Corey Crawford

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.

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.

Bears receiver Markus Wheaton may miss the start of the season

Bears receiver Markus Wheaton may miss the start of the season

When the Bears took the field Sunday in Bourbonnais, Markus Wheaton was absent. 

We came to find out afterwards from head coach John Fox he underwent an appendectomy about 90 minutes before the team took the field after awaking overnight with abdominal discomfort. Fox cannot give a timetable for Wheaton's return, but one would think being full strength in time for the Sept. 10 regular season opener is in jeopardy.

Then again, the most famous Chicago athlete to undergo the procedure was Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford, who was able to return to action in three weeks this past December. The positive view is that it happened now, meaning his regular season won't be lost. The negative is that he misses valuable time learning to get in sync with the offense, Mike Glennon and the other three quarterbacks.

The appendix did not rupture, according to Fox, so the procedure was arthroscopic, which could also help the recovery time. But the physical football requirements are a little different than that of a goaltender.

Wheaton was signed to a two-year, $11 million deal in March ($6 million guaranteed) in hopes of providing a speed and vertical game element to a unit that's been sorely lacking in that area. He was coming off shoulder surgery that limited him to just three games with the Steelers in 2016.

Elsewhere on the injury front Sunday, offensive lineman Eric Kush left practice early with tightness in a hamstring, running back Bennie Cunningham participated in a non-contact jersey due to neck stiffness, and running back Jeremy Langford remained out of action after rolling his surgically-repaired ankle Thursday night. Guard Kyle Long returned to participate in some drills after sitting out Saturday with soreness in his surgically-repaired ankle.