Like every NHL team entering the 2016-17 season, there are a lot of questions surrounding the Chicago Blackhawks. And for this edition of the team, there are more than usual. Chicago remains a potential contender in the West, but this is a higher variance group than fans have watched in years.
With so much uncertainty, especially at the forward position where several rookies will be worked in, intrigue is abundant. Concern is, too, however, so the Hawks will have to spend the regular season proving that they’re still one of the best teams in the Western Conference.
There are loads of questions to ask about these Blackhawks. Here are answers to three of the biggest ones.
Who will be the first-line wingers next to Jonathan Toews?
We still don’t know who will play next to Toews on opening night, let alone by the end of the season. He’s one of the best centers in the NHL, but his massive contract is part of why his linemate options heading into the season are an aging Marian Hossa, an underwhelming Richard Panik and young guys like Nick Schmaltz, Tyler Motte and Vincent Hinostroza.
There is one crucial alternative, though, and it’s been discussed increasingly by people around the Hawks in recent weeks. That’s breaking up the second line of Artemi Panarin, Artem Anisimov and Patrick Kane, which was one of the best in the league last season.
The Hawks cannot afford to be a one-line team in 2016-17, and Toews’ grouping will be leaned on to be an effective two-way unit. The captain will need support to do that, which probably doesn’t mean easing two rookies beside him while they take on difficult competition.
The obvious solution is to see what Panarin can do with Toews. Those two struggled together last season — the team got outscored, 7-3, with both playing at 5-on-5 -- but it was only 141 minutes. That’s not enough to dismiss the potential for two players that talented, even if Panarin’s kinetic puck-moving style isn’t a perfect fit with the more methodical Toews.
The idea of breaking up Panarin-Anisimov-Kane has been controversial to say the least, especially after Panarin and Kane connected for a gorgeous preseason goal soon after getting on the ice together, but it’s probably necessary. Kane has shown he can carry an offensive-minded line before, and the Hawks badly need to spread the wealth and avoid leaning on the No. 2 line as much as they did last season.
There’s also the matter of Hossa, who has been talked about as a potential winger next to Marcus Kruger. He looked spry at the World Cup of Hockey, though, and seems to deserve another opportunity on the first line before a real demotion. I’d put Panarin and Hossa with Toews on Day 1 and see if that could become a real No. 1 line for the Hawks.
How should the team react if its rookie forwards disappoint?
I can’t help but think about this. The Hawks are banking so much on their young forwards entering the 2016-17 season, but what if those players don’t live up to expectations? There’s a real possibility that this team is several forwards short of being a contender, without a long list of assets or the salary cap space to make major upgrades.
It would be a fascinating situation to observe. Would the Hawks decide to take a step back, develop the young guys and start focusing on the 2017-18 season? Or would they try trading some of those young players for veterans to try to win another Stanley Cup?
There are arguments on both sides. The Hawks only have a limited championship window with this current core, so wasting a year is always hard to stomach. That’s become apparent over the past couple years as the team aggressively traded out assets for veterans — it worked in 2015, not so much in 2016.
But the Hawks could also stay competitive throughout the future with some deft planning, and each aggressive “win-now” season moves them a little further away from that. If this team doesn’t look like it’s only a piece or two away from Cup contention by February, this might be the time to take a step back and see if guys like Schmaltz, Motte and Hinostroza can continue developing into high-level players for the following season.
The young guys have given a lot of reason for optimism this season, but they’re also what make the 2016-17 Blackhawks so unpredictable. It’ll be interesting to see what happens if the results aren’t what we hope for.
Which defensemen will finish the season on the third pairing?
The answer to this felt a bit more obvious a few weeks ago, but now top prospect Gustav Forsling is playing himself into the picture for this season. He was expected to return to Sweden for the 2016-17 season and compete for a big role the following season. Instead, he’s been so good in training camp and preseason that the coaching staff is seriously considering keeping him around.
Suddenly the Hawks’ options for their third pairing look pretty damn good. The team had real issues on defense last season, but solidified its top-four over the summer by bringing back veteran Brian Campbell. Even at age 37, Campbell is one of the most dependable blue liners in the league and will immediately be a stabilizing force on Chicago’s back end. Between him, Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Seabrook, the Hawks have to be confident about their top two pairings entering the season.
The other two spots on the roster were question marks, but it feels like we’re getting an answer. Forsling and Michal Kempny, a 25-year-old Czech defenseman signed out of the KHL, are looking like major additions to this roster. They’re clearly superior options to Michal Rozsival and Trevor van Riemsdyk, who can provide good depth but shouldn’t be depended on in major roles.
The Hawks tend to tighten up their defensive rotation a lot in the postseason, giving more minutes to Keith and fewer minutes to the bottom guys, but it could be different this season. Keith is getting older, has knee issues and might not be able to grind it out as much as before. And in this case, with so much depth, the Hawks actually might be equipped to let Keith play a couple minutes fewer per game without taking a real hit on the ice.
Forsling and Kempny weren’t even signed to contracts when the Hawks got eliminated from the playoffs a year ago, but there’s a very good chance they’re making major contributions in the 2017 postseason.