The Chicago Blackhawks are making progress as training camp winds down and they prepare to head to Edmonton this Sunday. Once there, they have another week to get acclimated before starting their best-of-five series against the Oilers on Aug. 1. But the remainder of this week and weekend will determine who makes the trip and who stays behind. As of now, the Blackhawks have some holes in their linup, although there have been some updates on that front. Let’s break down what we know so far and discuss the Blackhawks options moving forward.
It appears head coach Jeremy Colliton already had some tendencies regarding what forward lines he will be icing once play gets started. Before the pause the Blackhawks were in a bit of a groove, having won five of their last seven games and scoring five or more goals in three of those contests. Here are the forward lines Colliton used for the last game played on March 11.
Alex DeBrincat-Jonathan Toews-Brandon Saad
Alex Nylander-Dylan Strome-Patrick Kane
Dominik Kubalik-Kirby Dach-Brandon Hagel (Drake Caggiula)
Matthew Highmore-David Kampf-Ryan Carpenter
A few things to note here. Up until this particular matchup, Kubalik was being deployed on the first line with Toews and Saad, while DeBrincat was on the third line. Also, Drake Caggiula previously occupied Hagel’s spot on the third line, but he was out with a broken hand.
Colliton must have liked what he saw this last game (a 6-2 victory), because these are the lines he’s used so far in training camp (with Caggiula in his old spot instead of Hagel). Obviously he sees more balance by swapping Kubalik for DeBrincat. Perhaps this is a way to get DeBrincat more involved while also not taking away from the productivity of the top line.
But one also wants to ensure the rookie who notched 30 goals still has a chance to score. Can Dach and Caggiula get the puck to Kubalik that same way Toews and Saad can, and vise versa? We shall see. Otherwise there’s always the option to swap them again.
The Strome/Kane/Nylander line has stood out the most at camp so far (more on this below). Carrying that chemistry into game action would be key.
The latest development at forward is that Toews left practice on Monday after breaking his stick. He didn’t return. Colliton chalked it up to just keeping him fresh. But he didn’t practice on Tuesday either. Let’s hope Toews is simply being cautious about a minor issue, and we see him back on the ice again soon.
The Blackhawks are allowed to bring 31 players with them to the bubble. Based on performance and utilization so far in camp, look for Dylan Sikura, Philipp Kurashev, and Brandon Hagel to be among the extras.
The defensive pairings are in a state of flux based with some recent absences. When camp started, these were the groupings.
Duncan Keith-Adam Boqvist
Calvin de Haan-Connor Murphy
Olli Maatta-Slater Koekkoek
Lucas Carlsson-Brent Seabrook
Nick Seeler-Nicolas Beaudin
But de Haan has been out since the second day of camp due to a family emergency. On the fourth day of camp, Murphy was declared “unfit to participate”.
Blackhawks fans were thrilled to learn both Murphy and de Haan skated separately from the team this Tuesday, and should be able to join the main group soon. After all, they formulate a very important second pairing. I’m not going to sugarcoat it; the Blackhawks’ defense needs all the help they can get against the likes of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. Having Murphy and de Haan at full capacity is essential.
It’s amazing Seabrook is in camp in the first place after a shoulder and two hip surgeries earlier in the year. Scott Powers of The Athletic reports Seabrook looks slow and unnatural. That’s not a good sign considering he already was slow before he was sidelined. If he ever gets back to the same or somehow better than before, he’s going to need more time. It’s unclear whether the Blackhawks might still want Seabrook on the trip even if he doesn’t play. (Source: ‘Five observations from the Blackhawks’ scrimmages as they prepare for the Oilers’, The AthleticCHI – 7/20/20)
That probably leaves Maatta, Koekkoek and Carlsson to round out the usual seven defensemen, with extras likely being Beaudin and Seeler.
Ah, the saga in net. Goaltender Corey Crawford hasn’t been seen on the ice since March 11, the Blackhawks last regular season game against the San Jose Sharks. The strengths of the two-time Stanley Cup champion were supposed to compensate for a weak defensive corps. While the Blackhawks are holding out hope Crawford could join them, every day is one less day for the netminder to practice and work on his all-important timing. It’s a very tall order.
Without Crawford the team must turn to either Malcolm Subban or Collin Delia, both of which have limited NHL experience and no playoff experience. Well, there’s always the hope that one of them could stand on their head and frustrate the Oilers based on the team’s unfamiliarity with their style.
The Oilers are actually talking about utilizing both goaltenders Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen. Perhaps the Blackhawks could do the same with Subban and Delia. Keep the Oilers on their toes and not sure who to prepare for.
One thing to note. Often when the Blackhawks have an inexperienced goaltender between the pipes they tend to keep it simple and attempt to protect him more; not take as many chances. They will certainly need to do this against the Oilers. But that can often come at the expense of the transition to offense. The Blackhawks have to find creative ways to score early and often to grab some momentum.
Let’s move on to special teams. I reported in an previous article the Oilers led the league on the power play and were second in the league on the penalty kill this season. Whereas the Blackhawks can’t seem to find their groove on the power play, although they boast a solid penalty kill.
Can the Blackhawks figure it out on the man advantage? This is one of the things they’ve been focusing on in training camp. Here are what their power play units look like:
PP1: Kane, Toews, Dach, Kubalik, Keith
PP2: Strome, DeBrincat, Saad, Nylander, Boqvist
That’s a very loaded first unit! Both Kubalik and Dach are relatively new to this unit, as DeBrincat and Nylander were utilized more in the past. The Blackhawks rely heavily on their first unit, with the second unit many times only seeing 30-40 seconds of the two-minute power play.
Kane passing to DeBrincat for the shot was getting too predictable. Now Kane attempts to pass to Kubalik. It’s a little bit of a different look, as Kane plays on other side to open up Kubalik’s left-handed shot. It’s both Toews’ and Dach’s jobs to wreak havoc in front of the net. Hopefully these added dynamics will be what the Blackhawks need to break through.
And let’s not dismiss the second unit. DeBrincat and Strome have well-known chemistry together. Saad is definitely no slouch. Boqvist have proven to be very competent quarterback of the man advantage. And Nylander certainly has the skill to contribute.
If the Blackhawks have a shot at this thing, the power play needs to get hot and the penalty kill must to continue where it left off, especially against an excellent Oilers’ power play.
Let’s start with the entire second line. Scott Powers reports in his article (cited above) that the Kane/Strome/Nylander line has been dominating in the scrimmages. Let’s hope they can carry that over to the real deal. Nylander has been taking things very seriously as he prepares for his first NHL playoff appearance. He was one of the initial players to report to Phase 2 voluntary skates.
Nylander spoke on their chemistry and his preparation.
I feel really good here in camp, but I want to be prepared because this is obviously going to be my first playoffs…I started playing really well at the end of the season, especially with Stromer and Kane, good chemistry and stuff like that and kind of building on that and keep it going for the playoffs, it’s going to be huge.
While this particular line certainly looks dynamic, there are a few other players that are standing out as well. The 2019 third overall draft pick Kirby Dach has returned for his second stint as a rookie stronger and wiser. He’s added some weight and strength to his lanky frame, and had time to digest his first-year experience. It’s given him the confidence of a second-year player this time around. Everyone is noticing, and they like what they see. Colliton has been impressed, and Keith recently gave him kudos. Even Kane had only good things to say.
I noticed it right away when he came back, when he was skating with us a few days before training camp… Looks like his skating’s better, his shot’s better, looks like he might be a little bit bigger, he’s put some weight on.
Let’s not forget Dach is currently centered a line with Calder Trophy finalist Kubalik on his left wing. Here’s a look at what they can do together.
There’s certainly been a lot of developments in training camp so far. The roster and lineups aren’t set, but things are starting to take shape. More to follow as we go!