Chicago Blackhawks

After much-needed break, Blackhawks better be ready

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After much-needed break, Blackhawks better be ready

The Blackhawks will go their separate ways for the next few days. Some will stick around town. Some will head to their hometowns. Some will head to warmer locales.

But one thing is certain: they all have to come back focused and ready to go for the final stretch run. And they have to come back ready to do it in some unfriendly places.

The Blackhawks didnt go into the break the way they wouldve liked, suffering two straight losses to the division-rival Nashville Predators. But thats in the past. With 32 games remaining, the Blackhawks need to shore up some inconsistencies and stake their claim to one of the Western Conferences top spots.

Weve got to get away a little bit. But this is all about getting rest and making sure were ready to go the last 32 games, Duncan Keith said. I think thats what everybody needs to use this break for is to rest up, get strong and make sure were taking care of ourselves and feeling good when we come back.

Theyll need to be, because the schedule out of the break is a daunting one. The Blackhawks face a mammoth nine-game road trip beginning with Northwest front-runner Vancouver on Jan. 31. Other opponents include the division rival Predators against whom the Blackhawks are now 1-2-0 this season the Easts best New York Rangers and Pacific leader San Jose.

Its not a fun schedule. Yes, the Blackhawks will get home twice to break up the three-week trek across the country. But between the travel and the opponents, its going to be a taxing three weeks nonetheless.

Its going to be a lot tougher going on the road now, going out west. Its not going to be easy, Dave Bolland said. The breaks going to be good for us to recharge and get our batteries back.

Itll also be good if they can get two of their best players back. Jonathan Toews (left armhand) and Patrick Sharp (wrist) will be on the Blackhawks trip to Vancouver at the end of January. They could play in that game, or soon after. Having this week off gives both a chance to get a little healthier.

Crunch time is just about here. The Blackhawks have a few days to get away from the daily grind, rest and heal. Come Monday, theyre back in the Western Conference fight.

Jonathan Toews explains why he altered his offseason training regime: 'I might have overdone it'

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USA TODAY

Jonathan Toews explains why he altered his offseason training regime: 'I might have overdone it'

Days after the Blackhawks were swept in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Jonathan Toews made it known that he wanted to make "some little changes" to his offseason training program.

He went on to say that he never quite reached the level of play that he wanted to during the 2016-17 season after scoring a career-low 21 goals and totaling 58 points for the second straight year. Not bad, but not great by his standards.

In a recent interview with Sportsnet's Chris Johnston, Toews opened up about why he altered his offseason regime from the previous year.

“Last summer is the first time I really got the time to train really hard and I might have overdone it in the wrong way," Toews admitted. "Just worrying about power and strength all the time. I came into the season and just couldn’t move, just felt slow. I mean the game is so fast nowadays. It’s kind of a wake-up call in that sense.”

The game indeed is getting faster, and younger players are breaking into the league much quicker because of it. Look no further than Connor McDavid, who's quickly emerged as the face of the NHL.

It's also evident after watching the Pittsburgh Penguins win back-to-back Stanley Cups with their speed, not necessarily grit.

Toews recognizes that, and it's why he's making the necessary changes to help return to top form and get the Blackhawks back on track in doing so.

“When you see the top players nowadays they’re all on the ice,” Toews said. “They’re on the ice all the time just working on skill and that’s something I’m really going to focus on going forward.

"Just getting back to playing with the puck, knowing that that’s the type of player I am, and not just being overly concerned with the defensive two-way hockey but knowing that I can go out there and contribute with the best of them, too, if I put my mind to it a little bit more.”

Projecting Blackhawks' Opening Day lineup in 2017-18

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USA TODAY

Projecting Blackhawks' Opening Day lineup in 2017-18

With Blackhawks single-game tickets having gone on sale Monday — and less than a month away from the first preseason game of the 2017-18 season — it's time to start breaking down what the team's lineup could look like on Opening Day.

Brian Campbell, Scott Darling, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Marcus Kruger, Artemi Panarin and Trevor van Riemsdyk were among Chicago's key departures in an offseason makeover, along with Marian Hossa, who's sitting out the upcoming campaign with a medical condition.

There are plenty of important shoes to fill. So how will the reformed Blackhawks stack up?

Let's give it a crack.

(A quick note: All indications are that the Blackhawks will place Hossa on long-term injured reserve as soon as the regular season starts, so we didn't include him on the 23-man Opening Day roster even though he will be. Instead, we added an extra player we believe will serve as the 23rd man going forward.)

First line: Brandon Saad - Jonathan Toews - Richard Panik

Second line: Patrick Sharp - Artem Anisimov - Patrick Kane

Third line: Ryan Hartman - Nick Schmaltz - Tomas Jurco

Fourth line: Lance Bouma - Tanner Kero - Tommy Wingels

Extras: Jordin Tootoo

Thoughts: 

— It's practically a lock that Joel Quenneville will open the season with Saad-Toews-Panik at the top, but that doesn't necessarily mean it'll stay that way or finish like that. At the Blackhawks Convention in July, Quenneville toyed with the idea of even putting Sharp on the first unit alongside Saad and Toews after the 35-year-old veteran looked "unbelievable" in the gym during offseason workouts.

— Speaking of Sharp, we're slotting him in at that second-line left wing position to start based off Quenneville's high praise of the winger. And it makes sense, trying to rekindle some magic with Kane off the bat and provide stability on the top-six while spreading out the bottom-six.

— Schmaltz could certainly be a candidate to jump up to the second line with Anisimov and Kane (or perhaps even swap center positions with Anisimov, but we won't get cute early on). The lack of center depth, however, might force him into a third-line center role to start, which isn't the worst idea. He won only 30.9 percent of his faceoffs last season, and the only way to get better is by taking more reps. 

— Hartman and Jurco each spent more time on the left wing than right with the Blackhawks last year, but Jurco played more on the right side in Detroit so that's where we pegged him here. He's probably going to get a longer leash to nail down a full-time spot, and be put in a position to succeed in a third-line role. 

— To round out the four-line rotation, Kero is surely going to play the role of Kruger by handling the bulk of defensive zone draws with newly-signed versatile forwards Bouma and Wingels serving as his wingmen. Tootoo comes in as the extra. 

— It will be tempting to throw highly-touted prospect Alex DeBrincat into the fire right away, but there's no need to rush it and we don't believe the Blackhawks will, either. He's still only 19 years old, and it'd be asking way too much of the 5-foot-7, 170-pound OHL player of the year to log important minutes straight out of juniors.

— That leaves Laurent Dauphin, Alexandre Fortin, John Hayden, Vinnie Hinostroza and David Kampf off the roster for now as well, and it's not a bad thing. There just isn't enough room for everybody, and their developments are better served playing every day in the AHL rather than being fringe players in the NHL and taking turns sitting in the press box.

No. 1 defensive pairing: Duncan Keith - Connor Murphy

No. 2 defensive pairing: Michal Kempny - Brent Seabrook

No. 3 defensive pairing: Gustav Forsling - Jan Rutta

Extras: Jordan Oesterle, Michal Rozsival

Thoughts:

— First off, there is no replacing Hjalmarsson. He was a linch-pin on the Blackhawks' blue line for a decade. It will take a collective effort to help alleviate that loss. While Murphy's defensive game needs improvement, he has to be the favorite to play alongside Keith strictly based on balancing out the rotation. It also helps that he's a right-handed shot, complementing the left-handed two-time Norris Trophy winner.

— Kempny and Seabrook had really strong possession numbers together last season, and should formulate the second unit. Kempny struggled to anchor down an every-day spot in his rookie campaign because of his defensive inconsistencies, but Quenneville is likely to give him an extended leash just like he did with the youngsters last year, simply because he has to.

— Forsling showed real promise in training camp a year ago, and it was enough to break last year's Opening Day roster. He stayed on for the first half before being assigned to Rockford, but it was necessary for his development in order to secure a full-time spot this year.

— Oesterle and Rutta — and perhaps even prospect Ville Pokka — are expected to vie for the sixth spot, with Rozsival serving as the seventh defenseman for insurance. We have the 27-year-old Czech defenseman getting the first crack at it, but it could be an ongoing competition for much of the year.

Starting goaltender: Corey Crawford

Backup goaltender: Anton Forsberg

Thoughts:

— For the first time in a while, the Blackhawks are heading into the season with some uncertainty surrounding their backup goaltending situation. Crawford is the clear-cut starter, but for two-plus years the Blackhawks felt like they've always had two No. 1s with Darling.

— Forsberg legitimately might be the X-factor for the Blackhawks' season. Darling appeared in 32 games last season, and 29 the year before, essentially starting one-third of the team's games over the last two years. And he thrived in that role. Forsberg has high potential, but can he take that next step and be a consistent goaltender the Blackhawks need him to be? That's the question that nobody can answer until we actually see it.

— If the Forsberg experiment doesn't work out, or they prefer to enhance his development with every-day starts in Rockford, the Blackhawks signed Jean-Francois Berube who could see some playing time. But it's Forsberg's job to lose.