Jordan Oesterle

Eight-defensemen rotation tricky, but Blackhawks understand juggling act

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Eight-defensemen rotation tricky, but Blackhawks understand juggling act

For Jordan Oesterle, the wait really wasn’t a terrible thing.

Sure, he was used to playing more consistently in the past. But he knew with the Blackhawks carrying eight defensemen that several players, including him, would need to practice patience and understanding.

“It hasn’t been too long. It’s only been a week and a half so it’s not terrible,” said Oesterle on Thursday morning, a few hours before he made his Blackhawks debut against his former team, the Edmonton Oilers.

For the second consecutive season the Blackhawks are going with eight defensemen to start the season. In one way, it’s good: if anything goes awry, be it someone’s game or someone’s health, the depth is readily there.

But so are the challenges. It’s a juggling act, a delicate balance between making the right decisions and making sure a player understands that a scratch may be more about the rotation and not his individual game.

Communication, above all, is key.

“It’s not easy being the guys who are in or out, right on that bubble situation where you come in not knowing if you’re going to play. But as a staff we want to keep everyone involved,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “We know the depth of your defense is going to get challenged at some point during the year. We feel the eight guys who are here can play but that’s how we’ve always done it: We’ve always let guys know whether you’re in or out. Sometimes you have to be more patient than you’d like but handling it the right way, whether you’re a good pro or teammate, that can be healthy around the environment of your team.”

Based on all outward appearances, everyone has handled it well. Connor Murphy has been a healthy scratch twice – “I mean I just want to see the team win really...if we're winning and guys are playing well that's all that matter,” Murphy said after his first scratch.

Oesterle was a healthy scratch the first seven games. Michal Kempny, who Oesterle replaced, has been scratched the last two games. Cody Franson has also sat seven games. Franson, whose patience has been in place while awaiting contracts in his career, is practicing it again. But he’s appreciated the Blackhawks’ communication on it.

“This situation gets tough when they don’t say anything to you; you don’t know if it’s because of the way you’re playing, you don’t know if it’s something you did or what the situation is. The coaching staff has done a great job of being in our ear, letting us leave our work at the rink and not take it home with us,” Franson said. “That goes a long way in being able to stay positive and in the right mindset through it.”

After starting with eight defensemen last season the Blackhawks eventually went back to seven. Will they do that again this season? Maybe, but whoever gets sent down would most likely have to go through waivers. The Blackhawks reassigned Gustav Forsling last season to get back to seven defensemen and get Forsling more playing time. But this season Forsling and Jan Rutta have been dependable and have pretty much become the Blackhawks’ second pairing.

So for now, eight defensemen it shall be. Being part of the rotation isn’t always easy but so far players seem to get that it’s for the greater good.

“It’s one of those things where we’ve got eight quality guys. I think no matter who’s sitting on any given night, it might not necessary be due to how they’re playing or how they’re doing individually,” Franson said. “I think Q’s done a great job of managing that situation. That’s one of those things where it’s a great problem to have but it’s not an easy one to handle. So we’re all aware of what’s taking place right now and you just try to be as professional about it as you can.”

Cody Franson’s wait pays off as he gets his deal with Blackhawks

Cody Franson’s wait pays off as he gets his deal with Blackhawks

Once again, Cody Franson had to wait to find out his fate with a team. Once again, it had a happy ending.

Franson signed a one-year deal worth a reported $1 million on Wednesday. The 30-year-old defenseman gives the Blackhawks a steady presence and a much-needed, right-handed shot on the blue line.

When the Blackhawks signed Franson to a player tryout prior to training camp, it was expected he’d sign a deal once Marian Hossa’s placement on long-term injured reserve freed up the necessary cap space. Still, Franson wasn’t assuming anything.

“As far as having a good idea [of it happening], when you don’t have a contract there’s no real time to have a good idea,” Franson said with a laugh. “But I thought my exhibition games went well, practices have been going well. I thought I’ve been doing what I could to give myself this opportunity and luckily it played out.”

Franson talked earlier in camp about having to be patient with potential contracts. In this case he had no choice, as the Blackhawks had to wait for the NHL to rule on Hossa. If Wednesday’s practice was any indication, Franson will pair with Jordan Oesterle in the Blackhawks’ season opener against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday. Coach Joel Quenneville said Franson has brought what the Blackhawks were looking for from the start of camp.

“He showed us a lot,” Quenneville said. “I like his poise out there, got a good stick and shoots the puck extremely well. I like his size and his leadership qualities. He’s been a good fit with that experience and he’s excited about being here and it’s a great opportunity for us as well.”

Franson has fit into the Blackhawks’ room well. It helps that he already knew a few of the players — he and Jonathan Toews played together at World Juniors and he lives in the same area as Brent Seabrook and Jordin Tootoo in the offseason. As far as the Blackhawks’ system, he adjusted easily to that as well.

“That’s one of the things about having an experienced group and guys like this and guys that have been around for so long and have had so much success is. It’s kind of a system without even needing explaining. If you do have questions, you can ask guys because they’ve done it so much that they’re like having coaches,” he said. “It’s been a smooth transition for myself. It’s been easy to pick up and I’m excited to get going.”

Franson had to wait again for a contract, and there was ultimately no guarantee it would happen. But the odds were in his favor and thanks to a strong camp, the wait is over.

“It definitely allows you to take a bit of a deeper breath,” he said. “It’s nice to have that done, out of the way with, and be able to just focus on the regular season and getting off on the right foot here.”

Blackhawks Camp Synopsis: Roster starting to take shape

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks Camp Synopsis: Roster starting to take shape

One week down, roughly one week to go.

Some things have fallen into place during the Blackhawks’ first seven days of training camp but this week is when it really gets interesting. The roster will continue to take shape and the competition for the few vacancies will intensify. Here’s a look at what we’ve already seen in Week 1 and questions for Week 2.

Stock Rising

Jordan Oesterle. We could put a few of the young forwards here, but we’ve talked about them quite a bit and will continue to do so. So right now let’s look at Oesterle, who coach Joel Quenneville liked “a lot” in Thursday’s game against the Red Wings. A puck moving defenseman, Oesterle said he played on the right side with the Edmonton Oilers but could also play on the left. If Oesterle has another good week of camp, that and his versatility might get him a chance on a Blackhawks defense still looking for the right pieces.  

Stock Falling

Tomas Jurco. Please realize where we’re coming from with this assessment: where does he fit in this lineup? He didn’t get a lot of opportunities last season but when he did play there wasn’t anything that made him stand out. Stan Bowman likes him and much like with David Rundblad, the Blackhawks want to give the Jurco a chance to justify the draft pick they gave up for him (a third-round selection from the 2017 draft). Several young guys are pushing hard for roster spots. Can Jurco be an every-day player or do the Blackhawks have a decision to make in favor of some of those up-and-coming players? Just very interested to see how this turns out.

Biggest surprise

Nick Schmaltz’s second-line center opportunity. Maybe we should’ve been more open minded to this happening but considering how little that line changed last year you figured Artem Anisimov and Patrick Kane would stay together even after the Artemi Panarin trade. But given the strides Schmaltz has made in his own game and the skating work he and Kane did together this offseason, Quenneville wants to see what Schmaltz can do in the middle. There’s always tinkering with this team; we really should have seen the possibility coming but we didn’t.

Some Remaining Questions

- If there’s one forward spot vacant out of training camp, which young player wins it? John Hayden. Here’s why: even if Alex DeBrincat doesn’t make this team out of camp, the Blackhawks’ top six is looking pretty good. Meanwhile the bottom six, especially that fourth line, has some holes. Getting a young player with some size, speed, skill and sandpaper that Quenneville likes and trusts (and he likes and trusts Hayden) would be a great addition to the bottom six.

- Will there be any surprises on defense? Maybe. Part of it depends on what the Blackhawks do about the Michal Rozsival situation. Rozsival didn’t pass his physical (upper body injury) and is not participating in camp. You hate to see someone go out like this, but it may be the end for the veteran. If so, the seventh defensive spot opens up and so do the Blackhawks options. After Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Connor Murphy you have Cody Franson (if the Blackhawks sign him), Oesterle and Jan Rutta who have made good preseason impacts. Michal Kempny’s in the mix, too. Gustav Forsling is on the bubble. He had a great camp last fall but didn’t improve off it; that has to change this season.

- Will the top line combination work? There’s no doubt the Blackhawks missed Brandon Saad. He may not have been facing the sturdiest Red Wings team on Thursday but Saad’s powerful game was nevertheless impressive and a reminder of how much the Blackhawks missed that element the last two seasons. But the Saad-Jonathan Toews-Richard Panik combo hasn’t gotten a great look yet — Toews missed Thursday’s game due to illness. Saturday should be the first chance to see if these three can really click.