The Blackhawks wrapped up their preseason schedule on Saturday night, a youngster-laden lineup falling 2-1 to the St. Louis Blues. The regular season is just about upon us.
But before they open against the Blues again on Wednesday, the Blackhawks have some tough decisions to make. Who stays? Who goes? And once decisions are made, how do things line up (and pair up) heading into Wednesday?
Coach Joel Quenneville told traveling media prior to Saturday’s game that the final roster should be set by Monday; all NHL team rosters must be finalized by 4 p.m. CT on Tuesday. So since it looks like we have a couple of hours before we know the Blackhawks’ answers, let’s look at Five Questions heading into the season opener.
1. Which prospect will make an impact first? Tyler Motte looks like he’s ready for this show. The forward has been great throughout camp, be it 5-on-5 or on the penalty kill. He had plenty of work on the latter while at the University of Michigan, and it shows. Working with Marcus Kruger on the kill doesn’t hurt, either. Where Motte fits in the lineup is a guess right now – the Blackhawks left most of their veterans at home for their preseason finale on Saturday. We should get our first look on Monday, when the Blackhawks return to practice. But in preseason games, wherever he was put in the lineup, Motte played well. Several prospects had good camps, but Motte stood out from the start.
2. Will Alexandre Fortin stay with the Blackhawks this season? You wouldn’t have thought so when the 19-year-old first signed his three-year contract at the start of September, and that’s not a knock on him. Teams just have to think long and hard about burning the first year of a player’s entry-level deal. But as Fortin’s camp has progressed, the Blackhawks’ high opinion of him has grown. Asked earlier this week if the Blackhawks could exercise the 10-game option with Fortin coach Joel Quenneville said, “yes, we could.” Let’s see how this one plays out. As previously written, Brandon Saad wowed out of camp in 2011, was so-so in his first two regular-season games and then was sent back to Saginaw. If Fortin is a big help immediately, he stays. If not, Fortin goes back to his junior team after a few games. Either way, it’s a pretty nice “dilemma” to have.
3. Will World Cup end up being beneficial for those who played in it? The Blackhawks had a slew of guys playing in that tournament, the last of them (Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Corey Crawford) returning late last week. Of the three, Crawford is the only one who saw any preseason games with the Blackhawks – he practiced plenty but only played one-and-a-half games with Team Canada. In terms of preparation, the World Cup should be the best training camp those players had. That includes defenseman Michal Kempny, who got his first big taste of hockey on smaller ice. Great competition and playing games that meant something in September are two benefits for players coming off a rare long offseason.
4. Is Duncan Keith good to go? Keith was disappointed to skip World Cup to make sure his surgically repaired right knee was ready for the season, but it’s looking like he made the right choice. Keeping Keith off the ice, especially early, was probably a tough task for the Blackhawks’ coaches – hurt, healthy, he wants to be out there. But it was the best move for Keith, who looked good in the one preseason game he played last week. Will there be a little rust? Possibly. But in terms of health, Keith said following last Tuesday’s game, “I’m happy the way it is, I’m excited the way it’s been [going], and I think it will be good going forward.”
5. How long will Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin stay apart? As long as the Panarin-Jonathan Toews combination works. The first time that top line struggles, or the Blackhawks aren’t getting what they want out of this balanced lineup, the familiar second line will be back together again. You’ll also see that trio (Kane, Panarin and Artem Anisimov) together on the power play, so the combination won’t completely go away. Again, breaking Kane and Panarin up was not a popular choice; the two clicked beautifully. If the Blackhawks sputter, they’ll be reunited.