Blackhawks mailbag: Mediocrity has fans playing the blame game

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If you need an indication about just how much angst the Blackhawks’ fan base is feeling these days, this mailbag is it. It has been quite some time since Hawks fans have had to deal with mediocrity, and they don’t seem to like it much.

Let’s dive in.

@dd_phelps: With there being a great chance that this team misses the playoffs, who would you say is safer, Q or Stan? They are also screwed with this roster and [no-trade] clauses, correct?

First of all, it’s a little melodramatic to say there’s a ‘‘great chance’’ the Hawks will miss the playoffs. They haven’t even reached the halfway point of the season, and they’re one point out of the second wild-card spot with two games in hand on the Ducks. Also, the two face-plants leading into the Christmas break notwithstanding, the Hawks have been trending upward, with a steady increase in their possession numbers supporting the idea that their five-game winning streak wasn’t a fluke. Also, they have one of the best goalies in the league in Corey Crawford to steal points here and there.

That said, they’re hardly a lock for a playoff spot, a disconcerting position in which they haven’t been since they backed into the playoffs on the last day of the 2010-11 season. I’m not entirely convinced that another first-round exit or a missed playoff berth is going to have John McDonough sharpening his ax, but it’s certainly possible. It won’t be an easy call. Joel Quenneville is the second-winningest coach in NHL history, and Stan Bowman is McDonough’s chosen one. But there are always consequences to losing.

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Put it this way: It’s not Quenneville’s fault that Richard Panik is getting paid $2.8 million this year and next year. Or that Brent Seabrook was paid handsomely for past performance, not future performance. Or that the team is getting older and, perhaps, a little slower. Or that the Hawks only have one center who can win a faceoff.

And that’s not to say Bowman hasn’t had his share of hits. Alex DeBrincat was a second-round pick. Jan Rutta came out of nowhere. The Gustav Forsling trade was an outright robbery of Vancouver. Lance Bouma and Tommy Wingels have been consistent bright spots. And Artem Anisimov is living up to that big contract Bowman handed him.

Coaches and GMs come and go with alarming frequency in the NHL. Sixteen NHL coaches have been hired in the last two years.

But everyone’s so quick to blame coaching or management. Maybe fans should direct their ire at the players who are underperforming.

@CuzSRC: #HeyLaz What is the internal narrative regarding Toews’ drop in play? Is he still happy here?

Unpopular opinion alert: I think Jonathan Toews has played rather well this season. He doesn’t have the numbers to show for it, with only nine goals and 13 assists in 35 games, but he has been consistently good. Look at his underlying numbers: In five-on-five play, he has a 56.46 Corsi percentage according to Natural Stat Trick, way up from his 51.68 last season and his 50.98 the season before that. It’s back around where it was when he was one of the most dominant two-way centers in the game.

When Toews is on the ice, the Hawks are averaging 3.1 goals per 60 minutes and giving up 2.29. When he’s on the ice, the Hawks have more scoring chances, more high-danger scoring chances and more shots on goal. That’s winning hockey. But the finish hasn’t been there. Part of that is because of Panik’s inexplicable disappearance (he hasn’t scored a five-on-five goal in 28 games). After two years of trying to find a left wing for Toews, now the Hawks need to find a right wing. DeBrincat looked good up there. Vinnie Hinostroza is another option, provided the Hawks can find another center at the trade deadline.

@Jhop_4:#HeyLaz, Defense still top need at trade [deadline] with 81’s cap space? Young guys have done well there — think a top 6 forward is more pressing. Any realistic options there?

Every team, including the Hawks, would love to add a top-four defenseman at the trade deadline. But there might not be many available, other than maybe Ottawa superstar Erik Karlsson, if the Senators are insane (or incompetent, which is distinctly possible). Karlsson isn’t happening. Does Detroit’s Mike Green excite you? Or Vegas’ Lucas Sbisa? The Hawks defense got off to a rough start, but suddenly there are eight guys worthy of playing time every night. I’d be more inclined to let Jan Rutta, Jordan Oesterle, Cody Franson and Michal Kempny duke it out for playing time than to deal a prospect for a mediocre rental.

What the Hawks really need is a guy who can score, preferably a center. Once again, the Hawks are a one-line team, with Patrick Kane doing most of the heavy lifting. While Wingels has been a pleasant surprise at center, Vinnie Hinostroza is a natural wing and neither he nor Anisimov is very good at the dot. Nick Schmaltz started the year in the middle, but had his own issues there and has been more productive on the wing.

The question is, what centers will be on the market? It’s too early to tell. The standings are too bunched up and there are only two out of 31 teams who are obviously out of the playoff picture at this point. We won’t know who the sellers are until the middle of February.

For what it’s worth, Bowman has pointed to Northeastern senior Dylan Sikura, a sixth-round pick in 2014 and one of the top players in college hockey, as his trade-deadline acquisition. Sikura is expected to sign with the Hawks once his senior season is over, like John Hayden did last year.

@HeyBrianScott:Who’s the first Blackhawk traded at the deadline if the team isn’t on pace to make the playoffs? #HeyLaz

I don’t expect the Hawks to be full-blown sellers —it would take a disastrous January and February to get to that point — but you have to wonder if an extra such as Kempny could bring in some assets, even if it’s just draft picks. The Hawks genuinely like him, but if he’s only going to play twice every month or so, a trade might be best for everybody.

@weskidd:#HeyLaz Have any of the Blackhawks read your book? If so, did they like it?

One thing I’ve learned in my years doing this job: Most of the players say that they don’t read the press clippings, but they totally do and just don’t want you to know. I don’t know if that translates to books or not.

@OlPally86:#HeyLaz Nashville and Tampa Bay seem to be headed to a Cup final, can the Blackhawks sneak up and make a run?

The Hawks haven’t shown the consistency required to be a Cup contender just yet — they have a good two weeks, a bad two weeks, a good week, a bad week. And they’ve had maybe two or three true 60-minute games all season. When they won 10 playoff series in three years between 2013-2015, it’s because they were a model of consistency, never off their game for more than a few days at a time. But when the Hawks are at their best —like in Winnipeg, and against Minnesota earlier this month — they still show flashes of that dominant puck-possession monster that owned the league for much of the past decade. They have about three months to figure out how to do that every night.

The simpler answer to that question: As long as Crawford is in goal, the Hawks always have a chance to make a run. He’s the great equalizer.

@lechatsavant:#HeyLaz Patrick Kane’s production has been good, but it’s not what it’s been the past two seasons. Is it because of the loss of Panarin, the team’s shaky play in general or something else?

Kane is on pace for another 30-goal season and another 80 or 90 points — a brilliant campaign in the modern-day NHL. But yes, clearly he misses Artemi Panarin, a kindred hockey spirit who thought the game the same way Kane did. Schmaltz, a creative playmaker himself, has proven to be a worthy successor on the left wing, though I’d still like to see what a line of DeBrincat-Schmaltz-Kane could do (if Schmaltz could successfully move to center, the whole lineup looks better, with Anisimov a powerhouse third-line center).

With five goals and three assists in his last six games, Kane is doing just fine. But for the third straight year, he could sure use some help. If Saad and Toews can get going, the Saad-for-Panarin trade will look great. If they keep sputtering, then there always will be what-ifs.

@vl83:#HeyLaz Is it time to trade Duncan Keith to a real contender and get younger and possibly a future #1 or 2 defenseman and salary cap help.

Duncan Keith might be on the most team-friendly contract in the NHL, making just $5.5 million —the 107th largest cap hit in the league, about the same as Andrej Sekera and Jeff Petry. Attempting to move him would be utter lunacy, and it’s not going to happen.

@trumpsmydaddy2:#HeyLaz if we don’t fire Q, how long do you think we will be winless for? 10 or 30 years? We will never win again as long as Q is coaching. Also fire McDonough and sell the team and relocate to Milwaukee, better fan base and better food. #fireQ

Ah, the sarcasm is strong in this one. Scary thing is, there’s a small but vocal segment of the fan base who actually feels this way.

@mikealper:#HeyLaz 2, 19, 88 are locks to have # retired. Anybody else close? 50?

Crawford definitely has to be in the mix. Hossa, Seabrook and Sharp, too. Had Niklas Hjalmarsson stuck around a little longer, he’d be in the discussion, as well. You play a major role in three Stanley Cups, you deserve some recognition for it. But let’s get Steve Larmer up there first, eh?

@Conisberg:#HeyLaz Have the Hawks come up with a nickname for the MB Ice Arena or whatever it’s called yet?

I’ve been calling it Rocky’s IceHouse.

@Ryguy081:#HeyLaz how did you get the job as beat writer for the Chicago Sun-Times?

Years of hard work and then pure dumb luck. I spent eight years at the Post-Tribune in Northwest Indiana, the last handful as the sports editor, covering high school football and baseball, and Valparaiso men’s basketball. We were owned by the Sun-Times back then, and they were looking for one of their Indiana-based writers to cover Notre Dame in the 2012 season. Fortunately, they chose me. Had Notre Dame not gone 12-0 that season, who knows if the beat would have had a high enough profile to earn me consideration when the Hawks beat opened that fall? I grew up despising Notre Dame football, and it turns out I owe my career to Notre Dame football. Funny (and fortunate) how it worked out.

@ScottTKennedy:#HeyLaz how is Marian Hossa doing?

He’s doing very well. He’s still in Chicago, and pops up around the rink from time to time. Looks like he’s in great shape, as always. It’s a shame his career had to end the way it did (and let’s be honest, while his retirement isn’t official, there’s virtually no chance he comes back next season at age 39). He’d sure look good on Toews’ right wing these days.

@Chris_Geno_51:#HeyLaz How do you feel about the Islanders Belmont news?

As a native of Long Island and an erstwhile Isles fan, I’m glad to see the Islanders moving back to the Island proper. I spent a good chunk of my childhood worrying that they’d be shipped off to Kansas City or Portland or Quebec City at some point. That said, New Yorkers need another concert venue like they need a hole in the head. I mean, Billy Joel is only one man.

Follow me on Twitter @MarkLazerus.

Email: mlazerus@suntimes.com

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