Chicago Blackhawks

What comes next? Five questions facing the Blackhawks this season

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USA TODAY

What comes next? Five questions facing the Blackhawks this season

When the Blackhawks start training camp on Friday they’ll end what’s been a much-too lengthy offseason. It was another summer of big roster losses (including Niklas Hjalmarsson, Artemi Panarin, Scott Darling, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Marcus Kruger and Dennis Rasmussen) and a few familiar faces returning (Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp).

There’s more uncertainty entering this Blackhawks season than there’s been in quite some time. Their abrupt defeat in the postseason exposed concerns that they hope they’ve addressed this offseason. But have they?

April was a month of frustration for the Blackhawks. September is one that comes with many questions. Here are five of those questions entering this preseason/season.

1. Can a young defenseman make an impact this season? Gustav Forsling looked great out of last year’s camp but couldn’t stay at that level when he did get in the Blackhawks lineup. Michal Kempny got some chances but as soon as he had a bad game he was back out of the lineup. This year those two, as well as Jan Rutta should get a good opportunity. Considering the Blackhawks’ situation at defense, someone has to take advantage of the chance.

2. Will the Blackhawks rely too much on Corey Crawford? The way the team stacks up right now, this could very well happen. Let’s be honest: they probably depended on him too much for the first part of the 2016-17 season, and prior to his appendectomy last December Crawford was fantastic. The second half wasn’t as consistent, as Crawford admitted in April – “I thought I was trying to find my game a lot. Every other week, I just didn’t have the same reads, the same jump that I did the first half. There were games I played really well. But there were a lot of games I was ordinary, just average.” The Blackhawks have a lot of question marks in front of Crawford, so unless some of those holes are filled and filled well, Crawford’s going to have the onus on him again.

3. Can last year’s rookies take the next step? Ryan Hartman nearly had 20 goals and, outside of one or two bad moments, showed the on-ice discipline the Blackhawks needed him to have. Nick Schmaltz improved plenty, gaining the confidence and game to earn valuable minutes on the Blackhawks’ first or second line. The Blackhawks will need both to improve off those levels, especially Schmaltz considering the team’s voids at center. At the team’s convention in July, both said they were ready to show they could take on more responsibility. We’ll soon find out if they can.

4. Who’s more on the hot seat this season, coach Joel Quenneville or general manager Stan Bowman? After two consecutive first-round losses the Blackhawks are entering this season much like they did the 2012-13 one: they want to get back to postseason success and if they don’t, heads could roll. Quenneville will have to find the right solutions/pairs/lines on a lineup that’s lacking bottom-six depth and a defense that lost two of their starting six from last season. Some of Bowman’s deals have forced unwanted trades and results from recent acquisitions have been mixed. The pressure is on everybody this season, but especially these two.

5. Will too much be expected of Alex DeBrincat too soon? From the Blackhawks? No. They’ll take their time with the 19-year-old because it’s in his and their best interests to do so. But you and I both know that if DeBrincat starts the season in the minors and the Blackhawks are struggling to score goals for more than two games in a row, the demand to recall DeBrincat will be Teuvo Teravainen-esque. And we all remember what that was like.

Blackhawks Camp Synopsis: Roster starting to take shape

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks Camp Synopsis: Roster starting to take shape

One week down, roughly one week to go.

Some things have fallen into place during the Blackhawks’ first seven days of training camp but this week is when it really gets interesting. The roster will continue to take shape and the competition for the few vacancies will intensify. Here’s a look at what we’ve already seen in Week 1 and questions for Week 2.

Stock Rising

Jordan Oesterle. We could put a few of the young forwards here, but we’ve talked about them quite a bit and will continue to do so. So right now let’s look at Oesterle, who coach Joel Quenneville liked “a lot” in Thursday’s game against the Red Wings. A puck moving defenseman, Oesterle said he played on the right side with the Edmonton Oilers but could also play on the left. If Oesterle has another good week of camp, that and his versatility might get him a chance on a Blackhawks defense still looking for the right pieces.  

Stock Falling

Tomas Jurco. Please realize where we’re coming from with this assessment: where does he fit in this lineup? He didn’t get a lot of opportunities last season but when he did play there wasn’t anything that made him stand out. Stan Bowman likes him and much like with David Rundblad, the Blackhawks want to give the Jurco a chance to justify the draft pick they gave up for him (a third-round selection from the 2017 draft). Several young guys are pushing hard for roster spots. Can Jurco be an every-day player or do the Blackhawks have a decision to make in favor of some of those up-and-coming players? Just very interested to see how this turns out.

Biggest surprise

Nick Schmaltz’s second-line center opportunity. Maybe we should’ve been more open minded to this happening but considering how little that line changed last year you figured Artem Anisimov and Patrick Kane would stay together even after the Artemi Panarin trade. But given the strides Schmaltz has made in his own game and the skating work he and Kane did together this offseason, Quenneville wants to see what Schmaltz can do in the middle. There’s always tinkering with this team; we really should have seen the possibility coming but we didn’t.

Some Remaining Questions

- If there’s one forward spot vacant out of training camp, which young player wins it? John Hayden. Here’s why: even if Alex DeBrincat doesn’t make this team out of camp, the Blackhawks’ top six is looking pretty good. Meanwhile the bottom six, especially that fourth line, has some holes. Getting a young player with some size, speed, skill and sandpaper that Quenneville likes and trusts (and he likes and trusts Hayden) would be a great addition to the bottom six.

- Will there be any surprises on defense? Maybe. Part of it depends on what the Blackhawks do about the Michal Rozsival situation. Rozsival didn’t pass his physical (upper body injury) and is not participating in camp. You hate to see someone go out like this, but it may be the end for the veteran. If so, the seventh defensive spot opens up and so do the Blackhawks options. After Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Connor Murphy you have Cody Franson (if the Blackhawks sign him), Oesterle and Jan Rutta who have made good preseason impacts. Michal Kempny’s in the mix, too. Gustav Forsling is on the bubble. He had a great camp last fall but didn’t improve off it; that has to change this season.

- Will the top line combination work? There’s no doubt the Blackhawks missed Brandon Saad. He may not have been facing the sturdiest Red Wings team on Thursday but Saad’s powerful game was nevertheless impressive and a reminder of how much the Blackhawks missed that element the last two seasons. But the Saad-Jonathan Toews-Richard Panik combo hasn’t gotten a great look yet — Toews missed Thursday’s game due to illness. Saturday should be the first chance to see if these three can really click.

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 6-1 win over Red Wings in preseason home opener

Five takeaways from Blackhawks' 6-1 win over Red Wings in preseason home opener

Here are five takeaways from the Blackhawks' 6-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings in Thursday's preseason home opener:

1. DeBrincat-Schmaltz-Kane unit was electric.

Yeah, this line could work. We realize the Red Wings sent over many of their fringe players, but Alex DeBrincat, Nick Schmaltz and Patrick Kane are all on the same wavelength offensively and it was evident in their first preseason game together.

The trio combined for four points (one goal and three assists), and created several quality scoring chances at even strength throughout the game. Kane was Kane, Schmaltz was one of the best players on the ice and DeBrincat cashed in for his first career (preseason) goal in the NHL.

This is certainly something to keep an eye on as roster cuts get underway and final decisions on the Opening Day lineup approach. Will DeBrincat be a part of the big club? It was considered a long shot before training camp started, but it's hard to ignore the chemistry he's developing on that second line.

2. Brandon Saad picks up where he left off in Blackhawks uniform.

It's like he never left. In his first game back in a Chicago sweater, Saad netted a hat trick — albeit, it's preseason so it won't count in the books — and he could have had a fourth, and maybe even a fifth, if you want to look further into the chances he had. All three goals that he did score though he found himself parked in front of the net, which is a great sign for the Blackhawks because it's something they lacked last year.

"The puck seemed to be finding me," Saad said after the win. "Regardless of what kind of game it is, you want to get your confidence rolling. It’s good to be back out here. It's always nice to be wanted and welcomed, and these fans are the best fans in the league, so it’s good to be back."

Saad finished the game with a game-high eight shots on goal and a plus-3 rating, and he did it without Jonathan Toews, who did not play due to an illness.

3. Connor Murphy developing chemistry with Duncan Keith.

The Blackhawks' new top pairing featuring two-time Norris Trophy winner Keith and 24-year-old Murphy was solid in their first game together.

Murphy wasn't afraid to be aggressive and take chances by pinching in, joining the rush, and quarterbacking the power play with confidence. He also didn't make any glaring defensive mistakes, which is a plus in Quenneville's book.

"I thought everybody played well on our back end," Quenneville said. "Then we went down to five, I thought they looked very good."

(Luc Snuggerud suffered an upper-body injury in the second period, and did not return. Quenneville said they will know more about his status on Friday).

4. Jordan Oesterle catches Joel Quenneville's attention.

Of those six defensemen noted above, the one that really stood out to the Blackhawks coach was Oesterle. The 25-year-old blue liner signed a two-year contract with Chicago over the offseason, and is fighting for a spot on the bottom pairing.

He made a strong early case by registering two assists and leading the team with three blocked shots in 21:49 of ice time, playing on both the power play and penalty kill units.

"I liked him. A lot," Quenneville said. "I liked his thought process, jumping up in the play, positionally very strong, quick and headsy. He did a really good job. He's got some flexibility and the ability to play both sides is a great asset to have."

5. What to make of abundance of penalties...

We mentioned the NHL's desire to crack down on slashing penalties and faceoff violations in our five takeaways after Tuesday's preseason opener, and it remained the same Thursday. There were another 13 penalties called, three of which were slashing, and handful of centers getting tossed from the dot.

So what should we make of it all?

Well, it's hard to imagine the amount of penalties will stay the same once the actual regular season starts. It seems like a tactic to lay down the hammer extra hard in an effort to get players to adapt to the new enforced rules as quickly as possible. It will be interesting to follow how things may change over the course of the season, with referees having the tendency to swallow their whistles as the important games roll around, especially in the Stanley Cup playoffs.