So this is who the Blackhawks are — an occasionally great, occasionally mediocre, occasionally inspired, occasionally disinterested, consistently inconsistent team that could very well be fighting for a playoff spot in April, and could very well be hoisting the Stanley Cup yet again in June.
In other words, who knows?
The circus trip tends to be a defining stretch for the Hawks, typically a springboard to bigger and better things. And this season’s 3-1-2 record on a trip, on which the Hawks were outplayed in at least four of six games, suggested that the Hawks are what we thought they were: top-heavy, with some significant question marks, but still talented enough and mentally tough enough to be a legitimate threat to make another deep postseason run.
“We want to get better and better as the season goes along,” Jonathan Toews said. “Knowing the adjustments we’ve had to go through this season, we know what our potential is and we know we’ll keep climbing, and keep improving.”
Here are a few things we learned — or perhaps more accurately, a few things that were reinforced — on the longest trip of the season:
1. Off balance
There are signs of life from the latest incarnation of the top line, with Toews flanked by Andrew Shaw and Ryan Garbutt, but the Hawks still are largely a one-line team, with Artemi Panarin, Artem Anisimov and Patrick Kane doing the heavy lifting. That trio has 31 of the Hawks’ 67 goals this season. They got a big lift from the back end during the trip, with Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson combining for five goals, but it’s unrealistic to expect consistent scoring from defensemen.
The Hawks’ third and fourth lines, which have separated the deep Hawks from most teams every year, have been largely nondescript, with a rotating cast of call-ups still trying to find their niche.
It might be time to give Bryan Bickell another look, if the Hawks can make the salary cap work. Bickell has cooled off a bit after his torrid start in the AHL, but has five goals and four assists in 10 games with Rockford. He’s taken his demotion seriously, and has earned another chance. When Bickell is playing inspired hockey, crashing the net and throwing his body around, that third line becomes a force. That’s what the Hawks need right now, more than anything. It’s worth a shot.
Also keep an eye out for Philip Danault, who’s returning from offseason hip surgery this week. He’s more Marcus Kruger than Patrick Kane, but he’s a high-energy player whom Joel Quenneville likes a lot.
2. Gotta have Hart
Kane might have won the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP last season had he not broken his clavicle in February. He’s the clear front-runner as of now, and his nine points on the circus trip only solidified his standing as the league’s premier player this season.
Dallas’ Jamie Benn, the reigning scoring champion, has a league-high 18 goals and is just two points behind Kane, but he has Tyler Seguin (just one point back of Benn) on his line. Kane is basically carrying the Hawks by himself. His 19-game (and counting) point streak set a new record for American players, and he’s showing no signs of slowing down.
“That line, offensively, has been the backbone of our team,” Quenneville said. “Can’t say enough positive things about him or his play.”
3. Wither Teuvo?
Teuvo Teravainen needs to find a permanent spot in the lineup. All the bouncing around he’s been doing — he’s played on all four lines and in all three positions — appears to be stunting the 21-year-old’s development. It was unfair to expect him to instantly become a 30-goal scorer after his breakout performance in the playoffs, but it was reasonable to expect a little more than the four goals and five assists he has through 20 games.
Teravainen put the onus on himself, but Quenneville could help the kid out by giving him an extended look at one spot. Another chance at being Toews’ left wing couldn’t hurt.
“I’ve been paying with a lot of guys in a lot of positions, and I’m just trying to find my game and get my going,” Teravainen said. “I know it’s a process, and I have to be patient. But I can do a lot better.”
More than a quarter of the way through the season, the same could be said for the Hawks as a whole.