Psssssssst, can I tell you a secret???
HOCKEY IS BACK, BABY!!!!!!
The Chicago Blackhawks open the 2016-17 NHL season against the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday night at the United Center. After a way-too-long offseason that saw Chicago dip its toes into a youth moment, the Hawks will look to begin the year on a high note by avenging last season’s playoff ouster.
Chicago’s lineup for this game will be much different than the one we saw get eliminated in April. Popular players like Andrew Shaw and Teuvo Teravainen were traded, making room for new young players like Nick Schmaltz and Tyler Motte. Old friend Brian Campbell returned home on defense, and he’s joined by a pair of exciting young talents in Michal Kempny and Gustav Forsling.
Niklas Hjalmarsson will be out, too, although he’s just suspended for the game by NHL Player Safety. The Swedish defenseman should be back in uniform when Chicago faces the Predators on Friday night.
On the other side of the ice, the Blues will once again provide some real trouble this season. They’ve got a deep defense with Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk and Colton Parayko leading the way, and Vladimir Tarasenko is one of the premier scorers in all of hockey. St. Louis should once again be in the mix in the Central this season, so the Hawks would do good to get an early jump by grabbing two points Wednesday night.
Player to watch for: Nick Schmaltz
You could pick just about any of the Hawks’ young players, but we’ll go with the debut of Schmaltz, a 2014 first-round pick. Schmaltz enters the year as Chicago’s No. 4 center after a breakout season at the University of North Dakota. He’s an exceptionally gifted passer who could become a long-term option up the middle for the Hawks.
Right off the bat, Schmaltz will be tested in the matchup against St. Louis. You never know quite how Joel Quenneville is going to use his matchups, and the Blues aren’t exactly a juggernaut up the middle, but they’re still a good, physical team that’s unlike anything Schmaltz saw playing college hockey.
How will the 20-year-old adjust to all that, and can he hold his own at center after auditions at wing? That’s what I’m wondering, and with Dennis Rasmussen waiting in the wings, the Hawks have a replacement ready to go. The Hawks could very easily shift Schmaltz to right wing, insert Rasmussen at center and bench Jordin Tootoo if Schmaltz doesn’t fit at center. In fact, I figure that’s pretty much the Hawks’ plan right now, with the small possibility that Schmaltz plays his way into a top-six winger role at some point, too.
But it all starts with how Schmaltz acclimates himself at center, and based on his superb playmaking skills, he could be a fit at the position. That would be a nice boost for the Hawks because the Marcus Kruger-led third line will always be more defensive-oriented. So having a dynamic creator like Schmaltz on the final line would be an ideal way to avoid too many scoring droughts with the bottom six on the ice. Hopefully he gets off to a good start Wednesday.
How to watch Blackhawks vs. Blues
Location: United Center, Chicago
Time: 7 p.m. CT
Live stream: NBC Sports