Hawks Insider

Hawks mailbag: Who will be Saad's replacement on top line?

/ by Charlie Roumeliotis
Presented By Nationwide Insurance Agent Jeff Vukovich
Hawks Insider

It's very strange that American Thanksgiving is around the corner and there's no hockey being played. But we're hoping to get more clarity on the 2020-21 season start date soon. In the meantime, let’s dive into our latest Blackhawks mailbag:

With the next season projected to start sometime in January, do you see any challenges as far as evaluating some of the younger players and prospects when fleshing out the opening night roster? — Pauly

The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly led to many challenges across the board for NHL scouting departments, particularly when it comes to evaluating prospects. The 2019-20 AHL playoffs got scrapped and so did many junior league postseasons, which prevented teams from getting an opportunity to see which players elevated their games when it mattered most.

But there have been ways for the Blackhawks to make sure their prospects are preparing for training camp. For example, Kirby Dach was invited to Team Canada for the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship and six other prospects were loaned overseas. Brandon Hagel and Pius Suter are the two most notable names, and Hagel recently recorded a hat trick.

The Blackhawks are certainly watching them closely and will use that to put the whole picture together when ironing out the final 23-man roster.

Do you think Ian Mitchell has a real shot at making the Opening Night roster? If so, do they trade someone to make it happen? — Jenn B.

 

I would be surprised if Mitchell is not on the Opening Day roster. GM Stan Bowman has said multiple times in the past that the organization felt Mitchell was pro ready last year, but the young blue liner elected to return to Denver for his junior season.

The question is really about where Mitchell fits into the lineup. Adam Boqvist, Connor Murphy and Brent Seabrook are all right-handed shots like Mitchell while Duncan Keith and Nikita Zadorov play on the left side. Who's the odd man out?

That'll be an interesting storyline to follow in training camp. The Blackhawks could make a trade to open up a spot if they wanted to, but as of right now, it sounds like they will let them battle it out.

With the logjam of defensemen on the team, does Brent Seabrook still have a spot on the starting day roster? And if he doesn’t, will he accept the seventh defenseman role and still be a leader in the locker room? — Mitchell Watts

Earlier this month, Seabrook candidly opened up to The Athletic about the physical and emotional toll these last few years have been on him. Fortunately, he's in a much better spot mentally, and physically, Seabrook admitted "I haven't felt this good in 10 years."

But here's the hockey quote that stood out to me: "I feel like I’m 19 years old again trying to make the team. I’m excited for training camp. I’m excited for the opportunity to get back out there and show everybody what I got. I’m not done playing hockey. I get that 35 is old in the sports world, but I don’t feel old, I still feel young.’’

Seabrook is prideful guy, but also a player who realizes he must earn his full-time spot on the roster. Whatever his role turns out to be, the Blackhawks still feel he's an important voice in the locker room — there's a reason why Kirby Dach lived with him during his rookie season. But you do wonder how things could change if Seabrook feels like he has lots of hockey left but isn't getting consistent playing time. 

Clearly Kane-Strome-Cat have excellent chemistry, but I get they’re worried about their D game. Why not use that as a PP line at least, with Keith and a 2nd responsible D? Would you like to see that? That way Kane and Kubalik get that right side trigger spot on different lines. — Liam Murphy

I like the thought of reuniting Alex DeBrincat, Patrick Kane and Dylan Strome on the power play because the three of them have terrific offensive chemistry together. And they were three-fifths of the unit that worked so well from Christmas and on during the 2018-19 campaign, along with Erik Gustafsson and Jonathan Toews.

Here's the challenge with reuniting DeBrincat, Kane and Strome on the power play, though: Who gets taken off the first unit to make room for Strome? Dach has emerged as a real threat down low and Toews is the only one who can consistently win faceoffs.

 

It will be interesting to see how the units get divided up this season, especially if DeBrincat returns to form and Kubalik continues to be a goal scoring machine. Not to mention the potential return of Andrew Shaw, who can be a net-front presence guy on the second unit. Expect the units to be tinkered with all season long until the right combination is found.

Who do you honestly think is going to fill that missing spot next to Toews and Kubalik on the top line? — Jordan Olsen

Head coach Jeremy Colliton is going to have plenty of options with his line combinations next season, assuming Dylan Strome is re-signed. But the Brandon Saad trade certainly leaves a hole on the top-six and one of the storylines I'll be following closely at training camp is who gets that first crack on the first line.

Pius Suter seems like an obvious candidate, but the Blackhawks will likely ease him in similar to how they handled Kubalik last season. Shaw could be an option, too, although he hasn't appeared in a game since Nov. 30, 2019.

But if you held my feet to the fire, I'll say DeBrincat gets the first spin. When DeBrincat and Toews were on the ice together at even strength last season, the Blackhawks controlled 56.1 percent of the shot attempts and 58.3 percent of the scoring chances. That's worth building on.

Is it the plan to throw Boqvist on PP1 and let him develop with the best, or keep Duncan Keith in that role for now? — Christo Koenig

The Blackhawks threw Adam Boqvist into the fire last season when he may not have been ready for it. He logged 89:03 of power-play time, trailing only Erik Gustafsson (166:15) and Duncan Keith (138:52) for the lead among team defensemen.

The plan is for Boqvist to eventually take control as the quarterback on the first power-play unit, but Keith handled the majority of the load in the playoffs because the stage appeared to be too bright for a 20-year-old Boqvist. It might not happen by Opening Night, but I expect Boqvist to become the quarterback by season's end. 

Is the surplus of players because the NHL will have expanded rosters? With Shawzy lookin pretty stellar and Seabs saying he hasn’t felt this good in 10 years, where are they going to slot in? Too many cooks in the kitchen, where are they all going to go? — Yusuke

This is a great question, Yusuke, and one nobody knows the answer to yet. If everyone is healthy, how will the puzzle pieces fit? The math simply doesn't work, with the rosters being capped at the usual 23.

If Strome is re-signed and Shaw and Zack Smith (back) are cleared to play, the Blackhawks will have 15 legitimate NHL forwards and only 12 spots available. On defense, a healthy Seabrook would crowd the Blackhawks' blue line even more, especially if the plan is to make spots available for prospects like Mitchell and Wyatt Kalynuk.

 

So the answer, as of right now, appears to be that the Blackhawks will let training camp sort itself out before they start penciling in their Opening Night roster. If somebody clearly gets squeezed out, that's when a trade could be explored.

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