Blackhawks: 6 Things to Watch for This Preseason

The Chicago Blackhawks will soon be heading into their preseason, starting this Tuesday, Sept. 19, and ending on Saturday, Sept. 30. They face off against three teams: the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Detroit Red Wings, and the Boston Bruins. The Hawks have a home and an away game against each club.

While the preseason doesn’t promise the intensity of the regular season, which debuts on Thursday, Oct. 5, it’s a time for veterans to shake off the rust, for newer players to prove their worth, and for prospects to earn a long-shot at making the team. For die-hard fans, it’s a very exciting time. With that in mind, let’s take a look at six things to watch for this preseason.

1. Will DeBrincat Make the Team?

Let’s face it. This is the question everyone has been asking since the Hawks selected Alex DeBrincat 39th overall in the 2016 NHL Draft. He led the OHL last season with 65 goals and 62 assists playing for the Erie Otters. Many think he’s a sniper whose skills can translate immediately to the NHL. Others feel he might need some time to adjust to the speed and tighter play at this next level.

While DeBrincat simply looked average at the Blackhawks’ prospect camp in July, he made his mark at the most recent prospect tournament in Traverse City. He scored five goals in four games, including the overtime tally to win the tournament for the Blackhawks.

If he does make the team, will DeBrincat play on the same line as Patrick Kane? It was just a scrimmage, but he did play with Kane on Sunday, and the line looked good. Is this a sneak peek at things to come?

2. Who Will Secure the Center Positions?

Well, we all know Jonathan Toews centers the first line. And Artem Anisimov is the second-line center. Or is he? He struggled on faceoffs in the regular season last year (45.1 percent), and was an abominable 29.4 percent in the playoffs. If this carries over into the 2017-18 season, I could see head coach Joel Quenneville shaking things up. But I’m sure improving in this department has been a focus for Anisimov this offseason, and he has such great chemistry with linemate Kane.

Alas, Nick Schmaltz spent time centering the second line with Kane and Patrick Sharp during the Hawks’ training camp festival over the weekend. As a matter of fact, he scored the team’s first goal. Could he be a candidate to replace Anisimov? Or would he be better suited centering the third line? He also saw success on the wing last season and might be more needed there.

The question remains, who else could round out the center positions for the bottom lines? Tanner Kero proved his worth at third and fourth-line center last season. It was either Kero or Marcus Kruger that held down those two spots. With Kruger now a member of the Carolina Hurricanes, it’s presumed Kero will slot into one of these roles. Other candidates for the center position include Laurent Dauphin, David Kampf, Sharp, and Tommy Wingels.

 3. Where Will Sharp Fit In?

On a team that’s looking to get younger and faster, Sharp doesn’t exactly seem to fit in. But he signed for a measly $800,000 to come back to the Blackhawks. For that price, it’s worth it to try to find a place for his veteran presence. Will Sharp be productive after hip surgery and concussion issues? If so, where will he slot into the lineup?

According to Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times, Sharp passed all his fitness testing this past Thursday with flying colors, as well as tallying a goal and two assists in the training camp festival.

Patrick Sharp signed a Chicago-friendly deal to come back to the team where he won three Stanley Cups. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Some (including Coach Q at the festival) have him on the second-line left wing, united with Kane. Others see him being more suited to spearhead scoring on the third line. Perhaps he’s just holding a spot on the second line until DeBrincat is ready. He also could be a useful option at center if needed. We shall see how it all plays out.

4. How Is the Defense Going to Look?

Ah, this might be the biggest issue the Hawks need to resolve to be successful this coming season. Core defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook aren’t getting any younger. Niklas Hjalmarsson and Trevor van Riemsdyk are now members of different teams. Johnny Oduya and Brian Campbell both weren’t re-signed, causing the latter to announce his retirement.

So who’s left?

All signs out of training camp point to Keith and Connor Murphy heading up the first defensive pairing. It looks like Seabrook will take the right side of the second pairing. He played with both Michal Kempny and Gustav Forsling during the scrimmages over the weekend. Being highest on the depth chart as left-handed shots, these two more than likely round out the left side of the second and third pairings.

Michal Kempny is a prime candidate to play on the Hawks’ second defensive pairing. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Now that he’s signed a PTO with the Hawks, it appears Cody Franson is the veteran presence Coach Q likes to have. Barring competition from some of the prospects, and with Franson a right-handed shot, the spot on the right side of the third pairing is probably his.

5. Backup Goaltending

All eyes will be on Anton Forsberg to see if he can be a viable backup to starter Corey Crawford. We all know former backup Scott Darling could do it. He did it so well, it appears he earned himself a starting gig with the Carolina Hurricanes.

Anton Forsberg needs to prove he can be a solid backup for the Blackhawks. (Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports)

But Forsberg is still very much an unproven entity. He has some big shoes to fill. Is he up to the task? For the sake of the Blackhawks, let’s hope he is. If the Hawks want to compete in the playoffs, they need someone who can step in and relieve Crawford so he can stay fresh.

6. Dark Horses to Make the Team

While the roster might seem pretty well set, at least in the forward category, don’t tell that to guys on the bubble. Veterans Lance Bouma, Wingels, Tomas Jurco, and Jordin Tootoo will have healthy competition for playing time. Beyond that, keep an eye on young forwards Vinnie Hinostroza, John Hayden, Dauphin, Kampf, Kyle Baun, and Alexandre Fortin.

Vinnie Hinostroza is looking for his shot to make the lineup with the Hawks. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

On defense, watch out for Ville Pokka, Jan Rutta, Jordan Oesterle, and Erik Gustafsson. A strong showing by one or more of these players could earn them a spot on the opening night roster and beyond.

While some would rather just tune in on opening night, others like to follow along in the preseason to get a pulse on how the team is coming together. Answers to the above questions, and more, will sort themselves out over the next few weeks. Never a dull moment.

It’s almost October!