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posted: 2/3/2010 12:01 AM

Don't overlook contributions of these five Hawks

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  • Blackhawks' Troy Brouwer

      Blackhawks' Troy Brouwer
    Associated Press

 
 

With all the publicity Duncan Keith, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Brent Seabrook, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa get, it's easy to overlook the guys who give the Blackhawks the kind of depth that allows a team to go 37-14-4.

These five players often fly under the radar, but their contributions have been vital to the Hawks' success story.

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1. Troy Brouwer: While he is on pace to score at least 25 goals, it's the little things Brouwer does playing on the top line with Toews and Kane that stand out.

Brouwer knows his role, and that's to get the puck to his star linemates, then be in front of the net for them and the shots coming from the point.

Brouwer's skating has improved dramatically over the last two years and now complements his above-average skill and shot.

2. Niklas Hjalmarsson: Despite playing on a bad foot and with a bad hand for the last month, Hjalmarsson's game hasn't slipped much following a terrific start.

Hjalmarsson plays almost 20 minutes a night and has been more than dependable in all situations. And he's only going to get better, especially from a physical standpoint. While you'd like to see Hjalmarsson use his ability to hit in the open ice a bit more, that will come in time with more confidence.

3. Andrew Ladd: Like with Brouwer, Ladd adds the kind of little things that make a championship team.

When Ladd chips in goals they're usually big ones, but most of the time he quietly works the left wing and backs down from nobody.

It was absurd when Vancouver's Ryan Kesler called Ladd a coward a few weeks ago because there's not a more honest player in the Hawks' dressing room.

4. Antti Niemi: Of his 16 starts as Cristobal Huet's backup, it's tough to remember a bad one.

Niemi did get pulled at Vancouver on the last road trip, trailing 3-0 after the first period, but he was left high and dry by his teammates for much of that period.

Niemi (13-4-1) has won important games for the Hawks, particularly on the road, and comes up with big saves at critical times. The Hawks wouldn't be as close as they are to San Jose in the Western Conference without him.

5. Brent Sopel: The gritty fifth defenseman sacrifices his body night in and night out in the quietest way to help win games.

Sopel is third on the Hawks in blocked shots behind Seabrook and Keith despite averaging just 14 minutes. The Hawks are fourth in the NHL in penalty-killing, and Sopel is a big reason why the unit has been so successful and consistent.

And the winner is -: Consider Toronto general manager Brian Burke 2-for-2 in trades this week.

Burke got defenseman Dion Phaneuf from Calgary in exchange for a bunch of nothing in Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman, Ian White and Jamal Mayers.

While Phaneuf has struggled this season, he still can be one of the NHL's most punishing and dynamic defensemen and was easily worth what Burke gave up.

Getting goalie Jean-Sebastian Giguere from Anaheim was another solid pickup.

Gigure might be aging and has a big cap hit through next season, but he can win games, and all it cost Burke was Vesa Toskala, an average goaltender at best, and center Jason Blake, who has two years remaining on his contract with a cap hit of $4 million.

The Leafs were more than happy to be rid of Toskala.

"Vesa is not a guy who likes to be coached," Leafs goalie consultant Francois Allaire told the Toronto Sun.

Are you kidding? If you are like me and other NHL observers, you often wonder how New York Rangers GM Glen Sather keeps his job.

The Rangers traded Ales Kotalik and Chris Higgins to Calgary on Tuesday in exchange for Olli Jokinen and Brandon Prust, but not before Kotalik agreed to waive his no-trade clause.

That's right, Sather gave Kotalik a no-trade clause when he signed him as a free agent last summer.

Ales Kotalik, for crying out loud.

Around the rinks: With Sheldon Souray breaking his hand in a fight with Jarome Iginla on Saturday, it may have taken the Edmonton defenseman off the trade market.

The Oilers, however, still figure to be one of the biggest sellers approaching the deadline.

"When you're in this situation you're on full alert," center Shawn Horcoff told the Edmonton Sun. "You know there's going to be changes. Whether it's at the deadline, whether it's in July, who knows. They're coming."

• Losing leading goal scorer Scottie Upshall for the season with a torn ACL in his right knee is a tough blow for the Phoenix Coyotes and likely puts them on the prowl to find another goal scorer before the trade deadline.

• The news wasn't as bad in Montreal, where Mike Cammalleri, the Canadiens' leading goal scorer, will miss only 6-8 weeks with a torn MCL in his knee.

• Florida Panthers left wing David Booth returned Sunday after missing 45 games with a concussion. The head shot from Philadelphia's Mike Richards in October that caused the injury likely cost Booth a spot on the U.S. Olympic team as well.

The list:

While Washington's Alex Ovechkin appears headed for another Hart Trophy as MVP, his competition is strong.

1. Alex Ovechkin, Washington

He's still the one to beat for the Hart because the Capitals are an entirely different team without their game breaker.

2. Henrik Sedin, Vancouver

OK, you've got to give it up for the Canucks center, truly a special player.

3. Ryan Miller, Buffalo

Goalies have their own trophy in the Vezina, but how can you ignore a record of 29-12-5, a 2.10 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage?

4. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh

Shooting more than before, he now has 37 goals.

5. Ilya Bryzgalov, Phoenix

The Coyotes wouldn't even be in the playoff picture, let alone fourth in the Western Conference, without their goalie.

Ex-Hawk of the week:

Radim Vrbata is playing a key role for the surprising Phoenix Coyotes in a lot of ways.

Vrbata took 17 goals into Tuesday's game at Nashville, 3 of them game-winners. He was plus-13 as well, which led everyone on the Coyotes.

Vrbata is one five former Hawks playing for the Coyotes, joining Adrian Aucoin, Robert Lang, Jim Vandermeer and Anders Eriksson.

Hawks @ St. Louis Blues

Time: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday

TV: Comcast SportsNet

Radio: WGN 720-AM

What to watch: Both teams have been off since Saturday, the Blues finishing a stretch of 15 games in 28 days and the Hawks ending an eight-game road trip. The Blues are sitting 13th in the Western Conference and can't waste any more time if they are going to return to the playoffs. Blues forwards Alex Steen and B.J. Crombeen are questionable with lower-body injuries.

Season series: Hawks led 2-0 and have outscored the Blues 9-3.

Next: Phoenix Coyotes at the United Center, 7:30 p.m. Friday

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