Tracey Myers

Blackhawks Camp Synopsis: Roster starting to take shape

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks Camp Synopsis: Roster starting to take shape

One week down, roughly one week to go.

Some things have fallen into place during the Blackhawks’ first seven days of training camp but this week is when it really gets interesting. The roster will continue to take shape and the competition for the few vacancies will intensify. Here’s a look at what we’ve already seen in Week 1 and questions for Week 2.

Stock Rising

Jordan Oesterle. We could put a few of the young forwards here, but we’ve talked about them quite a bit and will continue to do so. So right now let’s look at Oesterle, who coach Joel Quenneville liked “a lot” in Thursday’s game against the Red Wings. A puck moving defenseman, Oesterle said he played on the right side with the Edmonton Oilers but could also play on the left. If Oesterle has another good week of camp, that and his versatility might get him a chance on a Blackhawks defense still looking for the right pieces.  

Stock Falling

Tomas Jurco. Please realize where we’re coming from with this assessment: where does he fit in this lineup? He didn’t get a lot of opportunities last season but when he did play there wasn’t anything that made him stand out. Stan Bowman likes him and much like with David Rundblad, the Blackhawks want to give the Jurco a chance to justify the draft pick they gave up for him (a third-round selection from the 2017 draft). Several young guys are pushing hard for roster spots. Can Jurco be an every-day player or do the Blackhawks have a decision to make in favor of some of those up-and-coming players? Just very interested to see how this turns out.

Biggest surprise

Nick Schmaltz’s second-line center opportunity. Maybe we should’ve been more open minded to this happening but considering how little that line changed last year you figured Artem Anisimov and Patrick Kane would stay together even after the Artemi Panarin trade. But given the strides Schmaltz has made in his own game and the skating work he and Kane did together this offseason, Quenneville wants to see what Schmaltz can do in the middle. There’s always tinkering with this team; we really should have seen the possibility coming but we didn’t.

Some Remaining Questions

- If there’s one forward spot vacant out of training camp, which young player wins it? John Hayden. Here’s why: even if Alex DeBrincat doesn’t make this team out of camp, the Blackhawks’ top six is looking pretty good. Meanwhile the bottom six, especially that fourth line, has some holes. Getting a young player with some size, speed, skill and sandpaper that Quenneville likes and trusts (and he likes and trusts Hayden) would be a great addition to the bottom six.

- Will there be any surprises on defense? Maybe. Part of it depends on what the Blackhawks do about the Michal Rozsival situation. Rozsival didn’t pass his physical (upper body injury) and is not participating in camp. You hate to see someone go out like this, but it may be the end for the veteran. If so, the seventh defensive spot opens up and so do the Blackhawks options. After Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Connor Murphy you have Cody Franson (if the Blackhawks sign him), Oesterle and Jan Rutta who have made good preseason impacts. Michal Kempny’s in the mix, too. Gustav Forsling is on the bubble. He had a great camp last fall but didn’t improve off it; that has to change this season.

- Will the top line combination work? There’s no doubt the Blackhawks missed Brandon Saad. He may not have been facing the sturdiest Red Wings team on Thursday but Saad’s powerful game was nevertheless impressive and a reminder of how much the Blackhawks missed that element the last two seasons. But the Saad-Jonathan Toews-Richard Panik combo hasn’t gotten a great look yet — Toews missed Thursday’s game due to illness. Saturday should be the first chance to see if these three can really click.

Blackhawks: Alex DeBrincat’s instincts serve him well vs. Red Wings

Blackhawks: Alex DeBrincat’s instincts serve him well vs. Red Wings

Alex DeBrincat had an idea of what he wanted to do in this first home preseason game: apply what he’s learned lately when he could but ultimately stick with what he knew. While he thought he could have been better overall, he nevertheless made a good first impression.

DeBrincat had a goal and looked comfortable in the Blackhawks’ 6-1 victory over the Detroit Red Wings at the United Center. After excelling in the Ontario Hockey League the past three seasons the 19-year-old forward is going to get a good opportunity to show what he can do at this level. While the Red Wings weren’t stocking anywhere near a full roster – plenty of youth was featured in Detroit’s third preseason game in as many days – this was more about what DeBrincat could do with Nick Schmaltz and Patrick Kane.

“I felt pretty good out there,” he said. “There’s a lot of things I could improve on but overall I don’t think I played terrible. I’m still trying not to force plays and finding which one is the right play. Once I improve on that I should be pretty good.”

Pretty much everybody had a good night for the Blackhawks but coach Joel Quenneville wanted to get a good look at the second line overall and DeBrincat. The left wing held his own and scored his first preseason goal in the slot, a very familiar and productive area for him.

“Yeah, that’s kind of my sweet spot, so I felt pretty good about it,” DeBrincat said. “It’s 3-on-2 and [Richard Panik] made a great pass to me. I kind of had a muff on it, too. I got lucky it went in.”

While there are going to be things DeBrincat has to improve upon at this level, the skill is undeniable.

“I thought he had a great play on his goal, great instincts around the net, some nice plays,” Quenneville said. “Schmaltzy was dangerous on that line, Kaner, a lot of options and you can see that skill level, the thinking around the net. His plays around the offensive zone were good. We can say a lot of guys did good offensively and he was one of them.”

DeBrincat said several times that he felt he forced plays throughout the night but that’s not unheard of for a young player, be it one coming from the OHL or the AHL. Ryan Hartman said he did the same thing at the start of last season.

“First game, a little intimidated… young kids they’re respectful, and when you get a chance to play with a Kaner it’s like, wow. Whether you’re trying to get him the puck or thinking give and go, that chemistry evolves,” Quenneville said. “But I thought he was pretty comfortable in a lot of things.”

DeBrincat will get a few more looks before the Blackhawks decide what to do with him. Going from the OHL to the NHL is a big leap, and time in the AHL wouldn’t hurt him long term. Still, in his first week at camp DeBrincat’s instincts have been evident. His ability to adapt to a bigger, faster game has been, too.

“Honestly, for me it’s been pretty good. I’m competing pretty well. It’s just faster, and once I got adjusted to that, it’s not too hard,” he said. “I’m still trying to compete every day and just do the little things.”

DeBrincat-Schmaltz-Kane second line opens its (potential) show vs. Red Wings

DeBrincat-Schmaltz-Kane second line opens its (potential) show vs. Red Wings

Coach Joel Quenneville has seen the second line of Alex DeBrincat, Nick Schmaltz and Patrick Kane in a few practices and scrimmages thus far. Now he’ll test them against the opposition.

The trio is expected to be together when the Blackhawks face the Detroit Red Wings tonight at the United Center. Whether this becomes a line in the near future or further down the road (the more likely scenario), it’s a chance to see what the combination of speed and skill can do against another lineup, albeit against a prospect-laden Red Wings roster.

“Yeah, looking forward to seeing that group, Schmaltzy with Kaner is something I want to see as well,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “You’re looking for how guys connect as a pair or as line mates. Maybe there’s some chemistry you develop during a game like this.”

Quenneville’s additional look at Schmaltz and Kane is another reminder that the second-line, left-wing spot is the Blackhawks’ new “lottery spot.” DeBrincat is there now and he Schmaltz and Kane are definitely worth a look at this point of the preseason. The plusses are evident: some speed and plenty of skill. The biggest minus would be the lack of size on that line and faceoffs, which are going to be a work in progress for this team overall this season.

Still, the focus right now is what that line could do, be it in the immediate future or later down the road. While Kane is the veteran of the line, he doesn’t foresee having to do a lot of tutelage.

“Sometimes they ask a lot of questions throughout scrimmages and different things,” he said. “Right now you tell them to play their own game. The coaches will take them aside and tell them how to play and as time goes on, when they get more comfortable and even before the season you start talking about things you can work on or things that may be effective throughout the game. But not too much now. I just let them do their own thing.”

DeBrincat said he learned a lot from last year’s training camp that he tried to apply in his final season with the Erie Otters, from improving his overall game to taking better care of himself off the ice. As far as teaming with Kane and Schmaltz, he’ll go with what’s worked for him up to this point.

“Those two guys are very skilled players and for me, I’m just trying to find some open ice and get into open areas to where they can pass to me because both are tremendous passers,” he said. “I just have to find my areas and read off them.”

Thursday’s preseason home opener was about getting good looks, the one Quenneville will take of that whole second line – and of Kane and Schmaltz – and to see if that combination can generate anything off the good looks they’ll get against the Red Wings. For DeBrincat it’s a chance to see what he can do at the next level and whether it earns him something big now or later.

“I just wanted to get my chance and I think they’re giving me as many chances as they can,” DeBrincat said. “Hopefully I can just run away with it and do what I do.”