving his no-move clause? Why put the idea of leaving into his head? Why open a door you might not be able to close?
Making a good trade now will be difficult. Nash will want to go only to a team with a chance to win, and teams with a chance to win generally are pushing the cap and have their key pieces in place at this time of year. The Columbus Dispatch reported Nash's list is believed to include the Rangers, Boston, Los Angeles, San Jose and Toronto. Which of those teams would be willing and able to fit Nash's $7.8-million cap hit, give the Jackets what they want, and make a run for the Cup? Maybe L.A. Anyone else?
The Jackets would be better off waiting until after the season when they will have more options. But even then, they will be trading their cornerstone for nebulous potential. They will be trusting someone who has made bad deals to make the most important one in the history of the franchise. And to top it off, they will be risking Nash returning to Nationwide Arena for the All-Star Game next season, wearing someone else's sweater.
Corey Perry was incredible toward the end of last season. He scored 21 goals and 38 points in his final 22 games, as the Anaheim Ducks went 14-7-1 down the stretch. He ended up with a league-leading 50 goals, and he won the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player largely because he pushed the Ducks all the way up to fourth in the Western Conference.
Could something like that happen again? Unlikely.
But how likely was it last season? And look at this: Perry has six goals in his past four games and 13 since Jan. 8. The Ducks have the best record in the NHL since Jan. 6 – 14-2-2. They're 17-11-5 under coach Bruce Boudreau. The team that fired Boudreau, the Washington Capitals, are 15-14-4 under his replacement, Dale Hunter.
The Ducks still have to leapfrog five teams just to sneak into eighth in the West, but they are only six points behind the No. 8 Phoenix Coyotes. They still need 40 points to reach the 97 the Blackhawks had in eighth place last season, but with 25 games left, there are 50 on the table for them.
Halfway through an eight-game odyssey, the Ducks have to visit New Jersey, Florida, Tampa Bay and Carolina before heading home. If they're within striking distance at that point, general manager Bob Murray might go for it and not sell before the deadline.
If the Ducks make the playoffs, Boudreau might capture the Jack Adams Award the way Perry did the Hart last season. As impressive as Ken Hitchcock has been with the St. Louis Blues, they were 6-7-0 before his arrival. Boudreau will have dug the Ducks out of a much deeper hole.
The Stars are only four points out of eighth place in the West, but they aren't going to go for broke at the deadline. They have a long-term focus under new owner Tom Gaglardi. They aren't ready for short-term success, especially in the ultra-competitive Western Conference.
They're 19th in points percentage (.527), 20th in goals for (2.54), 19th in goals against (2.80), 27th on the power play (14.1 percent) and 22nd on the penalty kill (81.0 percent). They're the model of mediocre. They might be good enough to squeak into the playoffs, but they aren't good enough to win in the playoffs – and that's the goal.
"We're not playing to be eighth, and I keep telling that to everybody," said team president Jim Lites. "I'd love to make the playoffs. It's an important step to make. But our aspirations are higher than that. We've been a franchise for the most part that has been a big winner, and we're going to be back."
The veteran sports executive is back for his third tour with the Stars. He was with them when the won the Stanley Cup in 1999 and returned to the final in 2000. He was with them when fans loved players like Ed Belfour and Brett Hull and Mike Modano. He was with them when they led the league in attendance and revenue.
Yes, they generated more money than even the Toronto Maple Leafs. As recently as 2003.
"Now, we are a far cry from that now," Lites said, "but that's what happens when the wheels come off."
The Stars have missed the playoffs three years in a row and gone through bankruptcy. Modano left for Detroit and then retired. Brad Richards left for New York as a free agent. The crowds at American Airlines Center often have been modest.
Meanwhile, Jerry Jones is throwing money at the Dallas Cowboys, Mark Cuban is making news with the Dallas Mavericks and Nolan Ryan is winning with the Texas Rangers. Fans expect big things in Big D, but Lites knows there's no point in Gaglardi spending big bucks just yet. The Stars' payroll is one of the lowest in the league.
"I told Tom, 'They won't come unless you commit,' so he has to be committed financially, because the fans are waiting for him to do something," Lites said. "But you have to do the right things. …
"Tom has the resources to spend, but I've told him, 'Please wait until we're going to spend wisely, and do it wisely.' … We really have to kind of marshal our assets, do the right thing, try not to panic, take your time. The NHL is a system built on quality drafting, strong development and being aware of what you're spending. You can't make mistakes, or you can get really, really in trouble."
Lites said GM Joe Nieuwendyk has the right attitude.
"We'll potentially be active at the trade deadline," Lites said. "We're not going to trade players for draft picks, but we're going to be prepared to look to make our team better – and we're [taking] a long-term approach."
1. Detroit Red Wings: Henrik Zetterberg will miss at least one game with a lower-body injury just as he was heating up. He has only 12 goals and 44 points – on pace for his worst season since the 2004-05 lockout – but he had three goals in his past four games, nine points in his past six. "I have to play better," he said. "It's getting close to the playoffs, and that's when the fun starts."
2. New York Rangers: With Tuesday night's 3-0 shutout of the Boston Bruins, the Rangers clearly established themselves as the class of the East. They have a whopping seven-point lead over the defending Stanley Cup champions. Henrik Lundqvist is the leading candidate for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goaltender and a contender for the Hart as the league's MVP. Their blue-collar, shot-blocking grit should serve them well at playoff time. Though they rank 25th on the power play and need a scoring boost, the B's won a Cup without a power play, right?
3. Vancouver Canucks: All general manager Mike Gillis needs to do is strengthen his bottom six. He made his big move in October when he acquired David Booth from the Florida Panthers. Since returning from an injury Jan. 15, Booth has six goals and 10 points in 12 games. He has three goals in his past three outings.
4. St. Louis Blues: How tough is the Central Division? The Wings are 24-2-1 at home, but the Blues are 24-3-4 at home. The Wings have a five-point lead, but the Blues have two games in hand. Here's the problem for St. Louis, though: The Wings have 14 games left at home and 10 on the road, where they are 15-15-1; the Blues have 10 left at home and 16 left on the road, where they are 10-12-3. The Wings have a four-game trip and six one-gamers; the Blues have a six-gamer, a seven-gamer and three one-gamers.
5. Boston Bruins: They're 7-7-1 in their past 15. They have suffered some ugly losses lately – 3-0 to Carolina, 6-0 to Buffalo, 3-0 to the Rangers – and their wins haven't always been pretty. They escaped with a 4-3 shootout victory Wednesday night at Montreal after blowing a 3-1 third-period lead, with a brutal turnover by captain Zdeno Chara leading to the tying goal. But we saw how dominant the B's can be earlier this season, and don't you get the feeling the champs are just waiting for the playoffs?
6. Nashville Predators: Red-hot entering the all-star break, the Preds have gone 2-2-2 since. At least the two wins were over division rivals St. Louis and Chicago. Now comes an interesting part of the schedule – at Detroit and Dallas, then Vancouver, St. Louis and San Jose at home before the trade deadline. A lot of pressure on the players and the front office to show this team is a serious contender.
25. Buffalo Sabres: Forget that little 5-0-1 run that had some thinking the Sabres had become what they were supposed to be all along. They have lost back-to-back games and sit 14th in the East, 10 points out of a playoff spot. GM Darcy Regier has his work cut out for him. There are no really attractive rentals. Who wants Brad Boyes when he has only three goals? Jochen Hecht? He has a concussion. Paul Gaustad? Maybe.
26. Tampa Bay Lightning: GM Steve Yzerman has asked defenseman Pavel Kubina for a list of teams to which he would accept a trade, but one NHL source said Yzerman is a reluctant seller. The reason: The Bolts have 15 of their final 26 games at home. A year after making the Eastern Conference final, two years into establishing a new regime, they want to remain competitive and keep their fans engaged as much as possible.
27. Montreal Canadiens: GM Pierre Gauthier's goals should be simple: Re-sign Mathieu Darche and rent pending UFAs Chris Campoli, Andrei Kostitsyn, Hal Gill and Travis Moen to the highest bidders. After that? Pray he keeps his job, and pray the NHL squeezes a clause into the next collective bargaining agreement that lets him buy out Scott Gomez.
28. Carolina Hurricanes: Although GM Jim Rutherford has locked up Tim Gleason and likely will do the same with Tuomo Ruutu – who is out with an upper-body injury, anyway – the 'Canes still have a couple of decent rentals. Jaroslav Spacek and Bryan Allen will be in demand. Veteran defensemen always are.
29. Edmonton Oilers: Ryan Smyth could have helped a contender, but he can help the Oilers by staying in Edmonton. There is tremendous value in a guy who wants to be there, a veteran who can mentor all those kids. "Just watching him off the ice and the work ethic that he puts in every day – even though he's double my age – that's definitely contagious," said winger Jordan Eberle. (Psst. Watch it, Jordan. You're 21, but he's only 35.)
30. Columbus Blue Jackets: Maybe the hockey gods had a little mercy after the clockgate episode in L.A. James Wisniewski scored with 0.1 second left in the first period and a St. Louis goal was waved off with 1.8 seconds left in the third Tuesday night as the Blue Jackets beat the Blues, 2-1. This time coloumbs weren't a problem for Columbus.
PLUS: As the Red Wings were about to break the NHL record for consecutive home victories Tuesday night, Joe Louis Arena roared. "Twenty-one! Twenty-one!" After the final horn, GM Ken Holland received congratulations from all sorts of folks as he made his way from the press box to the dressing room – fans, workers, colleagues. "It's like we won a playoff series," he said. Coach Mike Babcock and the players insisted they didn't care about the record until it was upon them, but it mattered to people in Detroit. The Wings fancy their home as Hockeytown, and this was another point of pride.
MINUS: The Washington Capitals might be about to explode. Alex Ovechkin is too wrapped up in being a rock star. Mike Knuble is complaining about his role even though he has been struggling. Coach Dale Hunter hasn't turned things around and is on only a one-year contract. GM George McPhee has to be feeling the pressure to win now as this supposed Cup contender languishes ninth in the East, three points out of a playoff spot. With two first-round picks this year and some highly regarded prospects, he has the ammo to make some moves that could turn out to be bad long-term decisions.
PLUS: Marek Zidlicky wants out of Minnesota, and his agent has said that he will waive his no-trade clause to go to the New Jersey Devils. But wisely, Wild GM Chuck Fletcher has said he will explore other options and hasn't committed to trading Zidlicky at all. It would set a bad precedent to let a disgruntled player dictate his terms, and if Fletcher waits until after the season he will have even more options because Zidlicky's full no-trade becomes limited.
MINUS: Here is evidence NHL commissioner Gary Bettman expects the players to accept a lesser percentage of revenue in labor negotiations. Listen to how one team executive talked about his long-term planning: "Flexibility in cap space is going to become really important again with the next CBA," he said. "I'm sure it'll only become tighter, if you believe Mr. Bettman." And I'm sure it'll only become a big problem in bargaining.
PLUS: Evgeni Malkin had no points and was minus-2 on Tuesday night. Still, he looked dominant at times. He stripped Teemu Selanne near the Pittsburgh net. He skated through a few sitting Ducks and created a dangerous scoring chance. He still leads the scoring race by six points.
MINUS: The Sidney Crosby counter is at 29 games.
“Malkin has come back from surgery better than Adele. #pens #grammys”