The Chicago Blackhawks have now suited up for the first four of seven total preseason tilts in September. While we still don’t know the final roster come opening night on Oct. 4, things are starting to take shape. Head coach Jeremy Colliton and his staff have been very busy assessing all their prospects, and taking a long look at their newly acquired talent. And of course, the veterans have been concentrating on shaking off the rust and focusing on a new season.
So what have we learned so far, and what are the implications moving forward? Let’s take a look.
Last season didn’t end the way anyone wanted when the Blackhawks missed the playoffs for the second straight year. But something they did have on their side was the fact that they could score. As a matter of fact, the Blackhawks were eighth in the league in goals scored. Superstars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews enjoyed career-high seasons. Alex DeBrincat tallied 41 goals.
The team has a solid offensive core, but there are still some complementary and depth positions that need to be filled to round out the lineup. As the preseason has unfolded, a few candidates have stood out more than the rest.
Blackhawks’ fans should certainly be excited Alex Nylander is showing some potential. He was the return for trading Henri Jokiharju to the Buffalo Sabres. It was perhaps the most baffling move by the Blackhawks this past offseason. While Jokiharju was arguably one of the best overall defensemen on the team, Nylander has spent the better part of the last three seasons wallowing with the Sabres’ farm team.
But the Blackhawks saw something in the 2016 eighth-overall draft pick, and are hoping a change of scenery might do him some good. Nylander has taken this second chance very seriously, making the most of every opportunity he’s been given thus far.
At the Blackhawks’ Training Camp Festival, Nylander wowed the United Center fans with a fancy penalty shot goal. During Monday’s first preseason tilt against the Washington Capitals, the 21-year-old tallied a goal and an assist along with 1:17 minutes on the power play.
Nylander suited up again on Wednesday at the United Center, and this time was rewarded with the coveted spot on the top line alongside Toews and Kane. Nylander took it right in stride, earning himself a secondary assist as well as registering two shots on goal, one takeaway, and more time on the power play in 20:44 minutes of ice time.
He occupied the same spot in the lineup most of the game Saturday as well. At one point, Nylander stole the puck and created a great scoring opportunity for himself. All in all, the young prospect isn’t just keeping up with Toews and Kane. He’s contributing and helping create offense, and has a legitimate chance to make the team.
People have been slating Dominik Kubalik into the Blackhawks’ top-six ever since he officially signed with the team in May. The Hawks have had good luck with their European acquisitions, and they hope Kubalik will be another success story.
The 24-year-old left-winger from the Czech Republic started things out right with a shootout goal at the Blackhawks’ festival. He was the man of the night during Tuesday’s preseason game, with two tallies and five shots on goal.
In Wednesday’s game Kubalik didn’t show up on the scoresheet, but he was credited with four takeaways, one hit, and one shot on goal. He made his presence known on Saturday as well, playing on the third line with Brandon Saad and Anton Wedin. He even got a shift with the first unit on the power play, where he positioned himself right in front of the net for a good scoring chance.
Like Kubalik, Wedin is another European player the Hawks picked up last May. But Wedin is from Sweden, and he actually played against Coach Colliton’s team when Colliton coached in Sweden.
Wedin has given a nice showing so far in training camp, potting a goal at the festival, and having solid appearances in both Monday and Tuesday’s preseason games. He looked especially strong on Tuesday, when he played on the third line and registered three shots on goal, four hits, and one blocked shot. He also played 3:57 minutes on the penalty kill.
Surprisingly, Colliton sat David Kampf on Saturday and instead placed Wedin at center alongside Saad and Kubalik on the third line. Here’s the coach’s explanation of the move.
He (Wedin) plays with a lot of energy and he’s a conscientious player. He works hard on both sides of the puck, he’s got a little bit of skill, he’s a strong skater. He’s shown well on the wing, and we wanted to rotate the lineup a little bit and see if he could fit in at center.(from, ‘Blackhawks experiment with Anton Wedin in third-line center role against Bruins’, Chicago Sun-Times – 9/21/19)
Wedin did well in his new position, setting up Saad for a goal and winning three-of-six faceoffs. While Kampf and Ryan Carpenter play center, they both seem better fit for a fourth line shutdown role. Could Wedin be the answer as third-line center? Either way, his versatility gives him a much better chance at earning a spot on the opening night roster.
Blackhawks’ Defense Still a Work in Progress
Oh my goodness, the drama on defense. I can’t keep it straight. First, we have the Blackhawks’ 2018 eighth-overall draft pick, Adam Boqvist. He’s shown off some fancy offensive moves this preseason. But let’s not forget, his primary job is to defend. Unlike others fighting for a spot, Boqvist doesn’t have to clear waivers if he gets sent down to Rockford IceHogs. He was placed on the practice team with mostly prospects and scratched for Saturday night’s game.
That being said, it appears the top candidates for the seventh defensive spot are Slater Koekkoek and Carl Dahlstrom. Both would have to clear waivers if they were sent down. It won’t be an easy decision for the coaching staff, as neither has really stood out either positively or negatively. Koekkoek has suited up for three games, and Dahlstrom only two games. Look for Dahlstrom to get another look this Wednesday against the Capitals.
Meanwhile, Calvin de Haan has been practicing with the team since last Tuesday after recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and a minor groin issue. All signs point toward the former Carolina Hurricanes’ defender being ready to play come opening night.
After Duncan Keith and Erik Gustafsson on the first pairing, Olli Maatta and Brent Seabrook have made up the second defensive pairing for the last two preseason contests. Many are questioning this duo. After all, having two of your slowest defensemen on the ice together could spell problems when games start to count.
Related – Meet the New Blackhawks: Calvin de Haan
I predict Maatta is simply a placeholder for when de Haan is ready. This way he gets the practice and the reps in for the regular season. Look to see Maatta paired with Connor Murphy as the shutdown pairing in the future, and for de Haan to partner with Seabrook. This scenario would provide much better balance.
Covering the Crease
I mentioned in my previous post we might not get many answers about the goaltending duo of Corey Crawford and Robin Lehner in the preseason. Sure enough, the Hawks played Collin Delia on Monday, and gave half the game to Kevin Lankinen Tuesday. But so far Lehner has suited up for one and a half tilts, and Crawford for one contest on Wednesday.
Lehner looked a little rusty out of the gate. He let in two goals in two minutes at the festival, and allowed two goals in his 28:52 minutes Tuesday. All in all, he ended the night stopping 15-of-17 shots for an .882 save percentage.
But Saturday was a completely different story. Lehner turned away 39-of-41 shots for a .951 save percentage. The only goals he allowed were on a penalty shot and a short-handed breakaway. Lehner was named the No. 1 star of the game, and looked like the Vezina Trophy finalist that played so well for the New York Islanders last season.
Crawford also did his part when he took the crease for his one game on Wednesday night at the United Center. He looked in mid-season form, stopping 23-of-24 shots for a .958 save percentage. Both netminders have made it very clear neither is there to play a backup role, which is only good for the Blackhawks. As long as they both remain healthy, these two will push each other to be the best they can be as they fight for playing time. It’s going to be fascinating to watch it play out.
Blackhawks’ Cuts & Their Implications
On Thursday, the Blackhawks announced goaltender Alexis Gravel will return to his junior team, the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL. On Friday, they made their first round of cuts, nine in all.
- Graham Knott (LW)
- Chad Krys (D)
- Dylan McLaughlin (C)
- Nathan Noel (C)
- Jack Ramsey (D)
- Jake Ryczek (D)
- Tyler Sikura (C)
- Tim Soderlund (C)
- Kris Versteeg (RW)
Saturday brought 12 more cuts:
- Nicolas Beaudin (D)
- Lucas Carlsson (D)
- MacKenzie Entwistle (RW)
- Alexandre Fortin (LW)
- Brandon Hagel (LW)
- Mikael Hakkarainen (C)
- Matthew Highmore (C)
- Reese Johnson (C)
- Philipp Kurashev (C)
- Dylan Sikura (RW)
- Matt Tomkins (G)
- Joni Tuulola (D)
All these players will now report to the IceHogs, who by the way look to be a pretty good team this season. None of the cuts are particularly surprising, with the exception of Dylan Sikura. Sikura played in 33 games with the Blackhawks last season. But if he handles the demotion the right way and keeps working hard, we should see him get called up at some point during the season.
Saturday after the game, the Blackhawks announced goaltender Kevin Lankinen would also report to Rockford.
And Sunday morning the team exposed their first two players to waivers; forward Jacob Nilsson and defenseman Philip Holm. If they clear, both will report to the IceHogs as well.
That leaves 30 players remaining in the Blackhawks’ camp; 17 forwards, 10 defensemen, and three goaltenders. The team will need to release seven more in order to get down to a 23-man roster.
The Blackhawks host the Capitals this Wednesday and then head to Boston to take on the Bruins on Saturday. But this second contest will consist of IceHogs’ representatives. The main Blackhawks’ team will be headed to Europe to take on Eisbaren Berlin Sunday as part of the NHL Global Series. They will then remain in Europe for the season opener in Prague vs. the Philadelphia Flyers.
Both the Wednesday and Sunday matchups should be especially fun to watch. Not only will most of the veterans suit up for their final dress rehearsal, but some bubble players could have a lot to prove. It sounds like Coach Colliton will be allowed to take a few extra bodies to Europe for a longer look. We shall see how the roster is trimmed before and after that. Never a dull moment during this exciting time of year.
Is it October yet?!