5 key position battles to follow in Blackhawks training camp

The new and hopefully improved Hawks got a lot to sort out over the next couple weeks.

The Chicago Blackhawks open training camp Friday looking to turn over to a new chapter following last season’s first-round elimination. It’s a combination of familiar faces and new pieces as Joel Quenneville and company try to rebound from the disappointment of the spring.

Before the start of the season on Oct. 5, the Blackhawks have a lot of things to sort out. Many positions aren’t filled yet, and who gets first crack at them will be determined by what happens over the next few weeks. This is as little as we’ve known about a Hawks team entering camp since I started covering the team in 2014.

There’s still a lot to be excited about, from the returns of Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp to another chance to see Alex DeBrincat, but now the real work begins as the Hawks try to show they’re still contenders in the Western Conference.

With all that in mind, here are the five most crucial position battles that’ll be doing down in camp. There will be other things to watch, such as how new assistant coaches Ulf Samuelsson and Tony Granato change the formula, but a lot of that will be tough to fully gauge until the games begin. In the meantime, here are the biggest spots that need to be filled in the coming weeks.

2LW: Patrick Sharp vs. Nick Schmaltz vs. Alex DeBrincat

The Hawks got a lot of depth issues to sort out, but first, they need to figure out who goes on the second line next to Patrick Kane and Artem Anisimov. Artemi Panarin used to hold that spot, but with him out and Saad back to stabilize the first line, it’s now an opening.

Sharp is probably the favorite to earn the spot right now given his experience, but he could get pushed by the kids in camp. Schmaltz had moments on the left wing in the second half of last season, and his gifted playmaking ability could blossom in an offensive-minded role.

The wild card is DeBrincat. If he’s ready for Day 1, he’s the perfect fit for that line as an elite-level finisher whose feistiness would be welcomed. And in addition to that, he’d allow the Hawks to be able to use both Sharp and Schmaltz on the third line, improving the team’s depth from top to bottom.

DeBrincat will probably open the season in the AHL, and Sharp will probably get first crack at 2LW. But in an ideal world, the rookie pushes his way into that spot immediately.

The entire bottom six

So the Hawks got a bunch of guys, and they’ll get plugged in one way or another. It’s just not really clear yet exactly what that’ll look like.

Ryan Hartman will likely be on the third line, and there’s a good chance Schmaltz gets a shot to be the center. That’d leave a winger spot open for someone like Tommy Wingels or Tomas Jurco, unless DeBrincat can bump Sharp or another young player (like John Hayden or Vinnie Hinostroza) beats down the door to earn an opportunity.

Otherwise, we can probably figure what’ll happen here. Schmaltz and Hartman will anchor an offensive-minded third line, and Tanner Kero and Lance Bouma will anchor a defensive-minded fourth line that’s designed to be “tougher to play against.” It appears that just means hitting more dudes, which probably won’t help anything, but it’s hard to see Quenneville not putting at least one veteran on that line. They also seem to like Kero, which I’m not really sure they should based on what we’ve seen so far, but he might prove me wrong.

Don’t be surprised if guys like Hayden, Laurent Dauphin, and/or David Kampf push for playing time eventually, too.

Top-pairing RH defenseman: Connor Murphy vs. Brent Seabrook

We already know Duncan Keith will be the Blackhawks’ top defenseman again. He’ll hold down the fort on the left side, just as he’s done effectively in Chicago for the past decade.

But with the departure of Niklas Hjalmarsson and the decline of Seabrook’s all-around game, it’s not clear who fills the spot to Keith’s right anymore. The team regularly used Hjammer on his offside there over the years because he was comfortable doing it and they didn’t have any better options.

Now he’s out, and Murphy, a 2011 first-round pick by Arizona, is in. There’s a lot to like about Murphy, from his size (6’4, 212) and skating to the fact that he made his way to the Coyotes’ top pairing by age 22, but he wasn’t particularly effective despite playing next to Oliver Ekman-Larsson.

If Murphy progresses in a new environment, he should get first crack at being on the top pairing. He’s eaten minutes like that before, and for the Blackhawks to be competitive long-term, they’ll need his contract to pan out. It’ll actually be a bargain if he can effectively fill that top-pairing spot. (Seabrook’s contract, on the other hand, well ... at least he still dishes a mean stretch pass.)

Basically, I think that spot is Murphy’s to lose in camp, in which case it would default to Seabrook.

Third-pairing RH defenseman: Cody Franson vs. Ville Pokka vs. Jan Rutta

People are acting like there’s a big competition across the entire defense, but I have a hard time seeing Gustav Forsling and Michal Kempny not earning the two spots behind Keith on the left side. They showed intriguing flashes last season, and the team has talked them up all summer in wake of departures like Hjalmarsson and Brian Campbell.

So the real uncertainty on defense for the third pairing, at least from this perspective, comes on the right side. One of the other spots will almost certainty be filled by Forsling or Kempny. If it’s someone else such as Jordan Oesterle or ... **shudders** ... Mark Stuart, then that won’t speak highly to how Forsling and Kempny acquitted themselves in camp.

However, it’s a total free for all on the right side, where three different players from very different backgrounds will try to earn the spot.

The favorite is probably Franson, a veteran journeyman who brings size and favorable reviews from the analytics community. There have been rumors that he’s basically a lock to get a contract even though he’s on a PTO right now, and just waiting until Marian Hossa goes on LTIR to free up cap space.

Pokka in particular is intriguing given he’s a longtime top prospect who is no longer waiver-exempt. So if the Hawks tried to send him down to the AHL at the end of camp, there’s a good chance they’d lose him for nothing when another team claims him. They could try to send him anyways like they did last year with Mark McNeill as his stock dropped, but it seems less likely that a talented 23-year-old right-handed blue liner would pass through untouched.

So there’s a chance that Pokka really pushes for a spot in training camp, even if that’s as the seventh defenseman just so the team doesn’t have to risk losing him right now. Michal Rozsival is reportedly dealing with post-concussion issues, so there’s a good chance he opens the season on long-term injured reserve. Assuming that happens, the Hawks could include both Franson and Pokka on the roster, while sending down Rutta to Rockford. Or hey, maybe Rutta will be the second coming of Bobby Orr.

The penalty kill: Somebody please step up

Here are the Blackhawks’ top penalty killers in terms of minutes played from the 2016-17 season: Niklas Hjalmarsson, Marcus Kruger, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Dennis Rasmussen, Marian Hossa, Tanner Kero, Artem Anisimov, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Jonathan Toews.

So the Hawks have lost their top defenseman and top three forwards from last season’s PK, which finished 24th in the league after a disastrous start.

It’s fair to assume the Hawks’ penalty kill is going to need a total overhaul. That’s part of why the team fired Mike Kitchen and replaced him with Samuelsson, who is being tasked with building a new PK from the ground up. There’s not really any other choice given the scorched earth upon which this will be made.

Seabrook and Keith will be leaned on heavily on the PK again, and Murphy has been a key penalty killer in Arizona the past three seasons. At forward, however, it’s total chaos now that Kruger isn’t around. Kero probably becomes the No. 1 PK center because you can’t have Toews grinding away in those minutes all the time. Is Kero ready for that gig? Hard to say.

It seems like Bouma was brought in to help here, but his track record over the past couple years is ugly. The same goes for Drew Miller, who is in camp on a PTO.

The Blackhawks already had a bad PK, and it’s taken some major losses. Unless Samuelsson proves to be a brilliant defensive mind who can refashion this unit in a totally different way, this could be a major source of headaches. (However, the Hawks did seem to have some major strategic issues on the PK last year, namely an inexcusable lack of aggression from its forwards at the top of the zone. That’s why the team had absolutely zero shorthanded counterattack last season. Maybe Samuelsson can be a game-changer here.)