Over the past few weeks, the Chicago Blackhawks have begun to shake out of the doldrums that plagued them for much of the early part of the season. They have begun skating harder, scoring more, and in general looking more like a team that can contend for a playoff spot instead of prime tee times in April. Even with the team's struggles, they are still in the top eight in the Western Conference in both real standings and points-percentage, so things are definitely beginning to look up on the West Side.
Inevitably, the big question becomes this: what changed? The team hasn't been getting much healthier, with Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane missing some serious time. Guys like Duncan Keith are still under-performing on offense, guys like Jassen Cullimore and Nick Boynton still make one or two head-scratcher plays per contest, and coach Joel Quenneville still seems enamored with the idea of having Tomas Kopecky on the ice during power plays. So, what the heck changed?
Effort level and ability to play a full 60 minutes certainly have played huge parts in the recent success of the Blackhawks, but one of the biggest reasons for the turnaround is not one that a lot of people are talking about. In fact, this catalyst for change is arguably the most overpaid player on the team, still gets inexplicably booed in San Jose every time he touches the puck, and he has been criticized for his game more routinely than anyone else, with the possible exception of some dude from France who wore red goalie pads.
The big reason that we're speaking of is none other than the $7 million man himself Brian Campbell.
Campbell has always carried with him a reputation as a guy who is always looking to make a splash on offense, and neglecting his defensive responsibilities in the process. This knock on his play is so pervasive that a lot of people still make the claims even to this day, even though he forcefully demonstrated time and again during the second half and post-season last year that he has become a significantly better two-way player. While that sounds like wishful thinking on the part of Hawks' fans, the numbers do not lie this season.
Campbell currently has the best plus/minus on the team with a +12 in 24 games since returning from a leg injury, and he is also playing some significant time, averaging 22:34 of ice time per contest. This ability to stay on the ice has really helped the performance of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, who were being crushed under the weight of increased work loads while Campbell was away. Campbell has also helped the play of Niklas Hjalmarsson, who has reverted back to his shot-blocking machine form from being timid and defensively bad during the first month of the season.
The increased ice time is also reflective of a more defensively-responsible player. Quenneville has not hesitated to use Campbell during all manner of situations, including the power play and the penalty kill. When Campbell used to take the ice with his team a man down, it was more so in an effort to create some short-handed opportunities instead of playing quality defense. Now, he still has the puck moving ability to start a rush if the opposing team over-commits on a play, but he has also developed a great ability to break plays up with his stick and get the puck out of the zone during the PK.
Even with this increased ability to play good defensive hockey, he still has not abandoned his offensive instincts. He still can push the tempo when called upon on the offensive side of the puck, and his 11 points in 24 games are proof that he still has a nose for making things happen. His offensive prowess was one of the biggest reasons that the team signed him in the first place, and it is good for the Hawks that this element of his game hasn't suffered with the increase in defensive responsibility.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Campbell is the relative fearlessness that he has played with since getting injured during the pre-season. This has been on display quite a bit in the area of blocking shots. While Hjalmarsson and Boynton have gotten plenty of press for their propensity to lay out to block shots, Campbell has been no slouch in this area himself. He has blocked 36 shots in the 24 games he has played this season, and he has shown great judgment as to when to attempt to block a shot and when to use his stick in the process.
He may not get the most headlines or a big chunk of credit for the Hawks' recent success, but Soupy has quietly been a huge asset to this team since he came back 24 games ago. In the third year of his massive seven year contract, Campbell is finally coming into his own as the two-way player that fans have wanted him to be since day one. If he continues to produce on both ends of the ice like he has been, perhaps more folks throughout the city (and the league as a whole) will give him the credit he deserves.