Opening night is tomorrow for the Chicago Blackhawks, and it looks like we have a lineup for that game
Hockey is nearly back — of the NHL variety, anyway. The Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues will square off in one of four games on the league’s opening night.
Yesterday, the Blackhawks made their final roster cuts — minus moving someone when the injured Andrew Desjardins returns — to get to 23 for the first contest. Shortly after that the team rolled out its likely opening night lines at practice.
Things stayed the same at today’s practice. Here’s what we’re looking at for the opener:
Richard Panik-Jonathan Toews-Marian Hossa
Artemi Panarin-Artem Anisimov-Patrick Kane
Tyler Motte-Marcus Kruger-Ryan Hartman
Vincent Hinostroza-Nick Schmaltz-Jordin Tootoo
Duncan Keith-Trevor van Riemsdyk
Gustav Forsling-Brian Campbell
Michal Kempny-Brent Seabrook
Corey Crawford-Scott Darling
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Plenty of familiar faces in there, as well as some new ones who cracked the roster. It all makes for some noticeable and different combinations heading into this game. Let’s break down each one.
Well, a segment of the fan base got what it wanted with Panik on the top-line left wing. We’ll see how it goes. I’m hopeful Panik can get some quick production and chemistry with Toews in order to solidify a spot that was occupied by far too many players last season.
We know what Toews and Hossa together bring, but I’m not sure how far behind Toews Hossa will be this year. Hossa looked good in the World Cup, which is a positive sign. I imagine coach Joel Quenneville is all for leaving Hossa up top if he can still handle the rigors of top-line work.
So the questions here are on both wings, but at least they’re both known commodities in some way. If this trio fails to produce much in the first two weeks, Q will probably look other directions.
I don’t need to spend much time talking about this. We know this line has the reigning Calder Trophy and Hart Trophy winners, along with a center who manages to play really well at both ends of the ice and contribute on the penalty kill.
The only reason this line is going away is if Q needs to spread out the offense. It’ll be interesting to see if opponents have developed any new strategies to try and slow down Panarin and Kane.
So here’s where things get interesting for the Blackhawks. Up with finding wings for Toews, the biggest forward concern for Chicago this offseason was building a bottom six that could action produce some offense.
This third line has a chance to do good things. Motte was a star in training camp and seems to have good chemistry with Kruger, even though those two don’t play nearly the same game. Motte might be able to bring a little more offense out of Kruger this year.
I see Motte as the playmaking guy, Kruger is a puck feeder and Hartman as the guy who smashes his way to the goal crease. He’ll probably get his chances to finish plays Motte creates as well, but a key for him should be to cause a ruckus for opposing goaltenders.
It’ll be interesting to see how Motte and Hartman fare trying to keep up with Kruger from a defensive standpoint. We know that’s the biggest upside to Kruger’s game, but it would certainly help if at least one of his linemates was able to carry some of that load when this line is asked to start in the defensive zone.
This line is just so strange, mostly because Tootoo exists on it. Schmaltz, like Motte, is a talented playmaker who needs guys to finish his plays. Hinostroza has the speed and maybe the hands to do that, at least.
Tootoo is just going to have to be the guy who creates space for Schmaltz. It’s a tough sell, because Tootoo isn’t a big guy. But his game is a physical one, so opening some things up for Schmaltz should be part of his goal.
The other part should be crashing the net, waiting to finish off rebounds from Hinostroza’s and Schmaltz’s shots. This line could be surprisingly successful if this happens.
Otherwise, it’s just going to be two guys trying to play with an anchor, and it’s really going to hamper what kind of offense Schmaltz and Hinostroza put together. Thankfully, they do have the speed and moves to work around a situation like that.
First defensive pairing
Expect to see Niklas Hjalmarsson with Keith once Hjammer is done with his one-game suspension. That will mean TVR gets to rotate in and out of the lineup, which is really what’s best for the Blackhawks.
As a top pairing for this game, Keith will be asked to babysit TVR. Don’t be surprised if Keith is left handling some odd-man rushes throughout this game.
But when Hjammer does return, this will be an extremely formidable pairing, and one that will be called upon a lot. It’s part of the reason Keith skipped the World Cup. He knows how much the Blackhawks are going to be depending on him and Hjammer, even if the rest of the defense has improved this offseason.
Second defensive pairing
This should be fun to watch. Forsling and Campbell had some really good chemistry during the preseason, and the Blackhawks are hoping that translates to the regular season.
Both guys have offensive instincts as defensemen, but both also know how to play it safe and make sure the puck isn’t left behind in their zone before they jump in on the play. Both are able to skate the puck forward and get things moving offensively from the back end.
Honestly, this pairing may need to be split up sooner rather than later to spread these abilities to all three pairings. It’s more so a matter of how Forsling looks early in his NHL regular-season career that will determine how quickly this can happen.
Da Windy City
Third defensive pairing
And this is why it needs to happen sooner rather than later. When I saw the Blackhawks take on the Detroit Red Wings this preseason (in the 6-1 win, not the 6-3 loss), the Kempny-Seabrook pairing was a rough spot. The Blackhawks apparently don’t see that.
Maybe with more time together they’ll develop more chemistry. Neither guy is bad alone. Both Kempny and Seabrook are better than TVR and Rozsival, by far. But the two of them together … they kind of seemed on different pages in the preseason.
Of course, there’s plenty of time for the two to come together and form cohesion. At the same time, however, we can expect to see TVR and Rozsival jumping in next to Seabrook throughout the season. Which is really going to bog things down on this pairing.
So I’m curious to see how long these pairings stay together, because I’m not sure you want Seabrook — who struggle mightily last year and seems to have lost quite a bit of speed — rotating with this group.
Corey Crawford is really good. End of story.
Blackhawks shouldn’t expect many of these lines and pairings to remain the same for long, unless the Blackhawks get off to a crazy-good start. We know Q is always experimenting behind the bench. So we’ll see if his first concoction of 2016-17 is a good one.