Alex DeBrincat

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.

Blackhawks: Alex DeBrincat’s instincts serve him well vs. Red Wings

Blackhawks: Alex DeBrincat’s instincts serve him well vs. Red Wings

Alex DeBrincat had an idea of what he wanted to do in this first home preseason game: apply what he’s learned lately when he could but ultimately stick with what he knew. While he thought he could have been better overall, he nevertheless made a good first impression.

DeBrincat had a goal and looked comfortable in the Blackhawks’ 6-1 victory over the Detroit Red Wings at the United Center. After excelling in the Ontario Hockey League the past three seasons the 19-year-old forward is going to get a good opportunity to show what he can do at this level. While the Red Wings weren’t stocking anywhere near a full roster – plenty of youth was featured in Detroit’s third preseason game in as many days – this was more about what DeBrincat could do with Nick Schmaltz and Patrick Kane.

“I felt pretty good out there,” he said. “There’s a lot of things I could improve on but overall I don’t think I played terrible. I’m still trying not to force plays and finding which one is the right play. Once I improve on that I should be pretty good.”

Pretty much everybody had a good night for the Blackhawks but coach Joel Quenneville wanted to get a good look at the second line overall and DeBrincat. The left wing held his own and scored his first preseason goal in the slot, a very familiar and productive area for him.

“Yeah, that’s kind of my sweet spot, so I felt pretty good about it,” DeBrincat said. “It’s 3-on-2 and [Richard Panik] made a great pass to me. I kind of had a muff on it, too. I got lucky it went in.”

While there are going to be things DeBrincat has to improve upon at this level, the skill is undeniable.

“I thought he had a great play on his goal, great instincts around the net, some nice plays,” Quenneville said. “Schmaltzy was dangerous on that line, Kaner, a lot of options and you can see that skill level, the thinking around the net. His plays around the offensive zone were good. We can say a lot of guys did good offensively and he was one of them.”

DeBrincat said several times that he felt he forced plays throughout the night but that’s not unheard of for a young player, be it one coming from the OHL or the AHL. Ryan Hartman said he did the same thing at the start of last season.

“First game, a little intimidated… young kids they’re respectful, and when you get a chance to play with a Kaner it’s like, wow. Whether you’re trying to get him the puck or thinking give and go, that chemistry evolves,” Quenneville said. “But I thought he was pretty comfortable in a lot of things.”

DeBrincat will get a few more looks before the Blackhawks decide what to do with him. Going from the OHL to the NHL is a big leap, and time in the AHL wouldn’t hurt him long term. Still, in his first week at camp DeBrincat’s instincts have been evident. His ability to adapt to a bigger, faster game has been, too.

“Honestly, for me it’s been pretty good. I’m competing pretty well. It’s just faster, and once I got adjusted to that, it’s not too hard,” he said. “I’m still trying to compete every day and just do the little things.”