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November 30, 2013 | 10:12am ET
Hawks aren't perfect, not yet
By Tab Bamford, TheFourthPeriod.com

CHICAGO, IL -- With U.S. Thanksgiving now behind us, hockey fans would assume everything is wonderful in Chicago.

As a team, the Blackhawks are first in the Central Division with 42 points and are 8-2-0 in their last 10 games. They're first in the NHL in offense, averaging 3.54 goals per game, and boast a top-10 powerplay (converting 20.2 percent entering Saturday).

Individually, a number of Hawks are off to fantastic starts to their Stanley Cup title defense. Patrick Kane is third in the NHL with 15 goals, and Jonathan Toews continues to be a consistent threat. Marian Hossa has been magnificent for most of the season after summer back surgery kept him out of the entire preseason, and Patrick Sharp's 22 points might be 30 if the posts had been more generous.

While the big guns are expected to lead the way, young Brandon Saad has established himself as a bona fide top-six player with 18 points through 26 games. At 21, he has shown to be a strong skater who plays a very good all-around game, and has seen time on both special teams for Chicago. He has certainly played well enough over the last 12 months to earn significant consideration for a spot on the U.S. roster in Sochi.

The addition of Kris Versteeg added another depth piece that many coaches around the league are undoubtedly envying, even while missing Bryan Bickell for the last couple weeks.

On the blueline Duncan Keith has as many assists (20) as Henrik Sedin and Sidney Crosby, tying him for third in the NHL. Brent Seabrook has been significantly better than he was for most of last year, while Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya have been good enough to be a top pair in many other cities.

Nick Leddy has skated next to a revolving door on the third pair, but continues to add elite speed and an offensive threat (12 points) to Joel Quenneville's arsenal.

So everything's great, right?

Not quite. There are three areas that should give Blackhawks fans a moment of pause as we turn our calendars to December.

First, their penalty kill has been terrible for most of the year. At 74 percent, they ranks 29th in the League, ahead of only the Islanders. Chicago has allowed 19 powerplay goals in their first 26 games; they allowed 18 powerplay goals in the entire 48-game regular season last year.

Was Michael Frolik so good last year that he was the difference between the best penalty kill and the bottom of the league? Individually, no. But the consistency of Frolik and Marcus Kruger as the top penalty killing forwards allowed Quenneville flexibility with his roster. The Hawks have tried a number of players, from Saad to Ben Smith, on the line with Kruger but haven't found the right chemistry yet.

Getting the PK fixed will be critical if the Hawks want to make another deep run into the postseason.

The second issue the Blackhawks are facing is the salary cap. Like many other teams, the Hawks are using LTIR space to stay under the ceiling. If GM Stan Bowman cannot make another move like he did for Versteeg, there isn't enough cap space left to rely exclusively on his strong organizational depth to add another NHL player.

Finally, Corey Crawford has been very good to start the year but has been worked harder than any netminder in the league. But Wednesday night's game in Calgary was the first time in 16 games that Crawford didn't make an appearance, and he is tied with Roberto Luongo for the league lead with 23 games played entering Friday.

Crawford leads the league with 16 wins, but the Blackhawks desperately need someone to step into the backup role that Quenneville can confidently play for 60 minutes. The Hawks had hoped Nikolai Khabibulin would be able to give them a few games this year, but he's been a disaster. When he was lost to injury, it opened the door for Antti Raanta to be promoted.

In his first NHL start on Wednesday, Raanta had a nice night (2 GA). But was it enough for Quenneville to confidently put his backup netminder out there every fourth night the rest of the way?

Those three issues are significant, but the core of this Blackhawks team has won two rings together and continues to be as good as any in the NHL. With the Blues in their rear view mirror, this year's Hawks team isn't going to run away with a division title as they did last year. The rivalry with St. Louis could provide some of the better regular season hockey down the stretch, and will certainly have fans in the two cities chirping each other.

Tab Bamford is the Chicago Correspondent and a Columnist for The Fourth Period.


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