NHL

Back from illness, Jonathan Toews re-joins top line vs. Blue Jackets

Back from illness, Jonathan Toews re-joins top line vs. Blue Jackets

Jonathan Toews approached Saturday night’s game, the one in which he’d be centering Brandon Saad and Richard Panik against the Columbus Blue Jackets, with playful trepidation.

“Well, it was nice to see what they can do without me,” said Toews, referring to Thursday’s game that he missed due to illness. “Maybe I’ll take a few more nights off and let Saader and Panner do their thing.”

Saad and Panik both had nice evenings, especially Saad who recorded a preseason hat trick. Still, this is the Blackhawks’ top line moving forward so it gives them a chance to see how things have been developing in camp to this point.

“It’s been fun playing with those two so far,” Toews said. “We’re starting to work on that confidence, starting to get better and better as we get closer toward the season. For myself, hopefully I can just step in and help them build off their night and continue the offense.”

Jean-François Bérubé is expected to play Saturday night’s entire game.

The Blackhawks reacquired Saad in June in the hopes that he would bring the same game that made him a top-line forward here several years ago. On Thursday he showed he hasn’t lost a whole lot. Now the Blackhawks will start to see if that top line can mesh and meet expectations.

“He’s stepping in here knowing he’ll be one of those guys heavily keyed upon for us, and he’s ready for that and excited for it,” Toews said of Saad. “It’s nice to see him really taking shape, getting confidence early with the hat trick. Hopefully I don’t hold him back to much tonight and we can keep it going.”

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.

Why Nick Schmaltz could be Blackhawks' second-line center

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USA TODAY

Why Nick Schmaltz could be Blackhawks' second-line center

Nick Schmaltz centered Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane at Saturday’s scrimmage, scoring the team’s first goal and earning the approval of coach Joel Quenneville.

So is there a possibility Schmaltz’s shot at center comes on that second line?

“Could happen,” Quenneville said with a grin.

Whether you’re fluent in Q-speak or not, that one’s pretty clear. Schmaltz is off to a good start, has some experience under his belt at that spot from last season and may get more of a chance there now.

All of this is relative, of course. There’s a lot of time between now and October but Quenneville has liked what he’s seen with Kane and Schmaltz for two consecutive days. Schmaltz, who was also considered a left-wing option on that second line — at least before the Blackhawks traded to get Sharp back — skated with Kane some this summer.

“I think it’s just getting our timing down. We built some chemistry over the summer and I think our games match each other pretty well,” Schmaltz said. “We both like to find each other and make plays, so just getting that chemistry and that timing down, I think will lead to more success.”

Again, a concern at center with Schmaltz — actually, overall with this team past Jonathan Toews — is faceoffs. It’s something Schmaltz will continue to work on but if this combo gets any time together, Sharp could always be an option in the circle, too.

Quenneville said Schmaltz’s improved strength around the puck is noticeable, “but one of his abilities is coming up with loose pucks and getting it out there and making a neat play, which is good for us.

“Having the puck cleanly exiting our zone is a good thing. Offensively, that’s his strength and that’s where his natural ability is, but he’ll add to that part of his game, like faceoffs, and getting stronger is something that’s noticeable last year to this year,” Quenneville continued. “It seems like he’s stronger around the puck and in and around those tight areas.”

Schmaltz got his first chance at second-line center when Artem Anisimov was injured last season. Even if Anisimov starts as the third-line center, nothing is set in stone; nothing ever is with the Blackhawks lines. But Schmaltz has shown enough improvement in the offseason is building chemistry with Kane and appears to be getting the second-line opportunity first.

“Arty’s proven he can play in his own end, around the net, in the offensive zone as well. Schmaltzy has the puck a lot more which is nice as well. It’s a good situation on a need basis or on performance basis,” Quenneville said. “That’ll sort itself out.”

LEGENDARY FINISH

Denis Savard and Steve Larmer joined current Blackhawks to wrap up Saturday’s scrimmage. Players enjoyed the opportunity to skate with the team’s legends.

“Yeah it’s really special,” Vinnie Hinostroza said. “Growing up in Chicago, you know who those guys are. Growing up you hear your parents, grandparents talking about them, and the last few years I’ve gotten to know Savvy pretty well. So skating with them was really special. It was awesome to see those guys come out.”