Brent Seabrook

In shadow of Blackhawks sexy offense, young defensive duo lights Q's lamp

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USA TODAY

In shadow of Blackhawks sexy offense, young defensive duo lights Q's lamp

Jan Rutta was taking in every moment of his first NHL game on Thursday night, from the introductions to the Bryan Bickell ceremony to the raucous United Center crowd, which had plenty of reasons to be boisterous. That may sound like Rutta was distracted but it was actually the opposite.

“I mean, the fans are amazing and they fill us with so much energy,” Rutta said. “So it’s really good.”

For Rutta, it was the crowd. For Gustav Forsling, his partner in the Blackhawks’ season opener, it was offseason reading on mental skills. Be it Rutta’s transition from Europe to North America or Forsling’s need to improve in a sophomore season, whatever helps a young defenseman feel more comfortable you go with it. It worked for Game 1, anyway, when the duo came away with a combined outing that coach Joel Quenneville appreciated.

“Both of them were strong defensively,” Quenneville said. “They went to people quickly, I thought they had a really good gap and the involvement in our rush game and their patience with the puck on the point was great. Our defense as a group of six were really good as far as defense to offense and more involvement with our defense on the attack.”

[MORE: Showtime, baby: Blackhawks' second line was off-the-charts good in blowout win

The Blackhawks’ big question this season is defense, so nights like Thursday for Rutta and Forsling are encouraging. They’ll likely be playing again on Saturday when the Blackhawks face the Columbus Blue Jackets – why the heck would you change anything out of a 10-1 victory? For Rutta, the move across the pond has been smooth. Same goes for the transition from preseason to Game 1 of the regular season.

“I played four preseason games and those teams, they played one, two, sometimes three lines of their normal teams. Getting to know the players – not that I didn’t know them. I know them from TV – but once you’re on the ice with them, it’s a little different,” Rutta said with a laugh. “It’s good to get to know the guys you play.”

Forsling, meanwhile has to jump off the levels he set last training camp. It was an excellent start but the Blackhawks needed more from him. That goes double this season but Forsling is feeling more confident about himself and his game – again, mental skills reading this summer.

“I just trust myself. I trust my abilities and I keep working every day,” Forsling said. “I learned a lot [last season] but I wasn’t really happy. I wanted more. So I’ll try to get that out of me this season.”

Quenneville likes Forsling’s approach.

“When you have confidence as a young defenseman, you seem to have way more patience of things developing and opening up and then you have confidence going into the puck area and trying to influence it and not that hesitation in your game,” he said. “When [Forsling] plays with more poise he gets to another level. He’s had a good camp and some really good days. And definitely his partner helps and does a lot of nice things with him.”

Who knows how long the Blackhawks’ defense is going to be a work in progress. There will probably be switches – Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook were together on Thursday but that likely won’t be long term. For Rutta and Forsling, getting as many opportunities as possible and utilizing whatever helps them feel better out there will help their development

Cody Franson’s wait pays off as he gets his deal with Blackhawks

Cody Franson’s wait pays off as he gets his deal with Blackhawks

Once again, Cody Franson had to wait to find out his fate with a team. Once again, it had a happy ending.

Franson signed a one-year deal worth a reported $1 million on Wednesday. The 30-year-old defenseman gives the Blackhawks a steady presence and a much-needed, right-handed shot on the blue line.

When the Blackhawks signed Franson to a player tryout prior to training camp, it was expected he’d sign a deal once Marian Hossa’s placement on long-term injured reserve freed up the necessary cap space. Still, Franson wasn’t assuming anything.

“As far as having a good idea [of it happening], when you don’t have a contract there’s no real time to have a good idea,” Franson said with a laugh. “But I thought my exhibition games went well, practices have been going well. I thought I’ve been doing what I could to give myself this opportunity and luckily it played out.”

Franson talked earlier in camp about having to be patient with potential contracts. In this case he had no choice, as the Blackhawks had to wait for the NHL to rule on Hossa. If Wednesday’s practice was any indication, Franson will pair with Jordan Oesterle in the Blackhawks’ season opener against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday. Coach Joel Quenneville said Franson has brought what the Blackhawks were looking for from the start of camp.

“He showed us a lot,” Quenneville said. “I like his poise out there, got a good stick and shoots the puck extremely well. I like his size and his leadership qualities. He’s been a good fit with that experience and he’s excited about being here and it’s a great opportunity for us as well.”

Franson has fit into the Blackhawks’ room well. It helps that he already knew a few of the players — he and Jonathan Toews played together at World Juniors and he lives in the same area as Brent Seabrook and Jordin Tootoo in the offseason. As far as the Blackhawks’ system, he adjusted easily to that as well.

“That’s one of the things about having an experienced group and guys like this and guys that have been around for so long and have had so much success is. It’s kind of a system without even needing explaining. If you do have questions, you can ask guys because they’ve done it so much that they’re like having coaches,” he said. “It’s been a smooth transition for myself. It’s been easy to pick up and I’m excited to get going.”

Franson had to wait again for a contract, and there was ultimately no guarantee it would happen. But the odds were in his favor and thanks to a strong camp, the wait is over.

“It definitely allows you to take a bit of a deeper breath,” he said. “It’s nice to have that done, out of the way with, and be able to just focus on the regular season and getting off on the right foot here.”

Blackhawks Camp Synopsis: Roster starting to take shape

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks Camp Synopsis: Roster starting to take shape

One week down, roughly one week to go.

Some things have fallen into place during the Blackhawks’ first seven days of training camp but this week is when it really gets interesting. The roster will continue to take shape and the competition for the few vacancies will intensify. Here’s a look at what we’ve already seen in Week 1 and questions for Week 2.

Stock Rising

Jordan Oesterle. We could put a few of the young forwards here, but we’ve talked about them quite a bit and will continue to do so. So right now let’s look at Oesterle, who coach Joel Quenneville liked “a lot” in Thursday’s game against the Red Wings. A puck moving defenseman, Oesterle said he played on the right side with the Edmonton Oilers but could also play on the left. If Oesterle has another good week of camp, that and his versatility might get him a chance on a Blackhawks defense still looking for the right pieces.  

Stock Falling

Tomas Jurco. Please realize where we’re coming from with this assessment: where does he fit in this lineup? He didn’t get a lot of opportunities last season but when he did play there wasn’t anything that made him stand out. Stan Bowman likes him and much like with David Rundblad, the Blackhawks want to give the Jurco a chance to justify the draft pick they gave up for him (a third-round selection from the 2017 draft). Several young guys are pushing hard for roster spots. Can Jurco be an every-day player or do the Blackhawks have a decision to make in favor of some of those up-and-coming players? Just very interested to see how this turns out.

Biggest surprise

Nick Schmaltz’s second-line center opportunity. Maybe we should’ve been more open minded to this happening but considering how little that line changed last year you figured Artem Anisimov and Patrick Kane would stay together even after the Artemi Panarin trade. But given the strides Schmaltz has made in his own game and the skating work he and Kane did together this offseason, Quenneville wants to see what Schmaltz can do in the middle. There’s always tinkering with this team; we really should have seen the possibility coming but we didn’t.

Some Remaining Questions

- If there’s one forward spot vacant out of training camp, which young player wins it? John Hayden. Here’s why: even if Alex DeBrincat doesn’t make this team out of camp, the Blackhawks’ top six is looking pretty good. Meanwhile the bottom six, especially that fourth line, has some holes. Getting a young player with some size, speed, skill and sandpaper that Quenneville likes and trusts (and he likes and trusts Hayden) would be a great addition to the bottom six.

- Will there be any surprises on defense? Maybe. Part of it depends on what the Blackhawks do about the Michal Rozsival situation. Rozsival didn’t pass his physical (upper body injury) and is not participating in camp. You hate to see someone go out like this, but it may be the end for the veteran. If so, the seventh defensive spot opens up and so do the Blackhawks options. After Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Connor Murphy you have Cody Franson (if the Blackhawks sign him), Oesterle and Jan Rutta who have made good preseason impacts. Michal Kempny’s in the mix, too. Gustav Forsling is on the bubble. He had a great camp last fall but didn’t improve off it; that has to change this season.

- Will the top line combination work? There’s no doubt the Blackhawks missed Brandon Saad. He may not have been facing the sturdiest Red Wings team on Thursday but Saad’s powerful game was nevertheless impressive and a reminder of how much the Blackhawks missed that element the last two seasons. But the Saad-Jonathan Toews-Richard Panik combo hasn’t gotten a great look yet — Toews missed Thursday’s game due to illness. Saturday should be the first chance to see if these three can really click.