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Blackhawks mail satchel: Most improved player, who should be backup goalie, and more

Let’s answer some questions!

Vancouver Canucks v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Welcome to the first edition of our new Blackhawks mailbag here at Second City Hockey, which we’re calling a mail satchel because my name is Satchel and it means bag and we needed a clever name anyway so this is all just dandy.

I imagine you know how this will work — you guys ask the questions, I give you my answers — although I just wanted to mention that I got enough questions this week that some of them will carry over to next week. Also, if you’re asking questions, please try to keep them at a reasonable length so they’re easy for me to follow and answer. Thanks!

Most improved player this season? — @fatems_19

So there are basically two ways to look at this question — who was the most improved player in 2016-17, and who do I think will be most improved in 2017-18 — and I’ll give an answer to both of them since I’m a generous person like that.

First, I’d say the guy who improved most over the course of 2016-17 was Nick Schmaltz. He’s an extremely good passer who got overwhelmed by the NHL transition at first, then gradually built his confidence before having another learning experience in the playoffs.

When he’s playing with that swagger, looking for shots, and letting his ability take over, Schmaltz can be a dangerous creator. He just gets too easily shook off his game at this point, and becoming more resilient will be the next step in his evolution. Schmaltz has the potential to be a 55-60 point player in the NHL soon.

Also a shoutout to Richard Panik, who found an unexpected gear of consistency that earned him a deserved extension this offseason, and Ryan Hartman.

As for who I think is in for a much-improved 2017-18, Gustav Forsling arrived in Chicago a year earlier than expected in 2016-17, and looked like a guy showing up a year too early at times. He’s now had a year of North American experience, though, and I think he’s going to be ready to take the leap to a full-time NHL role next season.

Who's the best candidate for backup goalie next year? Is this the most pressing issue? — @blue_yarn

I gave an answer of sorts to this question back in May when the Hawks first traded Scott Darling, and not too much has changed since then. They’re largely going to be looking at a combination of cheap free agents and trade targets who could fill the position for a low cap hit next season. There’s just too much money tied up elsewhere to go from Darling’s $587,500 cap hit to something significantly higher than that.

Among unrestricted free agents, former Devils netminder Keith Kinkaid would be arguably the strongest option. The 27-year-old has posted a solid .912 save percentage over 68 appearances with New Jersey over the past three seasons. He’s coming off a two-year deal that paid him $725,000 annually, and may not be in a position to command too much of a raise given how many goalies are on the market.

If Kinkaid would sign on for one or two years at a $1 million cap hit, that would be a good stopgap solution to the issue.

And no, I wouldn’t consider backup goalie their most pressing issue with Corey Crawford still around. He remains a true No. 1, and moves like Darling and Antti Raanta give me faith that Blackhawks management will be able to uncover a serviceable backup without breaking the bank. There are trickier issues given where the team’s cap number is at right now.

Is a hot dog a sandwich? — @KG_II

See, what people don’t realize with the hot dog is that it transcends categories. Where did it come from? Why is it here? Nobody knows the answer to either question, and we don’t care because it’ll just good in the way of appreciating our mustardy goodness. The hot dog is both a sandwich, and not a sandwich. It is both here, and there. It is in my belly, and also not in my belly.

Okay dang now for a quick drive to Portillo’s.

What’s your opinion on what the forward situation is going to look like next year assuming Kruger is gone? — @michael_marti23

It seems like the big changes, assuming they need to happen, come on defense. At forward, the re-signing of Richard Panik solidifies one spot. Unless the team trades Artem Anisimov or Artemi Panarin, you’re probably already looking at roughly the forward group Chicago will bring into camp next season.

And honestly, it looks pretty good. The only thing that’s clearly missing is a No. 3 center, which the team lacked in 2016-17, frankly (Kruger, for all his talents, doesn’t score enough to be your No. 3 center if your No. 4 center is Tanner Kero).

So one of the big questions, at least to me, is what the Hawks do with Schmaltz. He was brutal at faceoffs last season, but in an ideal world, he’s your No. 3 center next season. Who is left wing on the Toews line then? Maybe Alex DeBrincat?

The good news is that the pieces are interesting. Toews, Kane, and Panarin remain fantastic forwards. Anisimov, Panik, Schmaltz, Hartman, and Hossa isn’t a bad second wave of scoring. And then you have Kero, DeBrincat, Vinnie Hinostroza, John Hayden, and the other young guys beyond that.

It’s hard to say how all the pieces fit exactly right now, but this forward groups looks interesting enough.

Considering the cap in all likelihood will not go up a major amount. What do you guys think will happen with Richard Panik? — @toaster8819

It is fair to assume Panik is a member of the 2017-18 Blackhawks at this point. The forward was set to become a restricted free agent before signing his two-year, $5.6 million extension, and it’s hard to see the Hawks doing that, then turning around to trade him elsewhere.

It’d be a cold move on the Hawks’ part, especially after Panik indicated he lowered his demands to re-sign with the team, and not exactly in line with how they usually do business. If the plan from GM Stan Bowman was for Panik to be a goner this offseason, the team would’ve traded his rights before signing him to a new contract. Bowman said as much last month:

"Richard made tremendous strides this past year and we were pleased with the consistency he showed throughout the season," Bowman said, via NHL.com. "We are looking forward to having him in Chicago for the next two seasons."

There’s always a chance that things change from here — maybe Bowman has a deal fall through at last minute and needs to find a new way to clear salary — but for now, the re-signing of Panik signals he’s in the Blackhawks’ plans for next season.