Niklas Hjalmarsson

Patrick Kane believes Blackhawks might be better than last year ... on paper

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AP

Patrick Kane believes Blackhawks might be better than last year ... on paper

After initially struggling to cope with the reality of losing linemate and close friend Artemi Panarin, along with teammate Niklas Hjalmarsson to trades his offseason, Patrick Kane is slowly starting to like Chicago's reformed roster the more he looks at it.

The Blackhawks reacquired top-line winger Brandon Saad, brought back three-time Stanley Cup champion Patrick Sharp, got 24-year-old defenseman Connor Murphy in return to help ease the loss of Hjalmarsson on the back end, and made several depth signings up front such as Lance Bouma and Tommy Wingels via free agency.

But will it translate into on-ice success? 

"It's tough to say," Kane said at the Chicago Hockey Charity Classic at Fox Valley Ice Arena on Saturday. "I think time will tell, obviously. But I'd like to think on paper we're a better team."

GM Stan Bowman wasn't kidding when he said changes would be coming to the organization after a first-round sweep at the hands of the Nashville Predators, and his moves helped extend the Blackhawks' championship window a few more years despite making the short term a more challenging task.

At the same time, the Blackhawks did finish the 2016-17 campaign as the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference with 109 points before getting bounced in the opening round for the second straight year. There's a fine line when you're evaluating the season as a whole.

"If you look at our season last year, I mean, we had a pretty good season," Kane said. "We just kind of collapsed there at the end. Disappointing finish, but when that happens, you know there's going to be changes. You can't really ask for much more from a management standpoint, as far as asking for them to make moves to help us win. They did that."

Now the question is whether they can put it all together.

Getting the new (and old) faces acclimated to the Blackhawks' style of hockey as quickly as possible and ironing out the wrinkles before April will be key to avoiding another quick postseason exit.

"Obviously, there's some faces that have been here for a long time, and some faces you didn't want to see go that are maybe kind of the cause of some of those moves, but it's disappointing," Kane said. "At the same time, we've got some guys coming back in, like Sharpie and Saad, [and] they're pretty high on this Murphy kid, as well.

"We have guys that are going to come in. It looks great on paper, but we need to go on the ice and do it and make sure that we're playing the game of hockey we know how to play."

Niklas Hjalmarsson says goodbye to Chicago in emotional Instagram post

Niklas Hjalmarsson says goodbye to Chicago in emotional Instagram post

Niklas Hjalmarsson has called Chicago home ever since he was drafted by the Blackhawks in 2005. But now it's time for a new chapter.

After being traded to the Arizona Coyotes in June, the former Blackhawks defenseman officially said goodbye to the city he spent a decade in and helped bring three Stanley Cups to with an emotional Instagram post that perfectly sums up his time here:

One marriage. Two kids. Three rings. 

Hjalmarsson will forever hold a special place in the hearts of Blackhawks fans.

For the Blackhawks defense, change is the new normal

For the Blackhawks defense, change is the new normal

Ulf Samuelsson saw the changes the Blackhawks made this season, his hiring as assistant coach being one of them. Soon he’ll be working with the team’s defensemen, another area that’s had some upheaval.

“I think there’s a lot of opportunity here, some uncertainties and some moving parts that I probably, typically haven’t seen going into a season. So that makes it even more interesting and challenging,” Samuelsson said. “So I’m looking forward to this opportunity to really develop and work with some of the younger players.”

From its immediate coach to its personnel, the Blackhawks’ defense is dealing with plenty of change that will continue when the season begins this fall. The Blackhawks have had some addition (Connor Murphy, Jan Rutta and Jordan Oesterle) but dealing with the subtraction (Niklas Hjalmarsson and Trevor van Riemsdyk) will nevertheless be tough. Coach Joel Quenneville said on Friday that pairings are a work in progress.

“We’re going to see when we’re putting the pairs together, whether we're going to reunite [Duncan Keith] and [Brent Seabrook] or look for some balance,” he said. “There are a lot of options. We’ll look forward to that and sorting it out.”

For Murphy, who was acquired in the deal that sent Hjalmarsson to the Arizona Coyotes, there are no set expectations as to where he fits yet.

“With any team you go into training camp proving where you’re going to be. Everyone has to come in and earn certain positions, especially me being a guy who they’re not as familiar with; I have to show what I can do,” Murphy said. “I definitely want to bring a more physical edge to defending at times and be able to skate well, have a good reach, make smart reads and try to help out with whatever’s needed with that.”

As for young players, the opportunity is there. Gustav Forsling admits he wasn’t happy that fellow Swede and role model Hjalmarsson was traded. But Forsling, who looked strong coming out of camp last September, knows he has to take advantage of the situation.

“Of course, I want to take the next step and play more,” he said. “I want to keep progressing my game and keep developing.”

The same goes for Jordan Oesterle, who the Blackhawks signed to a two-year deal on July 1.

“When I wanted to come here the opportunity was tremendous. Just the chance to come in and try to make the top six is there, it’s a battle with a number of us guys but that’s all you ask for in the situation I’m in,” he said. “Just the amount of opportunity that is in front of me just drives me even more. I want to be here and force their hand to keep me here.”

Again, the Blackhawks could re-address defense once they implement Marian Hossa’s long-term injured reserve after the season begins. General manager Stan Bowman said there’s “no exact plan” right now on how they use that space – “that’s probably going to be dictated by where we’re at when we get to October, how the team’s playing, what areas are strong, what areas we want to add to,” he said.

It remains to be seen on that front. Regardless, from coaching to personnel, much has changed with the Blackhawks defense.