Chicago Blackhawks: Studying Up On Team’s 2017-18 Offerings

CHICAGO, IL - MARCH 23: Richard Panik
CHICAGO, IL - MARCH 23: Richard Panik /

After a vacation from NHL hockey, it’s time to study up on what the Chicago Blackhawks may bringing next season

Another long summer draws to an end for Chicago Blackhawks and other hockey fans, and as autumn arrives, there is anticipation in the air.  Anticipation from young ones returning to school, wondering what their teachers will be like.  Anticipation from older ones dreading the dwindling daylight hours.  And anticipation from the Blackhawks faithful who wonder what their team will look like and how far that team can go.

“Principal” Stan Bowman’s “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” essay is quite a read.  Two consecutive years of early playoff exits forced him to promise big changes, and change happened.  The dismissals of assistant coach Mike Kitchen and Rockford coach Ted Dent signaled a change in direction.  New “teachers” Ulf Samuelsson, Don Granato and Jeremy Colliton were brought in to improve a sagging defense and a seemingly stagnant development of prospects.

Two seasons of first-round exits caused the fan base to worry that their team of destiny, a dynasty even, has prematurely met its inevitable fate of decline.  Every year there are salary cap casualties, this is a given.  But major losses of future HOFer Marian Hossa, Cup stalwart Niklas Hjalmarsson, backup goalie Scott Darling and two-year scoring phenom Artemi Panarin brought an uneasiness that the decline is indeed here.

The readditions of fan favorites Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp along with Connor Murphy, Laurent Dauphin, Anton Forsberg and a bunch of prospects may not have convinced the faint of heart that enough has been done to tweak a roster that hasn’t gotten the job done.  The past two weeks should give the faithful a glimpse of the immediate future and provide a spark for hope.

New schoolmates for Jonathan Toews

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The new top line of Brandon Saad-Jonathan Toews-Richard Panik appears to be what coach Joel Quenneville wants to start the regular season with.  The addition of power forward Panik to a duo that worked so well in the past has Patrick Kane saying that “they will be a special line … an intimidating line to play against.”

The hope is that Toews will find a spark to his offensive game between these two wingers.  I still have doubts about the Player Formerly Known As PahNEEK.  He flashes great solo efforts but sometimes fails to include his linemates in his field of vision.  Time will tell if this power trio will meet expectations.

Line 2: The smart kids

The surprise second line in training camp has been a combination of Alex DeBrincat-Nick Schmaltz-Patrick Kane, with Artem Anisimov sliding down to third-line center.  This is an intriguing combination of three highly skilled playmakers who could give defenses fits to contain.

While a potential offensive juggernaut, this line also has possible defenses liabilities. We’ve seen the evolution of Kane from a one-dimensional offensive player to a sound defensive player.  Q now trusts him to insert him at the end of a penalty kill for a potential quick strike.

Last season, Eddie Olczyk used his telestrator to highlight some defensive gems from Schmaltz. The young center seems to have come into this preseason with a stronger puck possession game.

And diminutive DeBrincat has shown some scrappiness in camp, along with a ridiculous offensive set of hands.  I’ve watched him in OHL games, and what he really excels at is an awareness of where the open ice is and how to get there.

He may not be the speedy skater that Kane is, but he has the same ability to stop on a dime, make a play and elude a hit.  He can also make the necessary lift of the stick on a backcheck when he wants to.  It’s almost like watching younger Kane again, floating at times in the D zone.  He’ll have to do some homework to adjust to the NHL level of play.

The point is that this second-line trio just might be another force to reckon with.  With the right sequencing by Q, this line might not have to go up against the top shutdown lines, with the first line instead doing the heavy lifting.

What’s up with the bottom six?

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  • The bottom six is where things could get dicey.  Patrick Sharp-Artem Anisimov-Ryan Hartman seems to be the early third line, and the fourth line could be any combination of Lance Bouma/Tanner Kero/John Hayden/Jordin Tootoo/Tomas Jurco/Tommy Wingels/Vinnie Hinostroza/David Kampf.

    Sharp’s physical condition coming into camp was a concern, but he has been lauded for his physical shape.  Kane chirped that he’s a “freak of nature,” and his performance on the ice has been encouraging. There have even been reports of him possibly swapping places with DeBrincat as training camp shifts to Notre Dame.

    Anisimov is another forward returning from an injury that severely hampered his playoff performance. Hartman is a diamond in the rough who emerged last year as a developing impact forward.

    There are some ifs here that any fan could be concerned about, as well as if this combination is a good fit.  So as a regular fan, this is where I ask, “What about signing Jaromir Jagr on a budget deal after the season starts to fill in that third-line right wing spot?”

    You might want me to go see the school nurse, but I have touched my forehead and can attest I am not feverish.  The ageless wonder can still play.  At 14-15 minutes per game, many feel he can still contribute elite playmaking.

    His presence on either powerplay unit would bring a type of threat that is missing with the absence of Hossa.  Sharp-Anisimov-Jagr would be a puck possession line of sniper-grinder-playmaker which translates to better Corsi-for and xGF than sniper-grinder-grinder with Sharp-Anisimov-Hartman.


    Fourth line: Delta House or House of Flying Daggers?

    The uninspiring swarm of pledges available for the fourth line gives me heartburn.  Adding Jagr would drop Hartman down to the fourth line.  This gives you an trio of Wingels/Hayden-Kero-Hartman, which is less of an anxiety attack with at least one impact player in Hartman.

    The defense: Breakfast Club or Club Nouveau?

    The team’s defense was exposed in the Nashville playoff series as too slow to keep up for three periods.  More of the promised changes from Principal Bowman came in the form of trading Hjalmarsson for Murphy and the exits of Brian Campbell and Johnny Oduya.

    The gamble here is that Murphy can give Duncan Keith the mobile, physical, stay-at-home, right-handed partner he’s lacked since being separated from Brent Seabrook.  So far, Murphy has looked to be just that.

    I want Michal Kempny to succeed because he’s a good skater, can drive possession and has a bit of a mean streak.  (My daughter wants him to succeed as she gets school-girl dreamy eyed whenever she sees him!)  But his defensive play in front of the net has been sketchy and his propensity to make errant passes is a concern.  In the IIHF tournament this year, he was still committing the same errors, so he’s still a work in progress.

    Jan Rutta actually impressed me more in the IIHF than his teammate Kempny.  And he continues to impress at the NHL level.  He has a long stick, is a more fluid skater and passer and could be a surprise this year.

    The defense, Part II: Prom kings or drama kings?

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    Seabrook is the poster boy for love and hate from fans.  (Perhaps he should get love-hate tattoos on his knuckles?)  Once again, he will be paired with a developing talent in either Kempny or Gustav Forsling, who last year flashed some offensive brilliance but made fans like me yell at him to get off the ice for being lost defensively.  Seabrook provides an interesting dynamic that will certainly be a hot topic for the debate team.

    Cody Franson is looking to leave PTO detention and is another guy who evokes both love and hate.  He has never lived up to the hype as a top-four defenseman.  However, on an offensively-challenged Buffalo Sabres team last year, he did manage to post positive Corsi numbers.  Is he still the endless enigma or will he be a good fit as the No. 5 or 6 defenseman?  As Q likes to say, we’ll see.

    Thanks, Rozsival …

    As for Michal Rozsival (or Rrrrrrroh-SEEEEE-val according to my young Czech tour guide in Banff this summer), his playing days may be over with lingering concussion effects.  To this warrior, I’ll say, “Thanks, Rozsival,” but in a good way.

    Setting goals

    In the goalie department, Corey Crawford is as solid as solid gets.  The backup job appears to be Forsberg’s after J.F. Berube’s nightmare performance against Columbus earlier in the preseason.

    Final exam

    So there it is, fans, your 2017-2018 Chicago Blackhawks entering the season from the perspective of a regular guy.  Yes, this team has a lot of ifs, but in autumn, hope can spring eternal.

    Next: Blackhawks' Defensive Prospects Proving Defense Equals Titles

    Let’s hope this season’s Blackhawks will do more than just get a passing grade.  Here’s hoping to their acing the final exam in the spring.  Along the way, I will be watching from my perch in the 300 Level and spouting off for your pleasure or to your chagrin.  Either way, LET’S GO ’HAWKS!