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 Jets in Central Division showdown

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Three Things to Watch: Blackhawks visit Jets in Central Division showdown

Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Winnipeg Jets 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. Corey Crawford vs. Connor Hellebuyck.

When ranking the importance of goaltenders to their respective teams, these two should be near the top of the list. And they're having Vezina Trophy-type seasons.

Crawford ranks second in the league among starters with a .933 save percentage this season and is 7-0-2 with a 2.18 goals against average and .933 save percentage in his last nine starts.

Hellebuyck on the other hand has arguably been the MVP for the Jets, compiling a 16-3-4 record with a 2.44 goals against average, .920 save percentage and a shutout in 25 appearances. Backup goaltenders Steve Mason and Eric Comrie have combined for a 2-5-1 record with a .897 save percentage in nine appearances. 

They are clearly better when Hellebuyck is in goal, and it's not close. Expect a fun showdown in net.

2. Pick your poison.

There may not be a deeper forward group in the Western Conference than the Jets. They have a dangerous four-line rotation, with the ability to score from top to bottom.

Blake Wheeler has 10 points (two goals, eight assists) in six games this month, and is among the top 10 in scoring with 38 points. Patrik Laine has scored a goal in four of his last six games, while Nikolaj Ehlers has scored in three straight.

And then we get to the bottom six.

The third line of Andrew Copp, Adam Lowry and Brandon Tanev are the fifth-best trio in the entire league (minimum of 100 minutes) when it comes to possession numbers, controlling 61.38 percent of the even-strength shot attempts, while the fourth line of Mathieu Perreault, Matt Hendricks and Joel Armia is coming off a game in which they combined for five points (two goals, three assists).

This might be the biggest test yet for the Blackhawks.

3. Be ready by puck drop.

No team has scored more goals in the first period than the Jets, who have 40. The next highest team is the Toronto Maple Leafs with 37. 

But the Blackhawks aren't too shabby in the opening frame, either. They rank fifth with 32 goals, although seven of them came in the first two games of the season.

Still, there's no room for a slow start on either side. Two points are on the line for a Jets team aiming for the No. 1 seed and a Blackhawks squad trying to get back into the playoff picture.

Blackhawks recall Ville Pokka, place Cody Franson on injured reserve

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks recall Ville Pokka, place Cody Franson on injured reserve

The Blackhawks have been one of the healthiest teams in the league this season as far as man games lost, but they took a mini blow to their blue line. 

Cody Franson was placed on injured reserve retroactive to Dec. 9 and Ville Pokka was recalled from the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League, the team announced Wednesday.

Franson sustained a lower-body injury last Friday in a 3-2 overtime win over the Buffalo Sabres, and was considered day to day. But after practicing Monday, Franson didn't feel healthy enough to participate in morning skate ahead of Tuesday's game against the Florida Panthers and was ruled out.

Franson is eligible to return Sunday when the Blackhawks host the Minnesota Wild.

In a corresponding roster move, the Blackhawks brought up Pokka, who has yet to make his NHL debut. There's a chance he could play Thursday in Winnipeg, but it's more likely the call-up is to provide insurance — although, the Blackhawks announced later in the afternoon that Jan Rutta (upper body) will not travel to Winnipeg, so perhaps Joel Quenneville could roll with seven defensemen against a high-powered Jets offense.

Pokka, 23, ranks second among IceHogs defensemen with 12 points (three goals, nine assists) in 26 games this season.

He was drafted in the second round (No. 34 overall) by the New York Islanders, and was acquired by Chicago in 2014 as part of the package that sent Nick Leddy the other way.