On Tuesday night, the Chicago Blackhawks will face the Nashville Predators for the second time this season. In order to get ready for another match up against our divisional foes, I virtually chatted with Dirk Hoag, the Manager over at On The Forecheck – the SB Nation site that covers the Predators. You can keep up with the Predators by following Dirk on Twitter @Forechecker or by checking out www.ontheforecheck.com at SB Nation.
Jen: With the bizarre medical situation facing Pekka Rinne, the goalie position in Nashville has taken fans on a carousel ride. Which backup would you make the starter in his absence? How much longer does the team expect Rinne to be out?
Dirk: Pekka Rinne's hip infection has thrown the spotlight on David Poile's biggest gamble with this team, his signing of Carter Hutton as a free agent to serve as the backup goalie. Considering that he came over from Chicago with just 1 NHL game on his resume, many Nashville fans (myself included) were worried about what might happen if Rinne experienced a sub-optimal recovery from his off-season hip surgery, and the story there has been a real mixed bag. When Rinne first went on Injured Reserve, Hutton stumbled and all looked lost, but rookie Marek Mazanec stepped in and performed well, earning NHL Rookie of the Month honors for November. When Mazanec laid a couple eggs in a row recently, Hutton got another chance to start and has done well of late, getting named 3rd Star of the Week for last week.
For the present time, then, Hutton has the hot hand and should get the start against Chicago, and given his experience relative to the other candidates, I'd probably prefer to see him get the majority of starts. Until Rinne returns (which is still weeks away, likely) I expect we'll continue to ride the roller coaster, and hope that the ups and downs even out over the course of time.
Jen: Blackhawks fans have collectively blacked out the memory of the last meeting with the Predators, so we may have missed the finer points of the talent that belongs to American Hero Seth Jones. Will you fill us in?
Dirk: Seth is settling into the long grind of the NHL season, and the early buzz has died down a little bit as his offensive production has dried up. Stretches like this happen to every player at some point, and we have to keep in mind that he's still a 19-year-old making the jump from junior hockey, so expectations need to be kept in line - overall, he's having a terrific rookie season, but those looking to him as a team savior are due to be disappointed.
He's a fun player to watch, however - he has a huge frame and graceful skating style, which he uses to protect the puck and take the time he likes to make solid puck-moving decisions. He's prone to getting beat away from the puck and lacks physicality at this point, but there's every reason to believe that Jones' future is very, very bright.
I hope he's not mad at me, because shortly after writing this piece, Jones' ice time was slashed nearly in half, and he's getting his lowest workload of the season currently. Too bad I only got half of what I wanted there, as Ryan Ellis still isn't getting much of an opportunity.
Jen: Former Blackhawks forward Viktor Stalberg joined the Predators during the summer as a free agent. How has he fared so far this season with the team?
Dirk: Stalberg's season got off an extremely slow start due to an injury in training camp which cost him games during the opening weeks, and once he was healthy Barry Trotz put him on depth lines for a long time, frustrating fans who wanted to see the shiny new toy given room to run. Recently he's found some chemistry with Gabriel Bourque, a similarly speedy winger with whom he's created many of the most exciting scoring chances of Nashville's season.
With just 4 goals and 10 points in 27 games, however, many fans are wondering whether Stalberg can truly bring a new dimension to the Predators' offensive attack. I'm hopeful that the second half of the season will bring better production from him, but am concerned as to whether Nashville has enough playmaking punch up front to complement his skills and skating ability.
Dirk also asked some questions of me about the Blackhawks.
Dirk: Are the Blackhawks trying to render goaltending obsolete? It seems like no matter who plays back there, and whether or not they put up decent numbers, Chicago keeps winning night after night. What's the story on this new guy, Antti Raanta?
Jen: The goaltending has been a bit off to start the season. The even strength numbers for Corey Crawford are not bad but the Penalty Kill Sv% has dropped over 9% which is a problem. Luckily for the Blackhawks, they could shoot their way out of a nuclear missile crisis. The Blackhawks lead the league in goals scored at 131 with second place being held by the St. Louis Blues at 109. Despite the PK problems, the greatly improved Power Play (26 goals) and the amazing clip of Goals For at even strength have kept the Blackhawks winning.
Backup goaltender, Nikolai Khabibulin, had been lit up in every appearance he has made and as Nashville fans will recall, Shea Weber’s deadly slap shot caused Khabibulin’s groin to explode landing him on LTIR ever since. Crawford injured what appeared to be his groin recently and Antti Raanta, who started the season as the starting goalie for the Rockford IceHogs of the AHL, has landed in the hot seat. Raanta is a 24 year old Finnish goalie, who played in Liiga last season winning the Championship with Assat and earning league MVP honors for both the regular season and the playoffs. He signed an entry level deal with the Blackhawks in June.
Although he is not a very big goalie, he is incredibly athletic. He’s got some growing and learning to do to be certain but he has filled in nicely during the current goalie crisis. Aside from the team-wide drubbing the Blackhawks took at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Raanta has performed very well and seems to have earned the confidence and affection of his teammates. He’s already made great strides along the learning curve so I expect that will continue. He’s also a very fun character who has spent time with the Finnish Army and earned adoration from fans for doing "Face Time" with his dog online.
Dirk: Bryan Bickell turned a red-hot playoff run into a juicy new contract, but how has that worked out so far?
Jen: Bryan Bickell was magical for the Blackhawks last season. He spent most of the season on the third line with Viktor Stalberg and Andrew Shaw. That line wreaked havoc upon teams all season. During the Playoffs, Quenneville’s line blender kicked in and Bickell spent a lot of time on the first line with Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa. Bickell sustained a fairly serious knee injury at the end of the Western Conference Finals but still managed to skate on one leg during the Stanley Cup Final with some particularly memorable results.
During the offseason, every time Bickell tweeted out a picture, he looked like the Bionic Man. He had a huge knee brace, a wrist brace and various other medical devices in every shot. I think many fans were prepared for him to have a bit of a slow start to the season because of those medical issues and he did start out a little rough. His new contract is comparable to that of P.A. Parenteau of the Colorado Avalanche and Chris Stewart of the St. Louis Blues so it appears to be a fair amount. Also, Bickell only made $600,000 in NHL salary while skating on the top line and winning the Stanley Cup so I think it all will work out in the end.
Bickell played in 22 games with 5 goals and 1 assist to start the season. On November 19th, Bickell went hard to the net in a game against the Colorado Avalanche and while trying to avoid contact with the goalie, crashed into the goal post with his leg sustaining an injury. He’s been on LTIR and was activated in time to travel to Nashville. The word going around is that he is expected to play tonight. He will likely slot in on the third line with Brandon Saad and Andrew Shaw.
Bickell is a big power forward with a wonderful wrist shot. He creates room for his linemates and is a hard hitter. The Quality of Competition he has skated against this season has increased some and before he was injured, he was seeing some ice time on the Power Play. I expect him to make good on his new paycheck and once he gets his game timing back after a month long break, look for him to make things happen on the third line.
Dirk: It looks like Patrick Kane may be having his best season yet offensively, and has a legitimate shot at the Art Ross Trophy this year. What's been the difference this season? Is it a team thing, or has his individual game moved to a higher level?
Jen: Even if I were not a Blackhawks fan, Patrick Kane would be one of my favorite players to watch in the NHL. His ability to score off of flashy moves is mind blowing. When the Blackhawks won the Cup in 2010, Kane had a terrific season shooting 12.88% at even strength. Little did we all know that the following season he was plagued by a wrist injury that led to him shooting only 8.33% at even strength. Off season wrist surgery, a little time off because of the lock out and heading to Switzerland to play in Liiga (where he played with Stars forward Tyler Seguin, Sharks Captain Joe Thornton and Flames goalie Reto Berra) had him primed and ready to play when the lock out ended. Kane was back to shooting 11.46% at even strength last season and getting heavy ice time on the Power Play. That turned out pretty well for Kane and the team.
This season, his even strength shooting percentage is 12.66% and he has a strong presence on the Power Play again. Coach Joel Quenneville is known for chasing matchups during a game and this has worked to Kane’s advantage this season. The depth available to the Blackhawks allows Kane to get more ice time against lines with less skill. Also, his defensive zone starts have dropped sharply so far this season with most of his starts coming in the offensive zone and neutral zone. All of this is due to the depth of talent the team has and enables Kane’s use of his wicked wrist shot to contribute even more goals.
The other half of this answer has to do with Patrick Kane himself. He has been persecuted and later praised for the maturation process he has very publicly gone through. His defensive game has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few seasons. He is only 25 years old, which is still difficult to believe, but on the ice he is really just a big kid. He thrives on having fun and entertaining the fans. We know he has amazing skill, but when watching the games, you can just see the sheer joy he takes in playing. When Patrick Kane is having fun on the ice, well… good luck trying to stop him.