Now it’s time for the good stuff.
The preseason is officially over for the Chicago Blackhawks. Six meaningless exhibition games are complete, and players and fans alike can look forward to the official start of the 2017-18 season this Thursday, Oct. 5. Except these past games weren’t meaningless after all. No, they didn’t count towards rankings or records, but they did a lot to determine how this team will be formulated as they start a new season.
Some players proved they belonged, some didn’t. Coaches got a feel for what they have to work with – both individually and as a group. Nothing is set in stone. Changes will still be made. But now, we have a few more answers than we did.
Just a few weeks ago, I posed six questions about the team as we embarked upon the preseason. Today, I’d like to revisit these questions to see what we’ve learned moving forward.
1. Did DeBrincat Make the Team?
Why yes, yes he did! The Hawks announced their final roster cuts on Monday, and Alex DeBrincat is one of 13 forwards on the team. He has certainly provided the coaching staff plenty of reason to keep him around, as he’s surpassed all expectations with an excellent preseason. In five games played, DeBrincat contributed two goals, an assist, and 15 shots on goal. He was deployed with a number of different linemates and looked strong with all of them.
During his first few games, DeBrincat played on the second line with Patrick Kane and Nick Schmaltz. The trio looked fluid together, passing the puck with ease and creating numerous scoring chances. Against Detroit this past Thursday, DeBrincat skated on the first line with Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik and recorded a two-point night, generating a goal and an assist.
On Saturday, DeBrincat found himself on the third line with Artem Anisimov and Ryan Hartman. The entire team seemed a little off for this last exhibition game, but Chicago’s new Wonder Boy still managed three shots on goal, a takeaway, and a blocked shot.
Now, there’s always a chance that DeBrincat falters once he gets a taste of real NHL competition. His smaller stature and effectiveness on the defensive side of the puck are still in question, and he could find himself in the AHL with the Rockford IceHogs if he struggles. But, for now, the question seems to be whether he’ll start on the second or the third line for the Hawks.
2. Who Will Secure the Center Positions?
There’s never been any doubt that Toews will be Chicago’s first-line center. The captain’s two-way game is second to none, and he’s the best in the business in the faceoff circle. In his three preseason games, he won 36 of 54 draws, for an impressive 66.7%. As you can see, Tanner Kero took the most draws of anyone on the team (56) and finished at 55.4%. Nobody else came close to challenging him for that fourth-line center spot.
One of the more interesting storylines out of the preseason is that Schmaltz is challenging Anisimov for the second-line center position. Schmaltz played on the second line in three of his four tilts, the fourth being where he appeared on the first line with mostly scrubs. Anisimov, on the other hand, ended up on the third line for three of his four games. He only made second-line status in a game where Schmaltz sat out.
Coach Q seems interested in pairing Schmaltz’s playmaking abilities with the wizardry of Kane. Schmaltz further proved his worth via his improvement in the faceoff circle – he won just 30.9% of his faceoffs in 2016-17 but won 51.2% of his draws in the preseason this year. It looks like your starting centers will be Toews, Schmaltz, Anisimov, and Kero, in that order.
3. Where Will Sharp Fit In?
As of this writing, Patrick Sharp’s health concerns don’t seem to be an issue – he’s looked strong during both training camp and the preseason, and hasn’t shown any signs of rust from concussion issues or offseason hip surgery. He participated in only three games, but contributed a goal and a team-high four assists, along with 11 shots on net.
It looks like Sharp will slot in on the left wing slot that’s left open by DeBrincat – whether that’s on the second or third line remains to be seen. Either way, he could be an integral piece to the puzzle. He has the flexibility to move up and down the lineup and is also an option at center. He’s a huge contributor on the power play, he’s a seasoned veteran that still has the potential to be a high scorer, and he can mentor the younger players in Chicago’s lineup.
4. How Is the Defense Going to Look?
The defense has been one of the biggest question marks of the offseason in Chicago, and has been the slowest part of the team to take shape. And it’s probably not over yet. Viktor Svedberg, Ville Pokka and Erik Gustafsson have all recently been assigned to Rockford. Luc Snuggerud was injured, essentially ruining any slim chance he had of making the team. Michal Rozsival was placed on LTIR due to a failed physical stemming from concussion issues that began last season.
As of Monday, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Connor Murphy, Michal Kempny, Gustav Forsling, Jan Rutta, Jordan Oesterle, and Cody Franson are the last defensemen left standing. Remember, Franson is on a PTO, but he will more than likely be signed after the Hawks are able to put Marian Hossa on LTIR. This can happen on the first day of the season, which is Wednesday.
It’s interesting to note that the Hawks have opted to keep eight defensemen on the team. It cost them an extra forward (more on this later), but they now have a balance of four left-handed and four right-handed defensemen on the roster. Who plays (and with whom) and who sits in the press box is the main question left to answer. I would guess carrying eight D-men won’t be the case long-term – the coaching staff needs more time to find the right combinations before they know who to drop.
As it appears the Hawks are going to commit to Franson, watch closely the usage and play of Forsling, Rutta, and Oesterle. Franson and Rutta play the right side, while Forsling and Oesterle play on the left side. Franson’s presence could spell trouble for Rutta, while Forsling hasn’t had the best of preseasons. Working in Oesterle’s favor is his flexibility of playing on mostly the right side in Edmonton. I could see Oesterle making a case to stay.
5. Backup Goaltending
Jean-Francois Berube didn’t do himself any favors this preseason – he allowed three goals on 21 shots on Sept. 23 against the Columbus Blue Jackets and was placed on waivers on Monday.
As a result of Berube’s poor preseason showing, it appears Anton Forsberg will be the backup goaltender behind Corey Crawford, as expected. He did what he needed to do by looking strong is both his preseason starts – he posted a .946 SV% overall and stopped 40 of the 42 shots he saw at 5-on-5 during preseason action to effectively lock up a roster spot.
Hopefully Forsberg can keep up the solid work as the season progresses. It’s important that he continues to perform at the top of his game to give Crawford the relief he needs to stay fresh.
6. Dark Horses That Made the Team
Since we covered the defense above, let’s look at the forwards that have been fighting for a spot. Veterans Tomas Jurco and Jordin Tootoo were placed on waivers Monday, suggesting that newcomer John Hayden forced the Hawks’ hand and earned a roster spot over the two veterans. In five games played, Hayden posted a goal, nine shots, four blocked shots, and a team-high 18 hits. He provided a physical presence out on the ice and proved he would be a worthwhile addition to the fourth line.
Lance Bouma and Tommy Wingels will be on the team to start the season as well, as the Hawks sent Vinnie Hinostroza down to Rockford. Factoring into Chicago’s decision was the fact that Bouma and Wingels had to pass waivers, whereas Hinostroza was waiver exempt. Because the Hawks decided to keep eight defensemen, Hinostroza is the odd man out. However, all is not lost for the young forward – according to Chris Hine of the Chicago Tribune, Coach Q said of Hinostroza “he’s right on that cusp of being here or (Rockford). He put himself in a really good position to be the guy that would get the early call.”
For the time being, the opening night roster is set. It’s been an interesting preseason, but now it’s time to play for real. Regular season action begins this Thursday when the Hawks face off against the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Not a bad way to get things started, don’t you think?
Hockey is here!