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Chicago Blackhawks’ Preseason Questions Revisited On Bye Week

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CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 07: Alex DeBrincat
CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 07: Alex DeBrincat /
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After 45 games played, there has been plenty of frustration for the Chicago Blackhawks and their fans. In September, I wrote about the many questions I had as the Blackhawks were preparing for training camp. Today, I follow up on those questions.

The re-acquisition of Brandon Saad

Entering the 2017-18 season, many speculated the absence of Marian Hossa from the lineup would undoubtedly offer the biggest challenge to the Chicago Blackhawks. Bringing back Brandon Saad seemed a step in the right direction to fill that rather gaping hole on Chicago’s roster.

Unfortunately, three months into the season, it appears Saad will never be another Hossa, but then again very few players can fit that bill. Big Hoss is a unique talent.

Saad was a part of two Stanley Cup championships in his first stint in Chicago. The re-acquisition of the power forward dubbed “Man Child” by teammates was also to be the answer to the Jonathan Toews‘ offensive woes.

The captain had struggled with his offensive game since Saad was traded away in 2015 to the Columbus Blue Jackets. After a promising beginning to the season, the offensive resurgence of the team captain stumbled, and Saad’s production wasn’t great either.

In December, the promotion of Vinnie Hinostroza to the first line did give them both an offensive boost, but more recently goals have been difficult to come by for them and for the entire team. But championships aren’t won in the autumn or even in the winter. Of course, the team needs to make the playoffs first, but assuming ‘Hawks make the postseason, I think we will see the value of having Saad on the roster.

The return of Patrick Sharp

There was never a question that general manager Stan Bowman was taking a gamble when he signed the veteran winger who was so instrumental to the Chicago success story that brought three Stanley Cup wins to the Windy City in a six-year span.

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Sharp is fully recovered from offseason hip surgery, and the winger who turned 36 in December still has the skating legs. But for most of this season, he has had a heck of a time burying his chances. Sharp did have a resurgence after being a healthy scratch for several games, and Q is giving the veteran every chance to succeed.

But six goals and a team worst minus-6 rating does not cut it. I fear he is taking the spot of one of several prospects pining to get their chance in the NHL.

Utility player acquisitions, Tommy Wingels and Lance Bouma

In my view, the acquisitions of Tommy Wingels and Lance Bouma in the offseason were very questionable going into the season. I didn’t like the prospect of the two veterans taking spots away from the young prospects in the Chicago organization. However, both veterans have played very well on the fourth line and in a penalty-killing role. The tandem has, in fact, been a team strength.

The kids

As in every new season, the big question mark was who among the youngsters would stick with the big club and how would they fit in. At this point, it is a mixed bag of successes and disappointments.

Tomas Jurco and Alexandre Fortin were shipped to Rockford IceHogs to begin the season. As were Vinnie Hinostroza and David Kampf, despite both players having strong training camps. Hino and Kampf were recalled to ‘Hawks in December, and each player has been a solid contributor. That said, Artem Anisimov will soon return from injured reserve, which could mean Kampf will be the odd man out.

John Hayden, who had seemingly entrenched himself on the fourth line was, surprisingly, sent down to Rockford after 39 games with Chicago. The big winger from Yale had three goals and 11 points in a checking role.

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  • He regularly played a refreshing north/south game with a shoot-first mentality. I suppose the increase in ice time he will see in the AHL will be good for the rookie in the big scheme of things, but I won’t be surprised to see the power forward back in Chicago sooner rather than later.

    Gustav Forsling has been excellent at times. The young Swede defenseman shows maturity in his game and an excellent upside, but has also been plagued by the inconsistencies that come with a 21-year-old defenseman starting out in the NHL. Quenneville is giving the kid a long leash, perhaps too long at times, but it should pay off in the long run.

    Sophomore forward Ryan Hartman has been all over the map, seeing action on all four lines with  taste of the press box in this young season. Recently he has played with Patrick Kane and Nick Schmaltz. He has had some good moments with some good hustle and has cut down on those needless penalties, but he needs more consistency. Q has shown patience with Hartman as well.

    The biggest surprise of all is the diminutive rookie sniper, Alex DeBrincat, who began this season as a teenager. Cat has 14 markers, on pace for 25 goals in his rookie campaign. Not bad for a kid who has played mostly third-line minutes with stints in the top six as well as on the powerplay. His responsible defensive game has gained the confidence of Coach Q and he seems to be here to stay.

    Scott Darling’s replacement

    Another question ‘Hawks fans had in pre-season was the backup goaltending — who would emerge as the No. 2 netminder? Now, with Corey Crawford injured and possibly out of the lineup long-term, this has become a rather large question mark. Anton Forsberg seemed to have won the job until 32-year-old rookie Jeff Glass got his chance and excelled. I think it is likely that Forsberg will be the guy, but a little competition never hurts.

    Connor Murphy vs. Niklas Hjalmarsson

    I don’t think there is any question the most surprising and controversial move in the offseason by Bowman was the trade of Niklas Hjalmarsson in exchange for Connor Murphy. Murphy is like the black sheep of the Chicago defense. He plays a physical, grinding style, and it took a while for him to establish himself on Chicago’s blue line. I like his compete level and I think Q is warming to his game as well. I look for his ice time to increase in the second half, and for the record, I continue to like the deal.

    Defense

    The Blackhawks’ defense was always going to be a question mark this season, hence it is no surprise that some of those questions remain as we proceed with the second half of the 2017-18.

    Jordan Oesterle has (rather surprisingly) emerged in the top pairing alongside Duncan Keith, Cody Franson is in Rockford and Michal Kempny is still spending plenty of time in the press box. The Czech sophomore has yet to gain the confidence of Quenneville, and it seems unlikely to happen.

    Team defense remains a work in progress, but I expect the play of Murphy and Forsling will go a long way in determining if Chicago makes the playoffs this season.

    Reset time

    It has been more down than up in the first half of the season for the Blackhawks, who find themselves outside looking in when it comes to securing a playoff spot. Hopefully, this five-day hiatus will serve as a reset for this team. The recent acquisition of Anthony Duclair has added to the team speed, which is better than it was in November. The trick is to utilize that speed, something they failed to do Sunday against Detroit Red Wings.

    Next: Blackhawks Must Fight Identity Crisis

    With 37 games remaining in the regular-season schedule, the Blackhawks finds themselves in a dogfight for a wild-card berth to make the playoffs. Chicago trails Minnesota and Dallas by three points for that final spot but is also just six points behind Nashville, which holds down second place in the Central Division. That’s the reality of an NHL governed by a salary cap.

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