Michal Kempny

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.”

Blackhawks Camp Synopsis: Roster starting to take shape

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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.

What comes next? Five questions facing the Blackhawks this season

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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.