What do the Chicago Blackhawks have to think about heading into the 2017-18 preseason and regular season? Quite a bit, actually.
With the 2017-2018 NHL season looming, the Chicago Blackhawks have more questions than answers.
Perhaps the most pressing concern for general manager Stan Bowman is the daunting task to try to replace what Marian Hossa has meant to the Chicago team since he signed with the club in the summer of 2009. The 38-year-old power forward is set to miss the entire 2017-18 season due to a career-threatening skin disorder.
Bowman was clearly miffed after his team was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs for the second consecutive season, this time swept by the upstart Nashville Predators. He promised change and followed up days later when he fired assistant coach Mike Kitchen.
Rumors persisted that a core player would be dealt, and shockingly for Blackhawks faithful that came to fruition in late June when they traded stalwart defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson. The three-time Stanley Cup champion was shipped to Arizona in a straight exchange for another rearguard, Connor Murphy.
The Ohio-born Murphy is somewhat of an unknown, playing his entire (albeit short) career in Arizona. I see the 24-year-old as a physical, yet disciplined player with good, perhaps excellent potential. Obviously, the Blackhawks see something in him they like. He is likely slated to play alongside Duncan Keith, and I expect the newcomer’s performance will go a long way in determining the team’s fate this season.
Da Windy City
What do Blackhawks have to look forward to?
This is not the first time the GM has faced this situation. Largely precipitated by salary cap restrictions, Bowman has had more success than not in filling key positions between seasons. Undoubtedly, this year is Bowman’s biggest challenge to date.
Interestingly, Bowman reached into his old bag of tricks in the offseason by bringing back veteran Patrick Sharp and popular winger Brandan Saad for second tenures in Chicago. Saad, who will turn 25 in October, was welcomed back with open arms in Chicago. Always highly regarded by coach Joel Quenneville, he will be reunited with Jonathon Toews with the hope that the team captain can recapture his offensive form.
Sharp, who underwent season-ending hip surgery in March, declared just one day into camp that he was fit and ready to go physically and psychologically. Blackhawks beat writer Brian Hedger tweeted a Toews comment about his good friend: “He’s giving me a hard time with all the testing he’s beating me on … He doesn’t seem to be aging at all.”
If 35-year-old Sharpie can come close to the player we have seen in the past, it will be a big bonus to the team. But I can see his value going well beyond that; his versatility is sure to be utilized by the head coach, and undoubtedly he will act as a mentor to the youth on the roster.
Sophomore forwards Nick Schmaltz (6-22-28 in 61 games) and Ryan Hartman (19-12-31 in 76 games), along with second-year defenseman Michal Kempny, will take on larger roles in 2017-18. Rookie rearguard Gustav Forsling, after spending the balance of last season in the AHL, should make the team out of camp and this time stick for the full season in the Windy City. The young Swedish defenseman has obvious potential.
Also invited to camp on a tryout contract is veteran defenseman Cody Franson. With Michal Rozsival out indefinitely, Franson has the opportunity to fill that depth role on Chicago’s defense.
Speedsters Vinnie Hinostroza and Alexandre Fortin along with junior sensation Alex DeBrincat, John Hayden, Tomas Jurco, Czech-born David Kampf and other prospects are looking for a crack at the starting lineup. Add the offseason acquisitions of utility players Lance Bouma and Tommy Wingels as well as tryout invitees Drew Miller, John Mitchell and Mark Stuart and there are plenty of question marks to who will fill out Chicago’s lineup.
Each year at this time, there is at least one surprise player in the preseason. Based on the early days of camp, large-bodied winger Hayden could be the early favorite to fit that bill in 2017. That is what makes the preseason so interesting, especially for diehard ‘Hawks fans who have endured an unusually long summer.