Blackhawks: Roster hopefuls feeling excitement and anxiety


Blackhawks: Roster hopefuls feeling excitement and anxiety

Erik Gustafsson admits he’s anxious about it all.

The 23-year-old defenseman has made it this far in the Blackhawks’ training camp. The days leading up to the regular season are dwindling, and the roster numbers are doing the same. So he’s always wondering: am I staying with the Blackhawks or am I heading to Rockford?

“I’d be lying if I’m saying I’m not nervous,” Gustafsson said following Wednesday’s practice. “I’m nervous that I’ll wake up in the morning and get that call where you get sent down to Rockford. I’m just going one day at a time; hopefully I’ll be here to premiere next week.”

For players who are on the bubble of making this team, the next few days are a mix of excitement and apprehension. There aren’t many spots: there’s one, maybe two among the forwards and with Michal Rozsival likely not ready to start the season, one on defense. Nevertheless, competition is high. Gustafsson and Viktor Svedberg could compete for an early season chance on defense. Kyle Baun, Ryan Hartman and Vincent Hinostroza are among the prospective forwards still here.

For those vying for one of those spots, it’s been difficult to balance the emotions these last few days.

“Obviously [you’re] a little nervous because you definitely want to be here. But it’s a cool and exciting time,” Baun said. “The season’s just around the corner. I’m just trying to come here every day and do my job and hopefully get better and hopefully that equals me making it.”

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Some Blackhawks who have been here for some time can relate to the feelings.

“It’s nice to have that where they give you the call and say, ‘You can look for a place.’ For the other times, when a guy comes around, calls us and tells us to meet in the office, you know it’s not good,” Bryan Bickell said. “It [was] three or four times where I had to go down and work on my game in the minors, but it just fuels the drive to make that next step. That’s the hardest step, from the AHL to the NHL.”

Coach Joel Quenneville said he’s not talking to the “bubble” guys on an individual basis – “it’s not a discussion you have ongoing because we’re still watching everybody and things will be sorted out,” he said. The final decision could partially be about money; if the Blackhawks don’t make another trade prior to the season, they’ll be right up against the cap. But it’s also about the work done on the ice; and any player who shows versatility, especially among the forwards, helps his cause.

“I’m sure they don’t care which position they play as opposed to being here. Everyone would like to do what they can and play whatever position you put them in. Certain guys may be more compatible in a certain area,” Quenneville said. “At center, with Teuvo [Teravainen] being there right now, there aren’t a lot of options there. But I don’t mind guys being able to play the middle as well and take faceoffs along the way. For some, that versatility could come into the decision making on some players.”

Until decisions are made, those players waiting to find out their fate are staying distracted. From doing extra workouts to catching movies to taking a nap, anything that keeps their mind worry free is beneficial.

“It’s definitely stressful when you’re here. When I’m home, I’m taking a couple of courses; I’m finishing school, so that helps take your mind off it,” said Baun, who signed with and joined the Blackhawks after his junior year at Colgate. “You see a movie. A few of us went [Tuesday] to see Black Mass. So that was a good way to take your mind off things and just relax a little bit.”

The moviegoers included Hinostroza, Hartman and Garret Ross. So any talk of the competition/nervousness come up?

“Maybe a little bit, just kind of seeing where everyone’s at,” Baun said. “But we’re trying to distract ourselves from even thinking about it, so usually we don’t talk too much about hockey when we’re away from the rink.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up for the 2015-16 Blackhawks season!]

Bickell said players have to approach this the right way: even if they don’t stick right now, they obviously made a good enough impression to be here this long. And they can build off that.  

“Those guys have had good camps and any one of them could be in that spot,” he said. “I’ve had that a couple times where I got the call that I was going back down, but it gave me more drive to work up and get ready for that call-up or the next year. They’re still young; they have time to improve and grow their game. They’ve been playing well and I know they’re nervous, but they can take positives out of this.”

There are only a few days and two preseason games remaining in training camp. And those days will be nervous ones for those players waiting to see if they make it. They obviously want to be here but they’ll prepare for whatever news they get. And if they don’t start here, they’ll be working to get here as fast as they can.

“If I got the call that I got sent down, then I’ve just got to work hard down there too and take a chance that they call me back here,” Gustafsson said. “I’m for sure going to be mad [if not here next week], but I’ll try to take every day I’m here to do some good work.”

Blackhawks edge out Senators in shootout: 'It was really nice to get a win'

Blackhawks edge out Senators in shootout: 'It was really nice to get a win'

It was a rare sight to see the Blackhawks in a shootout on Wednesday night.

It was just the second time this season — and first time at the United Center — that the Blackhawks made it past 3-on-3 overtime. 

The last came on Dec. 2, 2017, a 3-2 shootout loss to the Stars in Dallas. On Wednesday night, the Blackhawks were on the other end, beating the Ottawa Senators 3-2 in a seven-round shootout. Nick Schmaltz netted the game-winner.

"We'll take it," coach Joel Quenneville said. "I thought we had a decent game tonight. Overtime not so good, I liked the shootout victory, Fors made some big saves for us particularly as the game got deeper. Our third was OK, I thought our first two were way better, and overtime we gave up some high quality, some bells were rings for a bit there. But it was nice to see the shootout win."

Patrick Kane had a goal and an assist, recording another multi-point game, his 16th of the season.

"I mean we need every point we can get at this point," Kane said. "There's still belief in this locker room. Obviously we need to go on quite a run and have a big record here down the stretch. But take it a game at a time and nice to get two points."

Anton Forsberg was a big reason the Blackhawks even recorded those two points. The 25-year-old netminder stopped 34 of 36 shots and made a handful of big saves down the stretch.

"It was really nice to get a win for sure," Forsberg said. "I would love to have a lot more wins, but right now just gotta look forward and get as many wins as possible."

Added Quenneville: "I think it was good for him to win a game the way he did. Lot of shots were on the line, as we progressed, got deeper, hitting the point first was big for him and for us and then finding a way to get the extra one was a good win."

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Senators

NBC Sports Chicago

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Senators

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Ottawa Senators tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Trade chips.

The Blackhawks have reached the point in their season where they have no choice but to become sellers before the Feb. 26 deadline, and we saw that when they traded Michal Kempny to the Washington Capitals on Monday for a conditional third-round pick in 2018. Tommy Wingels could also be an attractive piece for a team looking to fill out their depth.

The Senators will definitely be sellers, and wow do they have some names potentially on the market that can fetch large returns: Derrick Brassard and Mike Hoffman are two players who log top-six minutes on a nightly basis and also have term left on their contract, which is great for teams looking to load up for this year and beyond.

The biggest name to watch, probably in the league altogether, is Erik Karlsson, who could be on the move if a team offers a big enough package for the Senators to pull the trigger now as opposed to in the offseason if they feel him re-signing is a long shot. He was the best defenseman last season, and if a team steps up to get him, they're getting two possible postseason runs out of him.

2. Artem Anisimov's experiment at left wing not working.

Joel Quenneville has tried rekindling the magic between Anisimov, Nick Schmaltz and Patrick Kane as of late, only this time Anisimov is playing the wing and it just hasn't been very effective. The trio was on the ice for each of the two 5-on-5 goals the Kings scored on Monday, and Anisimov completely lost his man on the first one.

It's important to establish a consistent left winger for Schmaltz and Kane, and maybe putting Alex DeBrincat up there is something you consider going forward as part of a long-term solution. Move Anisimov back down as the third-line center to play in more of a defensive role and continue using his big body on power plays for his offensive abilities might be the best bet.

3. Win the special teams battle.

In their last meeting against Ottawa on Jan. 9, the Blackhawks went 4-for-6 on the power play and 4-on-4 on the penalty kill in an 8-2 win. And those are two areas to look out for again.

The Senators own the 28th-ranked power play with a 16.1 percent success rate and 29th-ranked penalty kill with a 74.5 percent success rate. Get ready for another offensive outburst?