Chicago Blackhawks

Around the NHL at the All-Star break

Around the NHL at the All-Star break

Thursday, Jan. 27, 2011
Posted 8:38 p.m.

By Kevin Kurz
CSNPhilly.com

The first half of the NHL season has featured some surprising developments, some unsurprising ones, and another comeback attempt by Peter Forsberg.

Heres a quick look around the league as it shuts down for its annual Olympics-or-All-Star break.
Biggest surprise (team): Tampa Bay Lightning

When your biggest offseason acquisition is in the front office, its usually a sign that your team is in for a long season. Thats not the case in Tampa Bay, though, as NHL legend Steve Yzerman has turned the Lightning into a contender right away. It helps when you have the next NHL superstar (and leagues leading scorer) in Steven Stamkos, of course, but fellow forward Martin St. Louis is having a resurgence as the Lightning enter the break with a five-game winning streak and a four- point lead on Washington for first place in the Southeast Division. Veteran goalie Dwayne Roloson was a savvy pickup by Yzerman, and dont be surprised to see the Lightning make some noise in the postseason.
Honorable mention: Dallas Stars

You have to feel for the Dallas Stars, who are quietly leading the ultra-competitive Pacific Division yet struggling to fill their beautiful arena. No matter to Brad Richards and Kari Lehtonen, though, as the forward and goaltender look like they are primed to help end a two-year playoff drought for Texas only NHL team.
Biggest disappointment (team): New Jersey Devils
This ones easy. The Devils signed prized free agent Ilya Kovalchuk to a 100 million contract in the offseason and looked like a strong contender for their fourth Stanley Cup, but they have been anything but instead entering the break with the fewest points in the league. The team has gotten a little bit better now that Jacques Lemaire has returned and re-installed his sleep-inducing defensive system, and even Kovalchuk is starting to produce, but their season is essentially over.
Honorable mention: San Jose Sharks
The Western Conference regular season champions the last two seasons, the San Jose Sharks are fighting just to stay in the playoff race. A 4-0-1 stretch before the All-Star break offers some hope, but it came only after a six-game losing streak threatened to derail their season altogether. Rob Blakes retirement left a huge void on the blue line that was never filled, and the so-called Big Three of Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau are all off of their career scoring averages. There is some hope, however, as rookie Logan Couture looks like a future star and goalie Antti Niemi has played very well for the past two months.

Biggest surprise (player): Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens

The Montreal Canadiens were roundly criticized for trading playoff hero Jaroslav Halak to St. Louis in the offseason, thereby handing the reigns to Price between the pipes. Price, though, who previously looked like a victim of the tremendous pressure heaped upon him by playing in the hockey capital of North America (sorry Toronto), has been outstanding. His 2.36 goals-against average and .920 save percentage at the break earned him an All-Star berth, but more importantly, he has the Canadiens in good position to challenge Boston for the Northeast Division crown.
Biggest disappointment (player): Dion Phaneuf, Toronto Maple Leafs

Kovalchuk would be the easy pick here, but it already feels like hes old news. Instead, lets go with the Maple Leafs captain, defenseman Dion Phaneuf. The big blueliner was acquired by Toronto last season in the hopes that his defensive presence and leadership skills would lead the Maple Leafs back to the playoffs for the first time since before the lockout. Well, better luck next year. Toronto is on its way to another long offseason, and while Phaneuf can still hit hard and be an effective player in his own zone, he has a paltry one goal and 10 assists in 33 games.
Rising star: Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers

On a team full of offensive stars, the Flyers Claude Giroux may possess the most pure ability. Giroux can do it all shoot, pass, defend and contribute on special teams. He leads the first-place Flyers with 47 points (tied with Mike Richards) and has made a number of dazzling, highlight-reel plays that seem to suggest that the 23-year-old will be an NHL star for many years to come.

Falling star: Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils

Martin Brodeurs numbers are obviously somewhat of an extension of how bad his Devils have been as a whole, but he hasnt done anything to help the cause, either. In fact, backup Johan Hedberg has even started back-to-back games for the Devils with a healthy Brodeur on the bench something unheard of in Brodeurs heyday. The future Hall of Fame goaltender make look back upon the second half of last season and subsequent first round playoff defeat last April as the beginning of the end to a brilliant career.

Second half storylines:
Will the defending Cup champs turn it around?

Sure, theyve been hampered by injuries throughout the year, but the Chicago Blackhawks have been a portrait of inconsistency this season. They already had to deal with a huge roster turnover from their championship team, but they still have enough talent on both ends of the ice to make another run this season. With names like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp, dont count them out. They could be the one team no one in the West wants to face come postseason time.Will Sidney Crosby return to form after his concussion?

Sidney Crosby has been, undoubtedly, the best player in the NHL this season. But the fact that hes been out of the lineup for most of the month of January with a concussion has to be concerning for the Penguins (and for the NHL, which endlessly promotes his every move while overlooking some of the games other starsbut I digress). Crosby doesnt have any sort of history when it comes to head injuries, so theres not much reason to believe he wont pick up where he left off before he got hurt. Thats the thing when it comes to concussions, though they are terribly unpredictable.

Will Peter Forsberg return?

Its a shame that Peter Forsbergs name has become a punch line in the last few years, what with his multitude of comebacks always falling by the wayside. Hes again attempting to get back into the NHL with the Colorado Avalanche, and it might even happen. Even so, it may be painful to watch him try and regain his form from years past, if he ever makes it back into game action (see 2010 Olympics, in which he had one assist in four games).

Will the Capitals start scoring again?

The NHL leaders for most of last season thanks to a non-stop attack on offense, the Washington Capitals have inexplicably struggled to find the back of the net. That includes Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, who have a combined 10 goals in the last 25 games heading into the break (nine by Ovechkin). Its safe to say that no one expected the Caps to be tied for 17th in the NHL at this point in the year, with just 2.71 goals per game.

Can the Flyers and Canucks keep up their torrid pace?

Stanley Cups arent won in January, and thats likely the message that coaches Peter Laviolette and Alain Vigneault will give their respective clubs coming out of the break. Right now, however, theres little disputing that these are the two best teams in hockey right now. Philadelphia has arguably the deepest offense and deepest defense in the Eastern Conference, while the Canucks are led by Henrik and Daniel Sedin, who are in the prime of their careers and are nothing short of magical on the ice together. Seeing these two teams battle in the Stanley Cup Finals is a distinct possibility.

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.