Chicago Blackhawks

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' young players brimming with confidence

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks' young players brimming with confidence

Ryan Hartman is entering this training camp with a much higher level of confidence. Having a spot on this roster, something he wasn’t sure he’d have entering last fall, helps. But the confidence is a byproduct of his entire rookie season and every experience it brought with it.

“You get a full season under your belt and you’re able to feel out the game, adjust your speed and your quickness to the pace of the NHL game,” he said. “Last year was a big step for all of us, coming in here this year knowing what to expect, knowing how to play their game right and thinking of what to do on the ice.”

As several of the Blackhawks embark on their second season in the NHL there’s more certainty in their approach, whether they’re already part of this roster (Hartman and Nick Schmaltz) or trying to get one of the few coveted spots remaining (John Hayden and Vinnie Hinostroza).

When Schmaltz entered camp last fall he was fresh out of college and admittedly apprehensive – “I was nervous coming in, didn’t know if it was going to work,” he said at the team’s convention in July. There has been none of that this past week. A stronger, more confident Schmaltz has emerged, one that’s approached coach Joel Quenneville enough to give him a shot at the second-line center role.

“Yeah, it’s just familiarity with the coaching and the players,” he said. “You just know what to expect, you kind of come in with a good mindset and start off on the right track right away.”

Much like 2016, Hinostroza is on the bubble again this fall. But unlike last September he’s not sweating what may or may not happen out of camp.

“This year I feel like I’m more mentally stronger, more mature,” he said. “I don’t feel pressure at all. Maybe a year ago I did, thinking, ‘what are these guys going to do?’ But this year… I’m trying to focus on myself and I’m confident where I’m at. I made some improvements. I’m just going to believe in myself and the rest will play out.”

Hayden, on the same bubble as Hinostroza, got a taste of the NHL late last spring following his senior season at Yale. It was a small sample size but Hayden nevertheless got a good idea of what to work on entering the fall – improving his speed was a big focus – and what to expect overall.

“It’s so fast at this level. So yeah, it definitely helped playing games at the end of the year. If anything, told myself I belong at this level. There are familiar faces at camp, and it’s my job to prove I deserve to be on the team,” he said. “No [pressure]; you just control what you can and that’s my play. I put the work in for the offseason and now I have to play my game.”

Hartman’s biggest adjustment came with the speed, too – “it’s a completely different level from Rockford to here, the pace of play and how quickly everything happens,” he said. That, and being confident enough to know when to hold the puck and when to give it up.

“Right away I was getting the puck and wanting to get it to someone else just so I didn’t make a mistake. Now I’m trying to make plays and trying to better the team,” Hartman said. “I definitely feel pretty good this year.”

For the Blackhawks who got their first taste here last season, the wide-eyed part of the NHL indoctrination is over. Now to keep building on the experience. And the confidence.

Blackhawks' Alexandre Fortin finding form again after offseason surgery

Blackhawks' Alexandre Fortin finding form again after offseason surgery

Alexandre Fortin was grateful to be back on the ice this weekend, back in Chicago where he wowed the Blackhawks last fall and nearly found a spot on the regular-season roster.

His thoughts are on repeating that camp performance. What he has to keep his mind clear of, however, is the sports hernia and surgery that sidelined him for part of the summer.

“It’s normal. You don’t want to get hurt again,” he said. “When you’re starting in camp like that, everyone’s good so you just have to get to a high level quick. At the same time, you just have to [listen to] your body and do things right.”

When Fortin has been on the ice, however, he’s been impressive. Following Sunday’s outing coach Joel Quenneville talked of the young forward showing the abilities that made him such a pleasant camp surprise in 2016.

“He’s coming off that injury, missed a day and change but [Sunday] all of a sudden he had his legs, his stride back,” Quenneville said. “He’s a fast player who can back off defensemen and this year, this camp, at least we got him out there and captured that speed. He can be useful.”

Fortin had sports hernia surgery in late June; he was present at the Blackhawks’ prospect camp in July but, because of the recent surgery, was limited to off-ice workouts. He was back on ice at the team’s prospect tournament in Traverse City, Mich., where the Blackhawks claimed the tournament title. That helped Fortin feel more comfortable again as he returned for his second Blackhawks camp, but he’ll keep an eye on things to make sure he doesn’t re-aggravate his hernia.

“I’m in good hands here and they know what to do with me,” I just do what they ask me. Camp is long, so we’ll just keep improving every day.”

The good thing is the Blackhawks are again happy with what Fortin is doing, even in his limited work at camp. The problem is there probably won’t be room for him, at least in the early going. The Blackhawks’ depth signings in early July mean a lot of one-way contracts, and other young guys – Alex DeBrincat and John Hayden among them – are also vying for a roster spot.

Fortin will mind his injury but still wants to go through this camp the same way he did the last one, playing his strongest game and looking for an opportunity. Whether it happens now or later, he’s happy to get it.

“I mean, camp is long so you have to focus on what you can see,” Fortin said. “Like [general manager] Stan Bowman and Joel said at the beginning of camp, everybody’s here to make the team and just try to find a way to do that. That’s my plan and I’ll do what I can do and see after.”

BRIEFLY

As they usually do, the Blackhawks will send most of their young players to their first preseason game on Tuesday night in Columbus.  Asked if he would send the Alex DeBrincat-Nick Schmaltz-Patrick Kane combo that has been together the last few days at camp, Quenneville said, “maybe one of those three will go.”

The Blackhawks will start cutting their training camp roster either Wednesday or Thursday.