Hawk Talk: It's time to get real

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Hawk Talk: It's time to get real

Monday, Oct 3, 2011
Posted: 12:36 p.m. Updated: 3:57 p.m.
By Chris Boden
CSNChicago.com

Unless you're into exhibition wins and losses, the Blackhawks probably couldn't have asked for much more from their preseason. Provided Dave Bolland and Ben Smith return to practice early this week, as Joel Quenneville predicted Sunday, the most important thing was to enter the regular season healthy. If you don't ask Viktor Stalberg, they've done that, and Quenneville even indicated he might be back before the projected three weeks from Wednesday's apparent knee-on-knee collision. They just have to hope the Patrick Sharp appendectomy becomes the most significant of their freaky, quirky health encounters this season.

That holds true for the road ahead. I can't help feeling that key injuries would be the only thing preventing this year's team from making a long, deep run into the playoffs again. There are some interesting new contenders and obstacles in the West this season, which we'll take a closer look at later this week. The seven practice games didn't always provide proof of what the Hawks need from some veterans, both new and returning. They'll need some to play their roles better, and hope the opening bell Friday in Dallas supplies that. Some need to play smarter and tighter. Others need to find that extra dose of mean-streak, or that final gear, or simply familiarity with another ample dose of off-season roster turnover. Just like any other preseason. But the pieces assembled, the talent on-hand, and the work of Quenneville and his staff should make this a pretty fun ride.

Two surprises emerged from the past 2-12 weeks: Brandon Saad and Patrick Kane. Saad doesn't turn 19 for another three weeks, but already has an NHL body and consistently made the right play during exhibitions, whether it put his name on the scoresheet or not. He could be back in juniors by, or shortly after, that Oct. 27th birthday, but his star rose quickly here after it fell to the second round in the June draft. Camp was just a continuation of what he displayed with the team's other prospects in July, as well as the rookie tournament early last month.

Despite early, widespread doubts, the Kane Experiment in the middle hasshowed promise. He had a rough day in the faceoff circle Sunday, goingup against more experienced centers, especially with Jonathan Toewsnot making the trip. He'll need to grow as he goes along in order tostay there, but he won slightly more than half of his faceoffs overthree games. Entering a season in which he hopes to elevate his gameinto the Hart Trophy conversation, he could do worse than playingbetween Marian Hossa and Andrew Brunette.

The flip side of Kane-at-center is part of the reason it came about. Marcus Kruger didn't live up to what coaches and management expected these past couple of weeks and was outplayed by Brandon Pirri.Both wound up being sent to Rockford Monday, meaning (barring a latetrade or signing) fourth-line anchor duties could initially rest with Jamal Mayers or Ben Smith. Both Kane and Sharp would not be used at center at the same time, unless it's an emergency.

The Corey Crawford we saw in his three starts looked very much like the one we saw carry the team down the stretch last season, easing Sophomore Slump concerns of some. So what would the start of a Blackhawks season be without some goalie angst (Turco, Niemi, Huet, Khabibulin, etc.)? This one fell to the backup decision that went to Ray Emery Monday afternoon.

He caught some tough breaks, but made mistakes of his own, both in decision-making and rebound control. After not finding takers this summer and coming here on a tryout deal, he likely did not raise his value much in other teams' eyes. But he's taken a team to the Stanley Cup Finals and was very sharp when Anaheim needed it most down the stretch last season after Jonas Hiller was sidelined. That came approximately a year after hip surgery that most people thought would end his career. Some respected, experienced observers expressed concern over a drop in his quickness during camp, even compared to last spring's duty with the Ducks.

More time in Rockford certainly can't hurt Alexander Salak, who had the more impressive camp, but owns just two games of NHL experience, two years ago. Would he be able to handle the backup role like Antti Niemi did a couple of years ago? He played only 32 (roughly half) of his Swedish Elite team's games a year ago, but enjoyed his best season. In the end, the decision was Emery, with the trust his game will improve as he continues working with Stephane Waite and the Hawks' staff. This time a year ago, he was shedding crutches. If he can overcome that, Hawks brass feels he can find a way to regain the form he reached just six months ago.

The good news is the NHL preseason is the shortest of all major sports. The bad news is it still doesn't provide clear answers to every single question we've had.

Chris Boden is the host of Blackhawks Pre and Postgame Live on Comcast SportsNet.

Blackhawks: Keith unlikely to play first four preseason games

Blackhawks: Keith unlikely to play first four preseason games

Duncan Keith was already deemed unlikely to play in many, if any, Blackhawks preseason games, when training camp opened. As of now, it doesn’t look like he’ll be in the first few.

Keith will probably not play in the Blackhawks’ first four preseason games, assistant coach Kevin Dineen said following Monday’s training camp sessions. As for whether or not Keith will play in any, that’s still up in the air.

“That’s a question that Dunc and the medical staff, Stan [Bowman], Joel [Quenneville], we’ll all get to that. I wouldn’t foresee him certainly in these first four games. I would say that’s not going to happen,” Dineen said. “We’ll let him keep progressing on his timetable that he’s on now.”

Keith has been participating in one practice each day but has not been in any of the scrimmages. Assistant coach Mike Kitchen said Keith has asked to skate in the team’s second practice each day – each session is about 20-25 minutes – but the Blackhawks have told him no. As of now, both Dineen and Kitchen figure Keith will be ready for the regular-season opener but the Blackhawks will continue to be prudent with him.

“He’s out there wheeling around, doing well,” Dineen said. “We had a good chat with him today. He feels like he has a lot of jump but not a lot of stamina right now. We’ll continue the way we’ve handled it so far. We’ll keep moving forward that way.”

Players returning soon

Patrick Kane, who was at the United Center on Monday afternoon, will skate with the Blackhawks on Tuesday. Defenseman Michal Kempny will also join Tuesday’s sessions. Dineen said Niklas Hjalmarsson, Marcus Kruger, Artem Anisimov and Artemi Panarin are expected to join the Blackhawks on Friday.

Neither Kane nor Kempny are expected to play Wednesday vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins.

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Pokka is back

Defenseman Ville Pokka, who played for Team Finland in the World Cup of Hockey, skated with the Blackhawks on Monday.

“Anybody coming back from Toronto over the last two weeks is going to have a heck of a lot of confidence,” Dineen said. “A young kid like that getting the chance to represent his country on the international stage is a great honor and a pick-me-up heading into training camp and the season.”

First cuts made

The Blackhawks made their first round of cuts on Monday, sending Radovan Bondra, John Dahlstrom, Nathan Noel and Roy Radke to their respective junior teams. The active roster is now at 57 players.

Dennis Rasmussen looks to build off experience

Dennis Rasmussen looks to build off experience

The Blackhawks’ offseason moves have once again left holes, especially among the forward lines. Considering the experience Dennis Rasmussen gained last season, he could certainly grab the third- or fourth-line center spot.

But Rasmussen isn’t going to pencil in anything yet.

“I don’t really think that way. I always think I have to play as good as possible to earn a spot, and that’s what I think this year, too,” said Rasmussen on Day 3 of Blackhawks training camp. “But it’s really up to me. I have to play well to earn my spot here. That’s what I’m trying to focus on.”

After trading Andrew Shaw, Teuvo Teravainen and Bryan Bickell this offseason, the Blackhawks will be looking for several players to step up and fill voids. Center is one of those spots, and Rasmussen played 44 games there with the Blackhawks last season. Rasmussen spent the long offseason prepping for this campaign, focusing on one thing in particular.

“I always try to work on getting faster, that’s the part of my game I can really improve,” he said. “I can improve everything. But especially getting quicker, that’s what I’m trying to focus.”

Anything else Rasmussen has to do to take that next step?

“I think he’s got to be a little more proactive than reactive out on the ice,” Blackhawks assistant coach Mike Kitchen said. “Kind of be a little bolder in different areas whether it’s in the offensive zone if you’re down between the hash marks, hey, try and take a guy on 1-on-1. But if you’re a neutral zone, you got to be a little more responsible. If you got to pick up the wide winger and come back and play good defensive hockey, that’s what you’ve got to do.”

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Rasmussen showed that when he made his NHL debut last season. The Blackhawks recalled him in early December, when they were looking to bolster their bottom six; any offense added was a bonus. He scored three of his four goals in his first seven games – his first came in his NHL debut vs. Nashville.

“He can make more things happen out there,” Kitchen said. “I think he understands that too because he wants to do whatever it takes to make the team.”

Rasmussen wants to be part of this group. He gained some great experience last year, and he hopes it serves him well in trying to get that roster spot this season.

“It was great for me. I got to play a lot, think I played in some important situations sometimes and I was really happy with last year. It gave me a lot of confidence, a lot of experience too,” Rasmussen said. “So hopefully I can bring that into this year.”