Blackhawks

What comes next? Five questions facing the Blackhawks this season

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USA TODAY

What comes next? Five questions facing the Blackhawks this season

When the Blackhawks start training camp on Friday they’ll end what’s been a much-too lengthy offseason. It was another summer of big roster losses (including Niklas Hjalmarsson, Artemi Panarin, Scott Darling, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Marcus Kruger and Dennis Rasmussen) and a few familiar faces returning (Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp).

There’s more uncertainty entering this Blackhawks season than there’s been in quite some time. Their abrupt defeat in the postseason exposed concerns that they hope they’ve addressed this offseason. But have they?

April was a month of frustration for the Blackhawks. September is one that comes with many questions. Here are five of those questions entering this preseason/season.

1. Can a young defenseman make an impact this season? Gustav Forsling looked great out of last year’s camp but couldn’t stay at that level when he did get in the Blackhawks lineup. Michal Kempny got some chances but as soon as he had a bad game he was back out of the lineup. This year those two, as well as Jan Rutta should get a good opportunity. Considering the Blackhawks’ situation at defense, someone has to take advantage of the chance.

2. Will the Blackhawks rely too much on Corey Crawford? The way the team stacks up right now, this could very well happen. Let’s be honest: they probably depended on him too much for the first part of the 2016-17 season, and prior to his appendectomy last December Crawford was fantastic. The second half wasn’t as consistent, as Crawford admitted in April – “I thought I was trying to find my game a lot. Every other week, I just didn’t have the same reads, the same jump that I did the first half. There were games I played really well. But there were a lot of games I was ordinary, just average.” The Blackhawks have a lot of question marks in front of Crawford, so unless some of those holes are filled and filled well, Crawford’s going to have the onus on him again.

3. Can last year’s rookies take the next step? Ryan Hartman nearly had 20 goals and, outside of one or two bad moments, showed the on-ice discipline the Blackhawks needed him to have. Nick Schmaltz improved plenty, gaining the confidence and game to earn valuable minutes on the Blackhawks’ first or second line. The Blackhawks will need both to improve off those levels, especially Schmaltz considering the team’s voids at center. At the team’s convention in July, both said they were ready to show they could take on more responsibility. We’ll soon find out if they can.

4. Who’s more on the hot seat this season, coach Joel Quenneville or general manager Stan Bowman? After two consecutive first-round losses the Blackhawks are entering this season much like they did the 2012-13 one: they want to get back to postseason success and if they don’t, heads could roll. Quenneville will have to find the right solutions/pairs/lines on a lineup that’s lacking bottom-six depth and a defense that lost two of their starting six from last season. Some of Bowman’s deals have forced unwanted trades and results from recent acquisitions have been mixed. The pressure is on everybody this season, but especially these two.

5. Will too much be expected of Alex DeBrincat too soon? From the Blackhawks? No. They’ll take their time with the 19-year-old because it’s in his and their best interests to do so. But you and I both know that if DeBrincat starts the season in the minors and the Blackhawks are struggling to score goals for more than two games in a row, the demand to recall DeBrincat will be Teuvo Teravainen-esque. And we all remember what that was like.

Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit Niklas Hjalmarsson, Coyotes

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Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit Niklas Hjalmarsson, Coyotes

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Arizona Coyotes Saturday night on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.

1. Niklas Hjalmarsson's new home.

Brace yourselves, Chicago. It's going to be a weird site seeing Hjalmarsson in a different sweater other than the Blackhawks, where he spent his first 10 NHL seasons and won three Stanley Cups.

Now he serves as an alternate captain and blue-line anchor for the Coyotes, who are the only team still seeking its first win of the season. You know they'll be hungry to snap that skid, especially when there's extra motivation for a player on their team facing a bunch of old friends.

2. Connor Murphy returns to Arizona, too.

The man Hjalmarsson was traded for will also be returning to a place he called home for four years. Murphy's role with the Coyotes increased every year before he was dealt to the Blackhawks as part of a shake-up for both teams, so you know he's going to play with something to prove.

Murphy is a physical defenseman, and has laid several notable big hits this season. His former teammates surely know it, and may want to keep their heads up.

3. Patrick Kane 2.0?

Ever since he was drafted with the No. 7 overall pick in 2016, Clayton Keller has drawn comparisons to Kane. They're both undersized, offensive playmakers, possess supreme stick-handling abilities and are American-born players.

Keller got a brief taste of NHL action last year, but he's secured a full-time spot with the Coyotes this season and has been arguably their best player so far.

The 19-year-old forward paces all rookies with five goals and ranks second with seven points, and leads the Coyotes in both categories. Expect to see his name as a finalist for the Calder Trophy for the league's top rookie at the end of the season.

Anton Forsberg is giving the Blackhawks exactly what they need

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USA TODAY

Anton Forsberg is giving the Blackhawks exactly what they need

Anton Forsberg had just finished an extended morning skate Wednesday morning in St. Louis. The backup goaltender had played in one regular-season game for the Blackhawks to that point, so getting in extra work to stay sharp was helpful.

“I try to keep my focus in practice and work extra every day, get a few extra shots in practice with the extra guys who are out there, work with Jimmy and try to keep my game shape,” Forsberg said, referring to Blackhawks goaltending coach Jimmy Waite.

Whatever Forsberg’s working on in practice and skates seems to be working, because in two games with the Blackhawks he’s looked sharp. Forsberg probably deserved a victory on Thursday night when he stopped 40 shots in the Blackhawks’ 2-1 overtime loss to the Edmonton Oilers. It’s the backup life to wait and see when that next start will come, but Forsberg has been ready.

“For sure I felt more comfortable today, more used to the speed,” he said following Thursday’s game. “I felt I read the game better, felt I had more time moving around. It’s tough, again, to lose in overtime. Obviously I wanted to win and it’s frustrating.”

Frustrating for sure, but Forsberg is giving the Blackhawks exactly what they want and need: a dependable backup that gives them a chance to win. The two goals Forsberg gave up on Thursday weren’t softies, either — Patrick Maroon’s goal off a ridiculous Connor McDavid pass and Mark Letestu’s over game-winner that deflected off Brent Seabrook’s stick.

“He kept us in a tight game like he did in Toronto, got us to overtime. I kind of feel bad we didn’t get him a win in either of those,” Ryan Hartman said. “He played well both of those games. It’s nice to have a guy on the back end like that.”

Forsberg has blended in well with the Blackhawks. It helps that he already knew two of them, Brandon Saad and Artem Anisimov, his former teammates in Columbus. He and Corey Crawford already have a good rapport. Same goes for he and Waite, and Forsberg has soaked up any information they’ve given him.

“I feel like both him and Corey teach me a lot. We talk about different situations, especially all the reads,” Forsberg said. “I get to know how (Crawford) thinks the game. He’s been around a long time and has been doing well, so it’s interesting every day to hear what he has to say. Even Jimmy’s been around same thing there, discussing my game, what we want to improve, what we want to do different, what to keep the same and go from there.”

The extra work in practices and skates appears to be working as Forsberg has done a lot right in just his first two games, which were 10 days apart. The Blackhawks have had a good run of backup goaltenders; two games is a small sample size but Forsberg could be the latest reliable backup.