There's been a lot of praise directed at Stan Bowman for the team that he's assembled for this upcoming season. To be clear, I think that Bowman has done a lot of good things, and I'm particularly happy with the D corps that he's assembled. As has been documented, Bowman should also be praised for giving himself a significant amount of cap space and flexibility with which he can add pieces if necessary. Where I differ from most here is in my view of the uncertainty that lies ahead with the forwards. As it stands right now, let's take a look at a reasonable guess for the forward lines on opening night.
On paper, any team with a forward unit that includes Toews, Hossa, Kane, Sharp, and Bolland should be one that can compete for a championship even if the complimentary pieces aren't spectacular. The purpose of my post here is to point out some question marks with the forwards, and maybe slow everyone up on the Stan Bowman kool-aid, just a bit.
1) Andrew Brunette- The soon to be 38 year old Brunette should be a great addition to the first unit powerplay. Brunette scores the bulk of his goals from inside of 20', and even at the age of 38, Brunette should be the consistent net presence with good hands in tight that Tomas Kopecky was never really capable of being. Brunette potted 20 powerplay goals over the last two years as a key piece of a serviceable, but unspectacular, Minnesota Wild powerplay unit. If the Hawks powerplay is clicking next year, Brunette is capable of scoring 8-12 powerplay goals and potentially finish the season top 25 in the league in that category. To me, the question here is even strength production. Last year, while getting a significant amount of ice time alongside playmaking center Mikko Koivu, Brunette produced just 10 goals and 18 assists at even strength. The speed issue probably shouldn't be overlooked here either. Can Brunette keep up with Kane, Sharp, Toews, and Hossa? Hopefully, his experience and hockey smarts will be enough for him to get by in the transition game, but it certainly isn't a guarantee. If Brunette doesn't have a bounce back year in terms of even strength production, the Hawks are going to have the same issues with left wing production that they had last year.
2) Ten minute grit- Bouquets have been thown at Lil Bowman for adding the grit that many believed that the Hawks lacked last season. Montador adds physicality on the back end, and Mayers and Carcillo will be counted on for physical play from the forward position. For the ten minutes or so that Mayers and Carcillo are out on the ice against (most likely) other 3rd and 4th lines, I don't doubt that they do what they were brought here to do, which is punish defensemen on the forecheck, mix it up in the dirty areas, and defend their teammates. Unfortunately, there's not much of those qualities in the Hawks top 9. Bickell can be a physical player, but he certainly isn't an effective forechecker. Toews, Kane, Bolland, Sharp, Fro, and Hossa are skilled forecheckers, but their brand of forecheck is built on speed, positioning, and stick work, not on driving a Dman into the boards to separate him from the puck. In a dump and chase game, there's not a forward in the top 9 that's striking fear into the heart of an opposing Dman going back to retrieve the puck. My good buddy McClure (you guys remember McClure, tall guy, eclectic taste in music, quick wit.........he'll be back in a couple weeks) thinks that maybe Rusty Olesz can be the guy the Hawks need to step up and solve the top 9 grit issue. I hope for the Hawks' sake that McClure is right here, but other options include Stalberg (not sold on him as a top 6 guy), and young fireplugs Jeremy Morin and Ben Smith (both energetic, but not all that big). The time of power-forwards-in-training the Hayes brothers, Rob Flick, and Kyle Beach has not yet arrived, will the Hawks suffer in the meantime?
3) PK promises- As has been discussed before, not only was the penatly kill an issue last year, but it's way too dependant on stars like Toews and Hossa. Jamal Mayers will certainly be a factor as the Hawks try and improve on the man disadvantage, but what forward help was added outside of Mayers? Dan Carcillo has logged literally about 2 minutes of total SHTOI in the last 2 years. Olesz has some PK experience, but he'll need to excel in that role for Q to be comfortable with reducing Toews and Hossa's shorthanded shifts. There's also the thought that guys like Stalberg and/or Smith can be coached into that role, which is possible, but the point is that there are still question marks in this phase of the Hawks game.
4) Three-Six Mafia(or whatever we want to call this checking line) - If Patrick Sharp starts the year as a center and Marcus Kruger isn't ready for the show, then it's safe to say that Dave Bolland will be centering the third line rather than the 2nd. In my world, Dave Bolland's assumed linemates are a couple of question marks themselves. Can Bryan Bickell continue to score goals outside of 30 feet? Listen, Bryan Bickell has a very good wrist shot, but it's probably not a good idea to assume that he'll be a 15 goal scorer unless he starts going to the tough areas and scoring some dirty goals. I'll take them any way that Bicks can pot them, but the safe money isn't on the 40 footers. On the right wing, we have 11 goal scorer Michael Frolik. Fro showed a whole lot of potential once placed on the right wing next to Fabulous Weapon. Fro needs to have a bounce back year from a point production standpoint, and needs to do this with a focus on shutting down opponents' top lines night in and night out. For Frolik to be the solid 2 way player we want him to be alongside Bolland, Q is going to have to resist the temptation to use him as a top 6 band-aid. Fro isn't cut out to be a full time center, and he's shown poor shot selection from the left wing spot. I like the young Czech right where he is, but I don't trust our mustached leader to leave him there.
5) Ochocinco- Is there a bigger question mark on this team than Rostislav Olesz? Choosing not to buy out Olesz (or being told not to) will probably be a high risk-high reward proposition for Bowman. Can a guy who's never played 80 games in a season, and is just coming off of knee surgery, be the bowling ball that the top six needs? Is a guy who has just one 30 point season on his resume really a top six forward on a team with Cup aspirations? If Rusty either can't stay healthy or doesn't produce, Q might be bring quick to go to Jeremy Morin to solve this issue, making Olesz a 3.1 million dollar bottom six winger. I think we'd all prefer that Olesz realize his top 10 pick potential while surrounded with considerably more talent here than he had in Florida, but anyone who tells you that Rusty isn't a question mark is kidding themself.
6) Depth down the middle- No matter what Stan Bowman tells you, the Hawks aren't as deep down the middle as they'll need to be if they sustain any major injuries to Toews or Bolland. Maybe Marcus Kruger is closer to centering a top 3 line than we think; the front office likes to tell us that he is, but then again, they're about as forthcoming as the New England Patriots these days. All center depth concerns will go away if Patrick Sharp has a solid year as a 2 way center, and doesn't need his annual 1-2 month pit stop on DDN's wing for a confidence refuel.
Don't get me wrong people, I'm not telling you that Bowman has done a poor job this summer, I'm just saying that questions will need to be answered if the Hawks are going to go back to the Stanley Cup Finals this season. I'm sure that a whole bunch of teams have question marks with their role players, but I've been told by some that Bowman has restored 09-10 depth, and I'm simply in wait and see mode before I buy into that claim. On the plus side, Bowman should have plenty of cap space to bring in a difference maker before the trade deadline, if he feels that the price is right. Talk amongst yourselves.