The Blackhawks open training camp Friday, and they play their first pre-season game against the Columbus Blue Jackets next Tuesday. A second straight first round exit in the playoffs, along with the yearly drama that is the Hawks’ salary cap situation, compounded with the unforeseen semi-retirement of one of the hockey club’s key players prompted General Manager Stan Bowman’s promise of “change” to be more significant than years past. The Blackhawks are entering what could be their most intriguing training camp in years.
A depleted blue line?
Duncan Keith remains to be one of the foremost defensemen in the league, maybe in the world. But the departures of Niklas Hjalmarsson, Johnny Oduya and Trevor van Reimsdyk and the retirement of Brian Campbell leaves the Hawks’ defense corps with some pretty glaring questions. For starters, is Brent Seabrook still good? Are the last two years just blips in an otherwise stellar yet underrated career? Is he poised for a return to form even as he enters his mid-30s? Or will he be saddled with babysitting duties again for the third year in a row? How about Michal Kempny and Gustav Forsling? Can they be more reliable players on the blue line now that they have one full year’s worth of NHL experience under their belts? Can new arrival Connor Murphy defy expectations and prove to the Hawks faithful that he is a top-pairing defenseman, and in the process winning yet another gamble for Stan Bowman. What about the third pairing? Is Cody Franson the answer? Will he be a “diamond in the rough” find for Bowman, or will he be just “Rozsival 2.0” with less tread on the tires? Or, worse, will he be “Rundblad 2.0”? How about the kids (Ville Pokka, Jan Rutta, Jordan Oesterle)? Will Q even play them? And if he does, how long (or short) are their leashes gonna be? It could take the Blackhawks the whole year to find the answers to these questions, and, to be honest, those answers may come in a mixed bag.
Reunited and it feels so good?
Apart from trading Hjalmarsson away to the vast wastelands of Arizona, the other blockbuster trade that Stan Bowman made this offseason was sending off Russian firecracker left winger Artemi Panarin to the Blue Jackets in return for prodigal son left winger Brandon Saad. The Breadman for the Man-Child. In a previous article, I have made my feelings known vis-à-vis this move. My head clearly understands why this trade needed to happen. My heart, however, is still recovering. Hopefully though, the chemistry that once existed between Saad and Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews is still there, and hopefully it translates into some beautiful hockey (from a personal standpoint, it better, since I have Tazer as one of my holdovers in my fantasy hockey league, and I am loathe to have any reason to drop him). As for Patrick Kane, well, I’m not so worried. Obviously, sacrificing 1/3 of what was arguably the most dynamic line in hockey for two straight seasons is a huge gamble for Bowman, but I’ve always said that Patrick Kane is like the tides… he raises all ships. Which leads us to the other homecoming story this season…
Is Sharpy still the man?
Where will Patrick Sharp start the regular season? Assuming that top prospect Alex DeBrincat starts in Rockford with the Frozen Hams Ice Hogs, Sharpy will most likely get first dibs in replacing Panarin on Kaner’s line as left wing. But the question is, how healthy is he after last season? Early reports indicate that he is close if not at 100%, and avoiding any post-surgery problems and concussion issues, he could be a 20-25 goal guy and end up being one of the best bargain buys in the league. I have indicated in a previous article that Sharp’s shot is still there, and it should be still as deadly as ever if he is indeed healthy.
Are the kids all right?
Assuming again that DeBrincat starts the year Beyond the Wall in Rockford, and also assuming that Top 9 is set (Saad-Toews-Panik, Sharp-Anisimov-Kane, Hartman-Schmaltz-Wingels), who will join Tanner Kero on the fourth line? Kero has proven to be a worthy successor to Marcus Kruger, and the fourth line has proven to be pivotal in all the times the Hawks went deep in the playoffs. On the one hand, you have the veterans – Lance Bouma, Tomas Jurco, Jordin Tootoo. They were all signed or re-signed this off season with one-way contracts. Will they be able to keep the younger players – John Hayden, Vinnie Hinostroza, Kyle Baun, Graham Knott – at bay? While Knott and Baun have spent most of their time in Rockford, Hayden, and especially hometown boy Hinostroza, have shown flashes of promise with the time they spent in the National last season. Are those flashes of promise enough for Q and his staff to give them permanent roster spots over the vets? How about John Mitchell and Drew Miller? The organization obviously saw something in them that warranted a PTO. Will they factor in? The answers to these questions may rely on who ends up with the Hawks’…
Marian Hossa is almost sure to be on the way to retirement, and a trip to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Kruger is in Blackhawks East Carolina. Hjalmarsson is in Arizona. Oduya is still unsigned. Dennis Rasmussen held off contract negotiations with Madison Street and ended up in Orange County. Andrew Desjardins just signed a PTO with the New York Rangers. That leaves an extremely depleted PK unit. The Blackhawks had top-10 PK units all three years they won Lord Stanley’s Cup. When the PK sucks, the Hawks tend to follow suit (along with a plethora of “trade Crawford” articles and social media rants). Will Lance Bouma and Drew Miller, known for their shotblocking capabilities, provide the answers? Will Franson, who spent 31% of his TOI last season in Buffalo defending against the opposing team’s top lines? As for the power play, will Q let Sharpy play point again, like old times? Or will he slot him in the left circle, much like Panarin?