The start of fall is eight days away, which means hockey season is nearly here. After this weekend’s Tom Kurvers Prospect Showcase, the Chicago Blackhawks will open training camp on Sept. 21. From depth forwards looking to prove their worth to prospects hoping to make the cut, it will be an intriguing week before the team hosts its first preseason game on Sept. 28 against the St. Louis Blues. With that in mind, let’s discuss three battles to keep an eye on.
Blackhawks First Line: Bedard and Who?
It’s all but certain Connor Bedard will make the opening night roster and become the team’s No. 1 center. He may be just 18 years old, but he has carried himself tremendously off the ice so far and should set the tone for the team’s future. The question is, who do the Blackhawks pair with their next face of the franchise to ensure a successful first NHL season?
One obvious answer is Taylor Hall. The Blackhawks acquired the 2010 No. 1 overall pick from the Boston Bruins just two days before this year’s draft. While he has regressed since winning the Hart Trophy in 2018 with the New Jersey Devils, he’s still an effective player and arguably the Blackhawks’ top forward aside from Bedard. He is also a great playmaker and should be a nice mentor for the 18-year-old.
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Let’s say the Blackhawks pair Bedard with Hall, with the latter playing left wing. This would create an opening for the first-line right-wing role, which is where things get interesting. The Blackhawks would likely want to place Lukas Reichel on the second line for him to gain independence and avoid getting too top-heavy, leaving Taylor Raddysh, Tyler Johnson, Andreas Athanasiou, and even offseason addition Ryan Donato as possible options for the spot.
Raddysh makes sense. He would add physicality and grit, and it would put him in a position to capitalize on his career-best performance of 37 points (20 goals, 17 assists) in 78 games in 2022-23. On the other hand, an under-the-radar choice may be Johnson. Despite struggling with injuries, the 33-year-old was effective when healthy last season. With two Stanley Cups, he’d add championship pedigree, too. The only drawback may be his size; Johnson is just 5-foot-8, while Bedard is 5-foot-10.
Personally, I have the Blackhawks rolling with Hall-Bedard-Johnson as their top line, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Raddysh slides into Johnson’s place. On the other hand, they could always pair Reichel with Bedard and place Hall on the second line or even experiment with Hall-Bedard-Reichel.
Blackhawks Depth Forwards
The Blackhawks pretty much have 11 locks to make the forward group: Bedard, Raddysh, Athanasiou, Reichel, Johnson, Philipp Kurashev, and Jason Dickinson, along with offseason acquisitions Hall, Donato, Nick Foligno, and Corey Perry. That leaves one spot open among the team’s four lines, along with probably two extra/depth roles. Camp and preseason should dictate who gets those spots, which could realistically go to players such as Colin Blackwell, Boris Katchouk, Mackenzie Entwistle, Reese Johnson, Joey Anderson, and Cole Guttman.
Of these options, it wouldn’t be surprising if the team gravitated toward Blackwell for his versatility and experience. After recording a career-high 20 points with the Seattle Kraken and Toronto Maple Leafs in 2021-22, Blackwell skated in just 53 games with Chicago last season due to injuries. Given he’s on a two-year deal, the Blackhawks are obviously committed to him, and it feels like a safe bet he’ll get one of the three spots.
Should he at least meet expectations during camp, Guttman would be another wise choice for Chicago. In his first NHL stint last season, he impressed with six points (four goals, two assists) in 14 games and was a feel-good story. The 24-year-old brings a high-energy game and could easily flourish with one of the team’s veterans, such as Foligno or Perry. He also has a higher ceiling at this point than Entwistle, Katchouk, and Johnson. That said, last year was his first at the professional level after four years at the University of Denver. It’d be understandable if the team wanted him to get more seasoning in the American Hockey League (AHL).
One name we can’t totally write off is Anderson. The Blackhawks acquired the 25-year-old from Toronto last February in the Jake McCabe/Sam Lafferty trade, and he appeared in 24 games down the stretch. He brings size at 207 pounds and could thrive in the bottom-six with consistent playing time.
Ultimately, I expect the Blackhawks to go with Blackwell, Guttman, and Katchouk. However, a strong camp from one or more of Entwistle, Anderson, Johnson, and possibly others could change that.
Blackhawks Defensive Prospects
The Blackhawks didn’t add to their blue line this summer, meaning multiple defensive prospects such as Kevin Korchinski, Alex Vlasic, Isaak Phillips, Wyatt Kaiser, and Filip Roos could make the opening night lineup. All five are left-handed, so whoever of the group makes the cut could skate with Seth Jones and Connor Murphy on the right side. Though the third pairing appears to be Jarred Tinordi (left) and Nikita Zaitsev (right), everything is fluid. Much could change over the next three weeks.
The big X-factor is Korchinski. The 19-year-old did everything he could in 2022-23 with the Western Hockey League’s (WHL) Seattle Thunderbirds, and the Blackhawks face pros and cons no matter where they start him. The 2022 seventh overall pick has the highest ceiling of the group, and a nine-game regular-season tryout seems realistic. Having said that, the Blackhawks have been patient with some of their other prospects, such as Reichel. It could be a smart move to send him to the WHL and avoid the last regime’s failures, as they couldn’t properly develop Kirby Dach and Adam Boqvist.
Barring a poor camp, one name who should be in the fold is Vlasic. Having skated in 21 NHL games over the last two seasons, he has experience with Jones and Murphy, along with a good frame at 6-foot-6 and 199 pounds. In addition, Phillips may be worth getting an extended look; during his 16-game stint last season, he showed good offensive instincts and finished with five points (one goal, four assists) despite posting a minus-10. His overall ceiling may be slightly lower than Vlasic and even Kaiser, but this season is all about development. It’d be good to see what he can bring.
There are two different scenarios I have here. If Korchinski makes the NHL roster, he and Vlasic would crack the top-four with Jones and Murphy. If not, I have Vlasic on the top pairing with Jones, Phillips on the second pairing with Murphy, along with Roos as an extra behind the third pairing of Tinordi and Zaitsev. This would leave Kaiser out of the mix, and while I could see him being a long-term fixture, I feel like he could benefit from just a little more development in the AHL, having made the jump from college (University of Minnesota-Duluth) last season. But again, I wouldn’t be shocked if he made the cut should he have a strong camp.
The Blackhawks are gearing up for one of their most intriguing seasons in years, and training camp should be meaningful for several players. It could be another long campaign as the rebuild continues, but there’s a sense of optimism we didn’t have this time last year with Bedard, Reichel, and others likely to make the full-time roster. Last season was all about tearing it down, and now with that behind them, the Blackhawks can finally begin prioritizing the future.