Making Sense of Chicago Blackhawks’ Crowded Forward Group
By Michael Wagner
Chicago Blackhawks’ GM, Stan Bowman, has turned a logjam on defense into a logjam of the forward group. Who will separate themselves from the pack?
Looking back at the start of the offseason we all knew that general manager Stan Bowman was looking to reshape his roster. What we were unsure about was what those changes would be.
We expected the defense to undergo some major renovation, but surprisingly, we have now seen a lot of new faces added to the Chicago Blackhawks’ forward group.
Many of those faces are players who still have a ton to prove at the NHL level and it will be coach Jeremy Colliton’s job come training camp to determine who will fit in where.
We will look at a few of these young players who will be looking to crack the Blackhawks’ NHL lineup as regulars and make their impact at the NHL level in 2019.
The newest member of the Chicago Blackhawks, Alexander Nylander, has been an enigma in his three pro seasons with the Buffalo Sabres.
However, according to general manager, Stan Bowman, Nylander has been a target of the organization for quite some time.
To this point, Nylander has failed to make an impact in the NHL, or even the AHL, since being drafted 8th overall.
This makes you wonder if he will get a shot in the NHL right away, or maybe they opt to let him develop a bit more in the AHL. This would be his 4th AHL season.
We will get our first look at Nylander soon, as he will be attending development camp. This will allow him to get acclimated to the Blackhawks’ systems and organization.
When this trade was announced, my first thought was that he might get top-six minutes this coming season, much like their reclamation project from last season, Dylan Strome, who is another former first-round pick.
Now there, of course, is no guarantee Nylander even breaks camp with the club, but don’t be surprised if he gets looks with the top two lines throughout training camp.
This would be the best way to see if the Blackhawks can unlock some of that dormant potential.
Last season, a ton of Blackhawks’ fans considered Dylan Sikura a lock to make the team out of camp.
Going into this season, I see Dominik Kubalik as the new Sikura. Not in skills, or style of play, but as a player that has a ton of hype heading into training camp.
The hype for Kubalik is not completely unfounded, as he is the reigning scoring champion of the Swiss professional league, National League (NLA).
He was a solid contributor for the Czech Republic in this year’s IIHF Men’s World Championship tournament with 12 points (6G, 6A) in 10 games, and international free agents on the Blackhawks seem to have a leg up.
Kubalik has really good size and a heavy shot, but coming over from the NLA to the NHL will be a leap for the Czech forward.
Although, he did not look out of place while playing in games against other NHL players at the World Championships.
Personally, he looks like a middle six type of player, if he can translate his international success to the smaller rinks of the NHL.
As we have seen with players like Dominik Kahun, David Kampf and Artemi Panarin, Bowman really does have a good eye for international players. Hopefully, Kubalik can replicate that trend of success the players before him have paved.
To say 2018-2019 was a struggle for Brendan Perlini would be an understatement.
As the season came to an end, it seemed as though he was finally starting to find his way. He was getting more time in the Blackhawks’ top-six forwards.
Perlini, currently a restricted free agent, is still without a new contract. According to Jay Zawaski of 670 theScore, he could be getting shopped by the Blackhawks.
It sounds as though the Blackhawks could be looking to find a new home for Perlini, or at least gauging the market for the streaky scorer.
It is possible that a contract gets worked out between the two sides. If it does, I would imagine Perlini will have another chance on the second line with Debrincat and Strome, where he found success at the end of last season.
Unlike Kubalik, Anton Wedin has not gotten a ton of mention among Blackhawks fans. He is another international free agent who has been mentioned by Stan Bowman as a player to look out for in the upcoming season.
Wedin is not the flashiest of players, but in 32 games in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL), he recorded 27 points. While it might not be that impressive on paper, he was 12th in the SHL in points per game.
Anton Wedin is a bit of a dark horse to make the team out of training camp. He will find his way into the lineup sooner rather than later though; injuries are inevitable and he seems like he could be a good depth player. Bowman, again, has been good at identifying international talent.
As mentioned above, Dylan Sikura was a player many Blackhawks’ fans pegged as a player that was destined for a top-six role last season.
Towards the end of the season, Sikura found time on the top line and he spent the majority of the season trying to find his footing in professional hockey.
SIkura split the season between Rockford and Chicago, with him spending 46 games in the AHL and 33 games in the NHL. His offensive statistics were on display at the AHL level, but he never found the back of the net at the NHL level, as he tallied just 8 assists in those 33 games.
With last season being Sikura’s first full professional season, struggles were absolutely going to happen. Hopefully, that experience can fuel his offseason training.
Sikura is still in the early stages of his professional career and I believe he is going to have every opportunity to make the club out of camp.
However, with a two-way contract in the upcoming season, he could be bouncing between Chicago and Rockford once again.
Aleksi Saarela is a player that many viewed as a throw-in as part of the Calvin DeHaan trade. His brother, Antti, a 2019 draft pick by the Blackhawks, is also in a position to make the step to a full-time position at the NHL level.
Saarela hasn’t been able to crack the NHL lineup yet, but his time with the Charlotte Checkers, the Carolina Hurricanes’ AHL affiliate, was extremely productive.
He notched 25 goals in 2017-2018, and then, 30 goals in 2018-2019 en-route to a Calder Cup championship.
Saarela was the Checkers’ leading goal scorer in the regular season and was a solid contributor during the playoffs. This makes you wonder if he is ready for the next step in his career.
With a ton of new faces in the forward group, it might be difficult for Saarela to find a spot. At the very least, he will absolutely bolster the Rockford IceHogs and I would not be surprised if he gets a chance at some point this coming season.
A real dark horse in all of this is prospect Philipp Kurashev. He has had a meteoric rise since being drafted in the 4th round in 2018.
The 19-year-old, Swiss forward had another very strong season for the Quebec Ramparts of the QMJHL, while netting 65 points in 59 games.
The most impressive part of his season was his ability to jump up and play in the IIHF Men’s World Championship for the Swiss team.
In 8 games at the World Championships, Kurashev did not look like a boy among men. He was able to find the back of the net once in the 8 games that he dressed in.
This was Kurashev’s first true test to see what track his development is on. He has the skillset to be a very solid NHL contributor, but maybe getting top minutes in the AHL could be more beneficial for his development.
With that being said, he could make the decision even more difficult for the Blackhawks’ coaching staff come October.
Who’s In and Who’s Out?
This is the real question and a difficult one to answer in July. If Perlini is still with the team come training camp, I think he is the only lock among the players in this group.
Of the rest, I think Sikura’s strong advanced stats giving him an edge over the other prospects vying for the limited NHL slots.
As the next few weeks play out, the picture will continue to become clearer. As things currently stand, these are the candidates that we need to keep our eye on.
More players will also separate themselves from the pack during development camp and training camp.
This also highlights the Blackhawks’ newly created roster depth, with forwards and defensemen. It is a great problem to have and a drastic improvement compared to last year at this time.