Blackhawks

Who goes where? Quenneville is already plotting the options

Who goes where? Quenneville is already plotting the options

For hockey coaches, thinking the game never really stops. With the Blackhawks likely not to make many more changes, at least among the forwards, coach Joel Quenneville is already thinking about line combinations, especially with those top two lines.

“You’ve got [Nick Schmaltz] who can play center or can play wing. [Artem Anisimov] in the middle, he can play with [Patrick Kane] so you’ve got some options there. With [Patrick Sharp] coming back and [Brandon Saad] coming back you’ve got some looks up front, some continuity from history and reacquainted again with [Jonathan Toews] and Saader on the the line,” Quenneville said. “And Sharpie and Kaner is a possibility.”

Yeah, there are a few options, some of which changed after the Blackhawks re-acquired Sharp on July 1. How it all turns out come early October is still to be decided but players are ready to move up, down, to center or wing if necessary.

“I think about a lot of different possibilities with the Hawks lineup,” Sharp said at the Blackhawks convention on Friday. “Playing for Joel for as long as I have in the past, I know that combinations can get moved around quite a bit depending on the game, depending on the time of year and the way different guys are playing. That’s something I’m prepared for and something I’m looking forward to, as well. I had my best years playing for Coach Q, and I know wherever he puts me in the lineup is probably going to be best for me and for the team, as well.”

OK, but the possibility of playing with Kane again has to be enticing for Sharp, even if he doesn’t want to say so. Past chemistry, past success, for a team that’s still working in younger players and will look to avoid the constant line shuffling of the past two years, those things matter.

When Quenneville talked at the NHL Draft in late June, he said Schmaltz would likely get first crack at the second-line left-wing vacancy. But with Sharp’s return, coupled with no Dennis Rasmussen (not qualified) and no Marcus Kruger (traded to Vegas and then to Carolina), the Blackhawks may need Schmaltz more at center. Schmaltz liked the instant chemistry he had with Kane last season but that was at center, his more natural spot, and he’s fine going back there if necessary.

While the top line should stabilize with Saad’s return, the second line could be the one trying to figure things out at left wing this season. Artem Anisimov was “shocked and surprised” when Panarin was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets in June, but knows it’s a business and that adjustments will have to be made.

“I’m prepared for anything to come my way. I’ll try to work with anybody, coach Q puts on the left side,” he said. “We’ll work out what the best [combination] is going to be and the three of us will just go and play.”

“Every day you write down different combinations. You look at probability, the likelihood of who will be compatible with who,” Quenneville said. “So I think it will be fun trying to go through that process, not just on paper, but when you get them together and out there playing. We certainly have a lot of options up front.”

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.