Hawks hanging around

MIKE ZEISBERGER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 4:40 PM ET

ATLANTA — Scan the lineups handed out for a Maple Leafs-Atlanta Thrashers tilt on Friday at Philips Arena and you’ll find no shortage of 2010 Stanley Cup jewellery.

In the powder blue corner, representing the Thrashers: Norris Trophy frontrunner Dustin (The Big Buff) Byfuglien, forward Andrew (Mr. Underrated) Ladd and hulking pugilist Ben (Four-Game Suspension) Eager.

Over in the white corner, representing the Maple Leafs: Kris (They Originally Spelled My Name Wrong on The Cup) Versteeg.

The common thread between these four: They all own Cup rings from a year ago, having been teammates with the 2009-10 champion Chicago Blackhawks.

“We still text each other all the time,” Versteeg said with a chuckle. “We chirp at each other all the time. I keep telling (Byfuglien) that, now that he’s on defence, I’m going to take him wide because he won’t be able to catch me.

“We had such a great time in Chicago. It wasn’t just about winning the Cup. We had so many laughs there.”

Just seven months after hoisting Lord Stanley’s coveted bauble in front of two million screaming fans at the victory parade in the Windy City, the state of the Blackhawks is no laughing matter.

As the 2010-11 season hits the halfway point, the defending champions have struggled to find consistency. Heading into play on Saturday, the Hawks found themselves in eighth place in the Western Conference and 16th in the overall NHL standings, barely clinging to a playoff spot.

Because of salary cap issues, Chicago general manager Stan Bowman knew he would have to slice key cogs such as Versteeg. Byfuglien, Ladd and Eager from the team’s title roster entering this season. That’s the price that needed to be paid in order to keep the likes of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith, the players deemed to be the backbone of the squad.

“Even after all the various trades we made, we’re barely under the cap,” Bowman said in a phone interview from Chicago. “The truth is, we could not have kept any of those guys. We just had to choose which players we figured would be our foundation moving forward.

“Take Patrick Sharp, for example, a guy we kept hearing we should trade (over the summer). He’s arguably been our best offensive player. That’s part of the process of making tough decisions — who stays and who goes.

“Look, it’s a very competitive league. It’s a fine line. We had a great team last year, yet it’s not like we just waltzed through the playoffs. Our first-round series against Nashville, for example, could have gone either way.

“At the same time, it’s not like we are being lapped by the field right now. We are not that far off.”

There are several reasons for the Hawks’ roller-coaster first half. Kane, Toews, Hossa and defenceman Brian Campbell have all spent time in civvies with injuries. Jittery goalie Marty Turco has struggled. And the team’s lack of depth is now being exposed.

“I do like our group,” Bowman said. “Some of our top players got off to slow starts, sure. But they don’t just lose their ability all of a sudden.

“I think it’s going to happen for us in the second half. But we can’t just sit here and say that. We’re taking steps internally to see that happens.”

One of those steps appears to be already in place, with young Corey Crawford seemingly having grappled the starting goalie job from the veteran Turco.

Will that be enough to lead the Hawks to the promised land again?

However it plays out, the fate of the defending champs certainly will be among the most intriguing stories in the NHL’s second half of the season.

mike.zeisberger@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/zeisberger


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