The boys of summer have finally given way to the boys on the ice, and “the Fifth Line” takes over for “Thoughts from the Dugout.” It’s been a month since the NHL season started, so let’s check on how things are going, shall we?
State of the ‘Hawks
CHI has a ridiculously low sh% right now. Yes, there are problems that need fixing, but the sh% won't stay that way all season.
— Jen LC (@RegressedPDO) November 3, 2014
A month into the 2014-15 season, and the Blackhawks are… okay?
Don’t get me wrong, Chicago has ridiculous skill and depth, and I still think they’re one of the favorites to hoist the Stanley Cup. But they still sometimes look like a collection of good hockey players more than they look like a team. They don’t always show up to play in the first half of the game. They put plenty of shots on the net, but still get shutout by backup goalies. And the Central division hasn’t gotten any easier this season.
And yet… Chicago just hung a crooked number on the team with the best record in the East. A team with Kane and Toews is not going to continue to have the second-worst shooting percentage in the league. The underlying numbers tell the story of a quality team that should be fine over the long haul. Even with injuries to Patrick Sharp and… Dan Carcillo, the Blackhawks have the depth to make the playoffs with little worry. Eventually Coach Q will stick with semi-regular lines. Maybe.
Every time one of these Frankenfuck lines scores Quenneville just gets more and more confused.
— Torque Penderloin (@AndrewCieslak) November 5, 2014
Chicago is so deep, in fact, that one might argue they force a reconsideration of how we should approach line constructions. This was a topic we saw discussed when critics were dissecting the U.S. Olympic team roster — you don’t need to follow “traditional” line construction when you’re not subject to a salary cap. Likewise, this author argues, the Blackhawks have so much depth that they don’t need to talk about the “third line” as a checking line or the “fourth line” as a scrub line. They can run three scoring lines and a shutdown line, and each will give Coach Q a different toolset to use in the right situation. Much like analytics have started to change the discussion around how we see the game, deep and talented teams should be changing the way we talk about lone construction.
One of the reasons I fell into Blackhawks fandom over other teams is because of the bloggers who cover this team. There are plenty of other seductive aspects to this team, but Chicago fans are lucky to have the quality of writing we do for our fan blogs.
Alternate Universe Fandom
In an alternate universe, the North Stars never left Minnesota, and instead of boycotting the NHL for a decade, I got a Modano sweater after they won the Stanley Cup.
In a different alternate reality, I picked up a new team right after the Stars moved to Dallas, following my little brother’s lead and becoming a Canucks fan. Heartbreak ensued.
Behind a third door is a world where I wasn’t seduced by Chicago’s hockey blogs, its Stanley Cup wins, and the promise of watching Toews / Kane / Hossa / Keith for years (and Saad, Smith, Q’s mustache). In that world, my nascent interest in the Nashville Predators was allowed to develop into a fandom. In this alternate reality, I would be ecstatic with how the Predators are starting the 2014-15 season.
Expectations for the Preds were muted: Last year’s top line center (Mike Fisher) is out to start the season due to injury. Their top line currently consists of a rookie (Filip Forsberg), a veteran on his fourth team in four seasons (Mike Ribeiro), and a new wingman who’s production is supposed to fall off this season (James Neal). This offseason, the team fired the only coach they’ve ever had. The rest of their division — already the toughest in the NHL — got even better during the offseason.
And yet, one month in, Nashville is exceeding expectations and near the top of the Central. It’s not just their hallmark defense that has the Preds riding high. They play an aggressive game, they skate fast, and they can apply a ton of pressure to opponents. Filip Forsberg is suddenly looking very, very dangerous.
Conventional wisdom figured Nashville was still a year or three from moving up in the Central, but this team may be clawing their way back to the playoffs sooner than expected. Here’s the thing: they still have Shea Weber and a solid young defensive corps. They’re minor league team in Milwaukee is stocked with talented forwards (and the team snapped off six straight wins to start the AHL season). Pekka Rinne is once again playing like Pekka Rinne.
Can the Predators sustain this level of play all season? Damn good question. They might regress slightly, and they’re still inconsistent. But when they click, they can run with any team in the West. If they can click as often as they have for the first month, they’re going to be a massive gods-damned headache to a lot of those Western teams. My interest in the Preds may never have developed into a fandom, but a good front office in Nashville means a better product for my favorite AHL team.
We Need Some Bubble Wrap
The one thing that could derail an ascendent team like the Predators is the injury bug. Established teams like Chicago, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and the like can weather the loss of a big name or two. But teams that are trying to have a breakout season — or follow one up — have less of an ability to bend. Both Minnesota and St. Louis, for example, have had to fight off flu-like symptoms while also losing important role-players to injury. The Blues have been able to stay atop the Central division (ugh, it hurts to type that), even when their coach jokes about needing the CDC in their locker room. The Wild just lost Zach Parise, and face a rough path trying to climb above fifth while he’s out.
No team, however, has been hit as hard as the Columbus Blue Jackets. Despite losing key forwards Nathan Horton and Brandon Dubinsky, and despite not having anchor Ryan Johanson under contract until the last possible moment, the Columbus started out 4-2-0. They went into the last week of October looking to close out the month in strong fashion, until their team fell apart. Key cogs Anisimov and Bobrovsky landed on the IR at the same time, followed the next day by Letetsu and Wisniewski. Since that early start, the Blue Jackets have gone 0-6-0 and fallen to the bottom of the Metro division. As a team trying to build on last year’s inspirational season, it’s a rough time for Columbus.
Huh. According to this alert I just got, they’ll be without Captain America (Jack Johnson) for a few games. He was suspended three games for his illegal hit on Jiri Tlusty. Man, these NHL alerts are never good news for the Blue Jackets.
My iPhone has been full of these alerts lately. After a quiet few weeks to open the season, the NHL Dept of Player Safety has suddenly been firing off suspensions in a rapid-fire pace — and rightly so. The DoPS has a new sheriff at its head this season, and even tough-guy apologists like Mike Milbury and Jeremy Roenick have started to change their tune related to dangerous hits and fights. We’re learning more about the damage concussions can wreak on a mind, and it’s terrifying. The arguments for fighting in hockey — i.e., repeatedly applying bare-knuckled, blunt-force trauma to another person’s cranium — never were very strong, and that was before we had the scant understanding of concussions that we do now.
Despite that, I see or hear conversations where folks wanted to see a brawl, and were disappointed to find a hockey game instead. I still see commentators laud players for trying to “spark some momentum” by picking a fight, as if that sentiment was anything other than vacuous drivel repeated by men who need to fill dead air with the buzzing of their larynx. Go back to the Ducks-Sharks “game” in late October, when there were so many penalty minutes that Anaheim barely had a bench at the end. I saw (most of) that game. It was a barely-watchable pile of shit that bore a passing resemblance to hockey, yet there was no shortage of social media accolades for “old-school hockey.”
About the only entertainment I found was the aftermath of Ben Lovejoy pulling Joe Pavelski from a harmless scrum so that he could hit Pavelski while the Shark was down. Lovejoy dominated the scrap, but then showed up on the injury report the next day… He had broken a bone in his punching hand, and would miss up to two months. All for a meaningless fight that he started.
Now that’s funny.