Tanner Kero

Blackhawks mailbag: Defensive challenges and happy campers

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks mailbag: Defensive challenges and happy campers

The Blackhawks entered this season with the same mantra they have countless others: get off to a good start and save yourself a point chase at the end of the season.

My first season on the beat was probably the Blackhawks’ best lesson lately on what happens when you’re scrambling late; they just about missed the playoffs, losing to Detroit in the regular-season finale and needing Minnesota to beat Dallas to get into the postseason. And while the overall results have been a mixed bag, their opening record (5-2-2) isn’t shabby.

Still, there are questions regarding where the Blackhawks are and where they’re heading. To that end (yeah, we’re finally getting to the point of this whole spiel), we bring you this week’s mailbag:

The Blackhawks’ happiness with Tanner Kero was partly because of Kero’s work last season. But in terms of comparing to other centers, Kero’s emergence had more to do with replacing Dennis Rasmussen than it did Marcus Kruger – Kero re-signed with the Blackhawks around the same time talks reportedly went awry between the team and Rasmussen. Anyway, back to Kero. I don’t think it’s so much what he’s not doing as what Tommy Wingels is doing in that fourth-line spot. The Blackhawks originally envisioned Wingels at wing but he has previous experience at center and his work there has been pretty good. Saturday night’s game certainly helps, be it for Wingels alone or keeping that fourth line together (he, John Hayden and Lance Bouma, who scored the game-winner). Don’t be surprised if there’s some rotation there, though.

Maybe, although either of those guys will likely still be rotating in/out with another player. Just depends on how much the Blackhawks want those guys playing constantly (I would guess that would be the case with rookie Matthew Highmore more than Hinostroza).

We all know this contract, all know how it hamstrings the Blackhawks for a while. But in the immediate future, what can you do? Fellow scribe Mark Lazerus has asked a few times about Seabrook’s place in the lineup and coach Joel Quenneville has demurred. Granted, we’re guessing general manager Stan Bowman doesn’t want Seabrook out of the lineup, either. Seabrook’s leadership skills are tremendous; to a man, the Blackhawks will say how vocal he is. His past work, especially in the playoffs, speaks for itself. It depends on how things progress as the season goes but I don’t foresee Seabrook coming out of the lineup right now. Speaking of Seabrook…

Highly doubt it. The asking price won’t be just one guy for another. And with any trade talk I remind everyone to see a player’s NMC status. Seabrook has a full no movement clause.

Nope, he’s not going anywhere, as the traveling media confirmed with Quenneville on Monday afternoon in Las Vegas. I had to be reminded that DeBrincat was nearing that deadline on Sunday, his status not coming up in conversations with Quenneville and Stan Bowman like it did when Brandon Saad made the team at 19. DeBrincat has made such an impression that it was going to take something extraordinary for the Blackhawks to reassign him. DeBrincat has found his place in the lineup and whether or not he’s been scoring he’s been good. So here, he remains.

https://twitter.com/unclepauly5/status/922234405535604736

You don’t trade him. The Blackhawks are where they are right now due in large part to their goaltending, especially Crawford. There have been, what, two games in which the Blackhawks dominated? So no, you don’t trade Crawford.

We’re quite a while from the trade deadline, so let’s tap the breaks on any talk about what the Blackhawks may do several months from now. As far as Murphy’s current status, no, I don’t believe his job is in jeopardy. Again, part of this is the eight-defensemen situation. But it’s also getting Murphy more ingrained in the system. I talked to Dave Tippett, Murphy’s former coach, a few weeks ago. He said, “we put him into situations he may not have been ready for [with Arizona], but he always continued to improve in those situations. He still has a lot of growing to do but he’s a very dedicated athlete and I think there’s a lot of upside there.” It’s easy to look at who the Blackhawks traded away for Murphy and Murphy’s contract and say, “yeah, he should be an everyday guy.” He should be at some point but considering what I mentioned above, I’m not surprised he isn’t right now. Speaking of defensemen rotating in and out of the lineup…

Yeah, I’m still not a big fan of the eight-defensemen set, for the reason you just mentioned. I wrote about the Blackhawks’ defensive juggling act on Sunday and, while I still think it’s tough to do I believe the Blackhawks will stay with it for a while. I list some reasons in Sunday’s story, which is linked above. So far (judging from outward appearances) the defensemen seem to be on board with the changes. I’m just curious to see how long they can keep the balance to where no one is sitting too long. That’s always the challenge.

Signing Cody Franson was part of the short-term plan regarding the long-term injured reserve funds. I think the Blackhawks just let things play out now for a while. You’re not going to make a move based on the first month of the season.

Yeah, someday I will stop writing about the power play’s woes but it won’t be today. I personally don’t think it’s the personnel. Whenever we talk about this it’s usually the same culprits: lack of movement, not enough shots and net-front traffic. I still say a strong penalty kill is more important and if the Blackhawks’ 5-on-5 scoring increases the power-play concerns fade. But it has cost them, so it’s certainly a concern.

I wouldn’t take the stern expressions as a sign of unhappiness. I’ve seen them plenty of times arriving at an arena looking like that; just focused before a game.

Going to go with a B-plus mainly because they came out of those first eight games with a pretty solid record. Granted, goaltending deserves a massive pat on the back for that. But it’s still early and I still figure the lines will get rolling at some point. Penalty kill has been very good and power play absolutely has to get better.

Blackhawks still searching for second-line answers

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks still searching for second-line answers

Breaking news: when the Blackhawks face the Nashville Predators Saturday night it will be… Game 6 of 82 on the regular-season schedule.

No this is not an exact-some-measure-of-revenge game. That’s a silly notion that makes it sound like an early regular-season game will actually constitute some payback for the sweep the Blackhawks suffered in April. That was then. Right now, the Blackhawks are still trying to figure out the right second-line combination in the wake of Nick Schmaltz’s upper-body injury.

Schmaltz is close but he’ll be out again against the Predators. Tanner Kero, who finished Thursday’s game centering Ryan Hartman and Patrick Kane, will be there to start against Nashville. The three had a decent spark in their few minutes’ together on Thursday and look to have it right away again vs. the Predators.

“Yeah, obviously they’re both playing well, they’re off to great starts,” Kero said. “You just want to help support them, you want to be moving the puck and making sure you’re getting to those areas in front of the net and supporting them all over the ice, try to get them the puck and make plays.”

Nashville certainly was bolstered by its Stanley Cup run last season but that didn’t change the Blackhawks’ perspective of the Predators.

“We’ve always had a ton of respect for Nashville and we’ve always had hard games against them," Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville said. "Tight games, close games, fun games to be involved with — obviously our playoff series wasn’t fun at all — but we feel that we know how good they are. But league-wide it was good for our game, the enthusiasm that Nashville had for its Cup run was good for their market. I think everybody thought pretty good things about Nashville to begin with but certainly that validated it.”

Moving forward, who are the Blackhawks’ center options?

Moving forward, who are the Blackhawks’ center options?

The inevitable happened on Sunday, when the Blackhawks traded Marcus Kruger to the Vegas Golden Knights, who then traded him to the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday.

While Kruger is headed to a new team full of former teammates, the Blackhawks have to figure out how to move forward at center. Outside of a few appearances on the second line, Kruger had been the Blackhawks’ reliable fourth-line center for the last few seasons. Now his absence, coupled with Blackhawks not extending Dennis Rasmussen a qualifying offer, leaves the Blackhawks with vacancies down the middle.

As of now, it looks like the Blackhawks may have to revert back to an old habit: taking guys who are more familiar at wing and putting them at center. Hey, look at the roster right now; not a lot of true centers remaining. Anyway, let’s look at the current options.

Tanner Kero

This is an easy choice for one of the bottom two lines. Kero made a good impression on the team last season, and as Denis Rasmussen’s stock fell, Kero’s rose. As with a few other Blackhawks, the faceoff numbers were decent but could be better (he won 44.4 percent of his draws last season).

Nick Schmaltz

Schmaltz’s true position is center, and he did pretty well when Artem Anisimov was injured last season. But overall he looked more comfortable as a wing. He, Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik found a good deal of success together last season, but with Brandon Saad back in the fold, Schmaltz will move. At the NHL Draft, coach Joel Quenneville said Schmaltz will get another chance to play with Patrick Kane, this time at left wing. But with the shortages at center now, you wonder if Schmaltz is back in the middle. If so, he’s another one who needs work at faceoffs.

Tommy Wingels

The Blackhawks acquired the versatile forward on July 1, and while he’s played some center he’s more likely to stay on the wing. As general manager Stan Bowman said, the Blackhawks wanted more right-handed shots and players able to take faceoffs, and Wingels’ fills both of those needs. But as far as playing center full time, Wingels probably won’t be that guy.  

Patrick Sharp

No, no, no, no, no and one more time, no. Yes, oh-never-forget-the-2010-Cup-run Twitter, we know he centered the team that postseason. It’s not his natural spot, he’s better at left wing, so leave him there. That said, given his past center work Sharp can help on faceoffs and the Blackhawks will take every bit of that. But keep him at left wing.

Laurent Dauphin

The Blackhawks acquired him as part of the deal that sent Niklas Hjalmarsson to the Arizona Coyotes. He doesn’t have much NHL experience – he played in 32 career games with the Coyotes – but Dauphin said playing in the AHL last year, “helped me and I think I’m more ready now than ever to play in the NHL.” If he has a good camp, he could get an opportunity.