( Dennis Wierzbicki-US PRESSWIRE, US PRESSWIRE / November 29, 2011 )

It wasn’t that long ago the Blackhawks had a dominating lead in the Central Division and led the Western Conference .

That is no longer the case.

Their lead has all but disappeared. The Hawks hold an insignificant one-point lead in a very tight division and the Blues and Red Wings each have games in hand on the Hawks.

The honeymoon is over and this season is quickly becoming a roller coaster ride that everyone would like to get off. Any talk about running away and hiding in the Central Division after Christmas has disappeared and the discussion has become about survival rather than dominance.

The debate on their issues appears to be centering around effort v. personnel. While it’s obvious the Hawks’ have a hole or two in the Top 6 and the defense is in need of a hammer, it’s not so clear that they would be all that pressing if they were getting consistent performances from the guys they count on to win games.

The Blackhawks are getting blown out too often for comfort and the disappearance of Patrick KaneMarian Hossa and Dave Bolland is taking a heavy toll. Captain Toews and Patrick Sharp have been the Hawks’ only consistent offensive threats lately. A lack of a sustained forecheck is murdering this team and costing them dearly on their own end of the ice. The Hawks’ have to play a puck possession game to win and frankly they don’t have the bodies to get in deep and control it. Daniel Carcillo has been nowhere to be found and Viktor Stalberg lacks the strength to consistently win board battles.  Teams are easily breaking the puck out of the zone if Hossa and Toews aren’t around. This is exactly why people around Twitter and the rest of the Hawks’ blogosphere are pining for Stan Bowman to get involved in the Bobby Ryan sweepstakes.

Carcillo, in particular, has been disappointing. He was benched behind John Scott in Los Angles and responded by playing an uninspired game last night and took a truly awful penalty in the 3rd period when he tried to goad Daymond Langkow coming out of the box. If Carcillo is going to take a stupid penalty like that, at least make it count. Langkow probably didn’t even feel Carcillo’s love taps on his belly and Carcillo went back to the box. But that is all beside the point, if Carbomb has any prayer of sticking with Kane and Hossa, he has to be the first guy down in the zone throwing his weight around and keeping the puck down there. As for Stalberg, it’s the same old song – not bad enough to demote (especially with guys like Bryan Bickell behind him) but not good enough to inspire any long-term confidence either.

The Bottom 6 has become a jumbled mess. It is now apparent that Bickell will occupy the spot Troy Brouwer vacated in Q’s doghouse for the foreseeable future. Bickell has reinforced every stereotype that existed about him coming into the season and is losing defenders (including me) rapidly.  Michael Frolik’s offensive output has dwinded to nothing and he finds himself playing with Bickell and Jamal Mayers. Maybe the only guys deserving of any credit down here are Marcus Kruger and Andrew Brunette. Kruger appears to be gaining confidence (especially in the passing game) and has been a revelation at the dot and on the penalty kill. Bruno continues to be a pain in the ass behind the opposing net and is patiently waiting for his chance to get back into the Top 6. With the way Carcillo has been lately, Bruno’s chance may come sooner than later.

As a result of the Hawks’ puck possession woes, the defense is taking a pounding. The book is out on Nick Leddy and to a lesser extent Niklas Hjalmarsson - put the puck in the corner and bury them. Last night the Coyotes were going after Leddy’s corner like he was John Scott. Leddy is doing everything he can, but  still struggles when under assault from a decent forecheck. His partner, Hjammer, appears to have lost all appetite for physical contact and hasn’t been much better than Leddy with forecheckers bearing down. If both of these guys are going to suffer under duress, it’s time to break them up. I was an advocate of the pair but it’s not working. Many seem to believe defense should be Bowman’s first priority, I would suggest someone large who can give Leddy some cover down low in the Hawks’ zone.

The play of Corey Crawford is also quickly becoming a concern . His SV% of .898 is among the worst in the league and he is currently sporting a very pedestrian 2.86 GAA. It’s way too soon for Steve Mason talk, but Crow would do well to nip this in the ass very soon – we all know the insanity that pervades goaltending discussions in this city.

* A note on the Bobby Ryan speculation. I would love to see him in a Hawks’ uniform. He’d be a presence on the forecheck and would look great with any of our forwards. If it happened, it would be Bowman’s first major splash via trade. It just doesn’t strike me as Bowman’s style to do this. He is carefully planing for life after the next CBA and seems extremely risk averse. Ryan is another big contract  (5.1 per year) who is signed through the 2014-2015 season. I could be wrong (if I am I won’t be sad), but this one seems a bridge too far. Guys with expiring contracts like Shane Doan seem more realistic.