The Chicago Blackhawks open training camp Friday, which means the 2016-17 season is just around the corner. After another offseason of big changes in Chicago, the team is dipping its toes into a youth movement with the season just weeks away.
There are still a lot of big questions for the Hawks to answer following an active offseason. Other than roughly a dozen guys who are locks to make the roster, uncertainty fills the rest of the roster. There are always educated guesses, but this is when players actually cement their spots. Expect a younger group than Joel Quenneville has rolled out in years.
With so much to be decided during camp, even with several big names still in Toronto at the World Cup of Hockey, it should be an interesting few weeks for those of us who follow the Hawks. Here are a few key storylines that we’ll be keeping an eye on.
Who plays with Toews?
This seems like the most interesting question of them all. Jonathan Toews is the Hawks’ No. 1 center and arguably their best all-around player, yet he still doesn’t know who he’ll be paired up with next season. It seems like that’ll be decided in camp, when coach Joel Quenneville will have to sort through familiar options like Marian Hossa and Richard Panik and younger, intriguing options like Nick Schmaltz, Vincent Hinostroza and Tyler Motte.
Will Q actually move Hossa down to Marcus Kruger’s checking line to open the season? Is Schmaltz -- arguably the team’s top prospect — ready for the NHL, let alone a top-six role? There’s a lot of pressure on the young kids to step up here because Hossa, frankly, looks like he’s lost a bit at age 37. That doesn’t mean he can’t still be an effective two-way player in the right role, but the days of him regularly playing big minutes against the toughest competition next to Toews might be over.
Ideally, the younger guys will be able to step into those roles and give the Hawks another dose of speed.
And there’s always the nuclear option of moving Patrick Kane up in the lineup next to Toews. This would require a major restructuring of the team’s forward lines from top to bottom, but if you REALLY wanted to get your superstar center the right support next season, that’s the most obvious way to do it. However, you’d figure the Hawks would rather try other options before breaking up the second line that was so good a year ago.
If I had to guess right now, I’d figure Toews begins the season with Panik and Hinostroza as his wings, assuming Q is serious about moving Hossa down. There’s still a lot that could change over the next few weeks, though.
Can a prospect crack the defense?
Barring surprise, we can already tell you the seven defensemen who will be on Chicago’s opening roster: Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brian Campbell, Michal Kempny, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Michal Rozsival. Only one of them, Kempny, is waivers-exempt, and he seems highly likely to make the NHL roster given that he has a European Assignment Clause.
So there’s nobody the Hawks can freely send down to the AHL without risking giving them up for free, and Rozy seems like the default seventh guy considering there’s no other reason why they’d re-sign him. He’s familiar with the system and the team likes him, so, fine, not a big deal.
But it begs the question of how a prospect like Ville Pokka or Gustav Forsling can even crack into this group assuming Kempny is in. Given the waivers status of the guys ahead of them, the Blackhawks would need to trade a player (most likely TVR) in order to open up another spot. That’s especially notable if the team wanted to keep Forsling, who will return to Sweden if he doesn’t make the opening day roster.
So I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility of a young defenseman-for-young forward trade by the end of training camp if the Hawks decide they can’t afford to send Forsling back overseas. Otherwise, the defense is already in place and hopefully that stability will be valuable.
Alexandre Fortin tries to earn a contract
The prospect camp star has already made it this far, but he’s still waiting for the real prize: an entry-level contract offer from the Blackhawks. The 19-year-old forward impressed in prospect camp and at the rookie tournament in Traverse City, Mich., but his agent recently told The Athletic’s Scott Powers that the two sides haven’t discussed a deal yet.
There’s no rush for either side, as the Hawks have until Oct. 12 to sign Fortin before he’ll have to return to the QMJHL and re-enter the 2017 NHL Draft. And assuming the winger continues to impress at training camp beside NHL-caliber talent, you can expect Chicago to offer him an ELC before the season. It’s hard to say what the Hawks have in Fortin at this point, but he’s done enough to earn a flier.
Mark McNeill gets his big chance
Of all the young forwards battling for playing time in camp, you might be surprised to hear that McNeill makes the opening roster. The former first-round pick is rarely still mentioned among the team’s top prospects and re-signed to a one-year deal with little fanfare after hitting restricted free agency over the summer.
But McNeill is no longer waiver-exempt, which may give him a big leg up over the competition to make the opening roster. That’s because unlike the Hawks’ other young forwards, McNeill will have to clear waivers if Chicago assigns him to Rockford to open the season.
McNeill is a 23-year-old former first-round pick with some track record of production in the AHL, so it’s hard to believe that nobody would pluck him off waivers. That means the Hawks are deciding between three options: (a) give McNeill a legit shot in the NHL to start the season (b) let him hit waivers and risk losing him for nothing (c) trade him.
Considering the Hawks just had several months to trade McNeill and chose not to despite rumors, it seems like they’re still open to the idea that he could contribute to this team. After putting up 48 points in 63 AHL games last season, it’s not that crazy. Don’t be surprised if McNeill is in a bottom-six role to open the season.
The health updates
Even after the long offseason, a bunch of Hawks are still seemingly entering the season nicked up. Duncan Keith skipped the World Cup to continue knee rehab, Marcus Kruger and Marian Hossa had injury scares in Toronto and Nick Schmaltz missed a couple games in Michigan with a minor injury. None of them sound like problems that will stretch deep into the season, but for a team that’s relatively thin, they can’t afford to have too many key players miss time.
The most prominent issue here is whether Keith will be ready for opening night, as GM Stan Bowman recently declined to confirm whether that would be the case. It seemed like Bowman was just hedging, as he also said the injury was nothing serious, but if Keith misses a week or two to open the season, the Hawks will have to re-shuffle their defensive corps to not stumble out of the gate.