By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) An eight-game losing streak has sent Blackhawk Nation into full-fledged panic.
With games against Nashville and the New York Rangers, the losing streak could reach (gulp) double figures.
Heads must roll. There’s no way a team that was thought of as a legitimate contender for the Stanley Cup can stand pat while the losses mount. The fans won’t stand for it.
The Blackhawks do need to make some moves, but one of those moves should NOT include firing head coach Joel Quenneville. Firing the head coach is what you do when the players tune out the head coach and roll their eyes when he speaks. You fire the head coach – especially when he is one of the best in the league – when all else fails. You fire the head coach when you think you have answered all the questions and the team still keeps on providing sub-par efforts.
The players have not tuned out their head coach. In fact, they are listening to him and depending on him more than ever as the losing streak as grown more interminable. Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa have all supported the head coach and will continue to do so. The players’ support for their leader is clear.
The biggest problem with the Hawks is their inability to keep the puck out of the net. During this eight-game losing streak, they have given up 35 goals, including an 8-goal stinker against the Edmonton Oilers Feb. 2.
When you are giving up 4.4 goals per game you cannot win in the NHL. Especially for a coach like Quenneville who bases his coaching on playing responsible team defense. He has not changed his philosophy and tried to have his team emulate the Montreal Canadiens of the late 1970s or the Wayne Gretzky-Marc Messier Oilers of the ’80’s.
The defensive system is based on keeping the puck outside the prime scoring areas and making sure opponents don’t park themselves in front of the net. When you put traffic in front of the goaltender, it makes routine saves difficult or perhaps impossible just because the goaltender can’t see the puck.
The Blackhawks defense is not clearing anyone from in front of the net. It’s just not happening because the Blackhawks don’t play physical defense and they get outhit night after night. When that happens, your opponent can go anywhere he wants, including right in front of the net.
The lack of physical play is a problem caused by the makeup of the team. That falls right in the lap of general manager Stan Bowman, who has populated the roster with swift skaters who can attack quickly. But he did not give Quenneville a roster of players who will thump opponents and make them think twice.
All it takes is one or two big hitters who set the tone for the rest of the team. The Boston Bruins have the biggest hitter in the league in Zdeno Chara and one of the toughest forwards in Milan Lucic. When these two start hitting the rest of the team follows. The Bruins do an excellent job of clearing traffic in front of Tim Thomas and backup Tuukka Rask.
You’re not going to get a Chara or a Lucic before the trade deadline, but a big thumper like Montreal’s Hal Gill can make a difference. He’s available and he won’t let any forward set up shop in front of the net without paying a big price.
Even if the Blackhawks can make an addition that gives them a physical presence, the goaltending situation is not workable. When the Hawks won the cup two years ago, there was a school of thought that decent goaltending was good enough to get the job done and that you don’t need a superstar goalie like Pittsburgh’s Marc-Andre Fleury, New York’s Henrik Lundquist or Thomas to win the Cup. That’s why they let Antti Niemi go and turned over the goaltending to Corey Crawford.
That decision is not working out well for the Hawks. Niemi is not in the first cut of goaltenders that includes Lundquist, Thomas, Jonathan Quick of the Kings and Pekka Rinne of the Predators, but he is right behind.
The same cannot be said for Crawford or backup Ray Emery. Crawford played adequately last year, but the history of the NHL has seen many unknown goaltenders play well for a season before the league figures them out and finds their holes. In the case of Crawford, he has been transformed into a piece of Swiss cheese. The holes are plentiful, inviting and delicious.
So don’t even think about firing Coach Q. His general manager has not given him the necessary ingredients to win consistently.
The losing streak will end eventually, but the big problems will remain. Bowman must deal with them effectively or he should be the one with his head on the chopping block.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.