Chicago Blackhawks' annual circus trip will allow young players to bond with, learn from veterans

— -- There was something ho-hum about it as the Chicago Blackhawks packed up and headed for points west, north and south as part of their annual November circus trip.

The perennial Stanley Cup contenders were sitting atop the Central Division with an impressive 11-3-2 record. Defending scoring champion and reigning league MVP Patrick Kane was off to another sterling start with 18 points in 16 games. Frequent linemate Artem Anisimov was red-hot as well, with an 11-game point streak between Oct. 15 and Nov. 6.

Just your run-of-the-mill dominance from a team for whom dominance has become commonplace. But -- have appearances been deceiving for the Blackhawks? And, more to the point, will this current road trip help bring the Blackhawks' big picture into greater -- if not more accurate -- focus?

In short, the answer is yes.

In some ways, that's always been the case. When Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey invade the United Center for an extended stay through the Thanksgiving holidays each November, the Blackhawks' subsequent road trip serves multiple purposes -- not the least of which is giving the team a chance for critical self-evaluation.

This season, the annual circus trip might be even more important for Chicago, both in terms of accurately assessing where the team stands and in that it will allow the Blackhawks to more fully integrate a significant number of young players into the fold. Twin threads of the same tapestry, if you will.

Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman acknowledged that his team's record might have been a little misleading, given how well netminders Corey Crawford and backup Scott Darling had played leading up to the trip.

Crawford, overshadowed in some ways by the play of Carey Price in Montreal and a red-hot Tuukka Rask in Boston, has put together a body of work early on that should suggest Vezina Trophy and perhaps even Hart Trophy consideration.

"Corey's been unbelievable," Bowman said. "It's allowed us to not play that well and still gain some confidence."

Crawford's play specifically has helped mask transitional challenges for a lineup that features five rookies and another first-year player in 26-year-old defenseman Michal Kempny, a native of the Czech Republic?who came over from Russia's Kontinental Hockey League during the offseason.

When the Blackhawks -- who are a gaudy 8-1-2 at the United Center -- kicked off the circus trip by getting shut out in Winnipeg 4-0 Tuesday night, leveling their road record at 3-3, it reinforced the notion that they have a lot to learn during the trip.

"This is going to be a good benchmark for us as a team," Bowman said in an interview a few hours before Chicago's trip-opening loss.

The Blackhawks have won three championships since 2010, but they followed up a 2015 Stanley Cup win with a first-round ouster at the hands of the? St. Louis Blues?last spring. Several key parts of that 2015 Cup roster are long gone, including Patrick Sharp, Brad Richards, Teuvo Teravainen, Kimmo Timonen, Antoine Vermette, Andrew Shaw and Brandon Saad.

"The Chicago model is the future for everyone, whether you win Cups or not," one top NHL executive said recently.

As in, take your shot, cast off parts that don't fit under the salary cap, and then make another run at it.

This season is no different. "It took some time because we had so many new players," Bowman acknowledged. "You're trying a bunch of new things."

Not everything worked. Early on, the Blackhawks' penalty kill was historically bad. Even though they've shown more structure of late, they still rank dead last in the league in penalty-killing efficiency.?

One former NHL coach told early in the season that he wondered if there would be enough offense in the revamped lineup to keep the Blackhawks competitive in what has historically been the most competitive division in hockey. The Blackhawks are tied for sixth in goals per game despite their shutout loss on Tuesday. That is also in spite of the fact that captain Jonathan Toews got off to a slow start, with no goals in his first eight games. Toews has picked up the pace of late while often playing alongside Kane.

Now this team will find out even more about itself over the next 11 days and six games, as it makes its way through Western Canada and Southern California.

One thing that Bowman looks forward to is the fact that his young players, like 20-year-old college star Nick Schmaltz and 20-year-old defenseman Gustav Forsling, will get their first chance to spend quality time with the rest of the veteran core that remains so much of the team's identity.

Those vets -- 37-year-old veteran Marian Hossa has 15 points in 16 games, for instance -- have helped to deflect some of the attention that might otherwise be on these young players as they get their NHL feet under them.

Now they'll get a chance to spend time together away from the rink and connect in a much more personal way -- something that's been difficult with veterans for the most part heading home to their families when the team's in Chicago.

"We want these guys to come together as teammates," Bowman said. "Right now they don't know each other all that well."

This road trip should change that, just as it might give us a clearer understanding of exactly what this Blackhawks team is capable of.