Competition for roster spots will be intense


Competition for roster spots will be intense

Thursday's discouraging news on the labor front, in which NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced there would be a lockout on September 15 if a new collective bargaining agreement is not reached, has a trickle-down effect.
It likely means the Blackhawks and the 29 other teams will be even quieter on player movement until a new CBA is reached. General Managers still wanting to make roster moves can have discussions and perhaps set the table for doing things in what could well be a flurry of activity once the labor pains go away.As I wrote earlier in the week, I believe Stan Bowman wouldn't mind making some moves, but he doesn't necessarily feel he has to if he's not getting what he'd like in return. Sure, every fan has their trade proposals, realistic or not, from either team's standpoint. But it's also not Fantasy Hockey, it's the real thing. The Hawks' Vice President and General Manager has made one move this offseason, signing former Anaheim defenseman Sheldon Brookbank to add some size and toughness on the back, and hopefully an effective penalty-killing option.While there have been some names rumored to be on the trading block, let's take a closer look at what happens if the Hawks end up standing pat, whenever the 2012-13 training camp and regular season gets underway. It would result in some spirited competition for roster spots and ice time, primarily because some young players Hawks fans have been intrigued (or excited) by are on the verge of playing at the highest level.Toews, Sharp, Hossa, and Kane are four of the top six forwards. Part of the decision in your mock lineup has to do with whether Kane winds up at center. Since the post-playoff news conference, it sounds as if that's become less likely. And barring a deal to bring in a number-two pivot, Marcus Kruger and Dave Bolland would be your second-and-third-line centers, or vice-versa.If Viktor Stalberg's on the roster, he'd seem best suited on the top two lines rather than the bottom two as the team expects him to become a more complete player on the defensive end. Do you then reunite the effective second line when Toews was sidelined late last season, which was Stalberg-Kruger-Sharp? Provided you do that, then who plays with Toews and Kane? An agitatorgrinder like Carcillo or Shaw? Does Brandon Saad continue to impress in camp and bring additional size to that line? You can only pick one, so the other two have to be dropped down somewhere.Moving to the so-called "third line" - with Bolland or Kruger in the middle. Is the best bet (or do you expect) to reunite the best line in the playoffs the last two seasons - Bolland, Bickell and Frolik? The wingers didn't come close to carrying that momentum into last regular season and combined for their share of healthy scratches. Of the trio mentioned earlier for top-line options, just one makes it. The other two must drop down somewhere. Here? Fourth line? Is Jimmy Hayes ready to grab full-time duty at this level? That comes with the knowledge that, similar to Saad, they need to play regularly to grow into whatever potential you project for them.There's one more line to fill out. Figure Jamal Mayers as one piece. Brandon Bollig became a likable addition last season, but if everyone's healthy at the start, is there a spot for him? Did you like the upsides of Ben Smith and Jeremy Morin a year ago? Did the fact each struggled with injuries last season ruin their realistic chances to contribute this year? Or can they provide things this Hawks team could use, with the opportunity to grow with regular playing time? The Stanley Cup isn't won (but could certainly be lost) in the first couple of months. And I haven't even brought up the name of the player generally considered the best, start-to-finish, at Rockford last season, Brandon Pirri.So that's 18 forwards for 12 spots. As the roster stands, figure 10 are pretty much "locks" for the regular lineup (Sharp, Carcillo, Kruger, Toews, Mayers, Stalberg, Bolland, Shaw, Hossa, Kane). That leaves two spots to fight over. See? A trade package could loosen things up a bit. Or you have a lot of guys needing to earn it under what should be a head coach carrying a much more critical eye into this season.Bowman has eight defensemen with NHL experience. We know Keith, Seabrook, Leddy and Oduya will play. What'll be more curious is whether skaters Leddy and Oduya remain paired like they were in the playoffs, or if it's better to have a more physical presence beside them, and how Hjalmarsson fits into the mix. Brookbank is here, Montador remains, and how high is Dylan Olsen's upside? All of them will have to be better with what they're here to do, by definition of their position. Corey Crawford must do a better job of bailing them out the times they do get too loose.There's no question improvement from these younger players, whose time is almost here, can make this team better. There are size and "sandpaper" elements on this massive list that could conceivably repair the power play. I've also mentioned in the past how I'd love to see Olsen work on his booming shot so that it could potentially be a factor on the power play. Maybe the team has him doing that. Can enough of these ingredients fix the special teams next season?Unless Stan Bowman gets what he wants in return (and by the numbers, you can see there are options to package on the market with the right trade partner), it's just about time to see how "NHL-legit" some of these kids can be. All of you have in your own minds what the upside is on all these players, young and experienced.
So break out your pencil. Make sure it has an eraser. And draw up who stays...and who goes...if Stan stands pat.

Johnny Oduya feeling better, more up to speed with Blackhawks

Johnny Oduya feeling better, more up to speed with Blackhawks

Perhaps the best thing about the Johnny Oduya trade back to the Blackhawks, for both parties involved, was that Oduya wasn't needed immediately.

It's not that the Blackhawks didn't want the veteran defenseman, who helped them win Cups in 2013 and 2015, back in the lineup as soon as possible. Oduya was coming off an ankle injury, one he re-aggravated and missed about a month when he was with the Dallas Stars. He needed time to fully heal and with the Blackhawks in good shape in the standings and with solid depth at defense, he could.

Now with the playoffs right around the corner, Oduya is feeling more like himself.

Outside of missing two games that were the second halves of back-to-backs, Oduya has been playing steadily since March 9. Oduya's minutes have ranged from around 16 to 21 in games. He said he's now 100 percent healthy from his injury and he's feeling the difference on the ice.

"It makes a big difference," Oduya said on Thursday, prior to facing the Stars for the first time since his trade back to Chicago. "I mean, obviously sometimes you get more or less lucky, depending on what you get and the style of play and what you do or not. Skating is a part of my game I try to use as much as possible to get in good position and try to take away time from the opposition as much as possible.

"Even with battling and things like that, of course it's nice to feel more confident," Oduya added. "In any situation, you're in you want to feel confident on the ice."

The Blackhawks have seen that confidence in previous postseason runs and are looking to see it again in Oduya. Coach Joel Quenneville considers Oduya, "Mr. Reliability."

"You look back at what he delivered for us, not just the regular season, but he's been solid and reliable in the playoffs. He's assumed some important matchups and important minutes," Quenneville said. "Last year, we didn't have him on the back end and watching him this year, it was the perfect fit him coming back."

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The Blackhawks' defensive group hasn't changed much since Oduya's first stint here. The system probably hasn't been altered much, either. Still, Oduya's not taking anything for granted and is trying to get back on the same page quickly.

"Same as the last time I came into a great hockey team and I really just want to get up to speed and up to date as quickly as possible," Oduya said. "Little things that may have changed. I want to fit in as well as I can. That's the idea anyone has coming in late in the year. The guys here make it pretty easy; the coaching staff is familiar with the way I play and helps speed up things a little more."

The Blackhawks are trying to be their best heading into the postseason. So is Oduya. He needed a little extra time to get back to health and he may still need a little time to get back to speed, but he's just about there. 

"I feel pretty good. Of course it's a lot easier when you have guys around you you've seen before, a coaching staff," Oduya said. "It's a work in progress, anyway. I want to be better, I want to evolve with the team and want us to be better, too. It's a work in progress."

Quick Hits from Blackhawks-Stars: Another slow start but better finish

Quick Hits from Blackhawks-Stars: Another slow start but better finish

It wasn't pretty, but the Blackhawks found a way to pick up another two points and improved to 6-0-1 over their last seven games, and 18-3-1 over their last 22.

With Minnesota's loss to Philadelphia, the Blackhawks have taken an eight-point lead for first in the Central Division and are only two points away from the Washington Capitals for home-ice advantage throughout the entire Stanley Cup playoffs.

Let's take a look at Quick Hits from the 3-2 shootout victory over the Dallas Stars on Thursday night:

What Worked: The finish and shootout. While the Blackhawks scored the game's first goal, it was another slow start by a team that has had a few of those over the last several outings and has preached working on turning in more of a complete effort. They recorded only 14 shots on goal in the first two periods, and it took more than six minutes after Patrick Kane's goal to record their next one.

But they finished on a positive note yet again, and went 2-for-3 in the shootout thanks to Kane and Artemi Panarin, who potted the game winner. Kane said after the game that he tried his move on Scott Darling during morning skate and it worked. So he went with it tonight in an effort to snap a mini shootout drought and he did.

What Didn't Work: Controlling the puck. The Blackhawks seemingly have the puck more than their opponent does almost every game, but it doesn't reflect in the shot department because they often look for the perfect pass or shot and fail to record one at all. They had 50 shot attempts with 26 of them on goal compared to the Stars' 64 attempts with 44 on goal. They know they must get better at that.

Star of the game: Corey Crawford. After allowing four goals on only 10 shots in Tuesday's overtime loss to Vancouver, the Blackhawks netminder bounced back in a huge way. He matched a season-high with 42 saves, and recorded his 30th win of the season.

He Said It: "He played amazing tonight. Reason we won the game. Hats off to him, he's done that a lot this year. For a goalie it's probably tough to show up every night, even the goals he let in last game you can't put all the blame on him, but he was outstanding tonight." — Kane on Crawford's performance

By the Numbers:

167 — Niklas Hjalmarsson blocked one shot in the win, and it was enough to set a new career high in that department, previously established during the 2010-11 campaign (166).

15 — Trevor van Riemsyk assisted on Marian Hossa's goal in the third period, giving him a career-high 15 points on the season in 50 games. He had 14 points in 82 games last year. He also extended his point streak to three games.

6 — With the victory, Crawford has earned at least 30 wins in six of his seven NHL seasons as a full-time starter. The only time he didn't reach that mark was during the lockout-shortened year in 2012-13 when he went 19-5-5.