Blackhawks

Boyling Point: 5 things on my mind entering Blackhawks training camp

Boyling Point: 5 things on my mind entering Blackhawks training camp

Here are the top 5 things on my mind entering training camp.

1. Corey Crawford’s health: I know, it’s your biggest concern, too. The Blackhawks were in the playoff mix last season when Crawford was injured in late December. The Hawks attempts at finding a reliable back-up to Crawford never worked out. Emergency goalie and CPA, Scott Foster, turned in the most memorable performance in the Hawks crease and that inconsistent net play was a major reason why the team finished in last place. With Crawford’s status uncertain, the Hawks signed Cam Ward to a one-year deal in hopes of avoiding another revolving door in the crease.

I saw Crawford earlier this week and he looked great. I was told Crow was on the ice last week for the first time since last February and that it went well. After seeing and talking to Crawford at the Blackhawks convention in July, I wasn’t optimistic that he would be ready for the start of training camp.

Hopefully we will get a clearer picture of where Corey’s head injury is at and a timeline for a possible return to game action on Friday. If I had to guess right now, I would expect the Hawks to be very cautious with Crawford and I would not be surprised if he was unable to start the regular season.

2. Is Hank ready for the NHL?: Next to goaltending, the Blackhawks blue line also played a major role in the teams struggles last season. Stan Bowman did not add a top four defenseman this offseason. He did add Brandon Manning and brought Brandon Davidson in on a PTO. The Brandons join an already crowded battle for 5th, 6th and 7th defensemen. Which brings us to Henri Jokiharju, the Hawks' 2017 first round pick is only 19, but he will be given a legit chance to make this team. If he is not quite ready and the Hawks see him spending more time watching games from the press box, it would make more sense to send him to Rockford where the 19-year-old is expected to be eligible to play.

3. Who is Kane’s wingman?: It’s time to make Patrick Kane’s left wing line-mate a top priority. It seems at times the Hawks feel they can put anyone with Kaner and that he will make them better. Which is probably true, but will that forward help Patrick return to his MVP form? I have been lobbying for Alex DeBrincat to be that guy since late last season. Joel Quenneville avoided putting DeBrincat with Kane and Schmaltz last year when he was experimenting and the season was lost. He probably has an issue with the lack of size on that line. I think DeBrincat can complement Kane’s east/west style of play and deliver or one-time cross ice passes, which are such a big part of 88’s game.

4. Make Special Teams “Special”: It’s so hard to score in this league 5-on-5 and with the way the game is being officiated, it’s absolutely paramount to have a productive power play. Last year the Hawks power play ranked 28th in the league. Meanwhile the final four teams in the Stanley Cup Playoffs were all ranked in the top 11 (TB-3rd, WPG-5, WSH-7, VGK-11). Maybe load up on one of the units with DeBrincat, Toews, Kane, Schmaltz and Gustafsson? Follow the Capitals blue print, setting Kane and DeBrincat at opposite circles, have Toews and Schmaltz work the slot and blue paint and have Gustafsson quarterback at the top of the umbrella. Allow these units time to build chemistry and don’t hit the blender the first time they go 0-for-4.

5. Who’s hungry?: Looking up and down the Blackhawks roster, it’s hard to find a player who is NOT looking to have a bounce back season. If you are not in the bounce back category, chances are you’re a young player like DeBrincat or Schmaltz looking to take the next step in your budding NHL career. Then there is a group of players like Dylan Sikura, Victor Ejdsell and Henri Jokiharju who are looking to prove they belong in the NHL and can be counted on to contribute with consistency. Jonathan Toews said the team was humbled by missing the playoffs for the first time in a decade and that what they’ve accomplished is in the past. “It’s time to start over,” Toews said. The Blackhawks final four players that have been a part of all three cup runs (Kane, Toews, Keith and Seabrook) are extremely prideful players and don’t take losing lightly. Look for their leadership to unify a mostly unproven group and allow younger players like DeBrincat and John Hayden to assert themselves as new leaders in the room.

State of the Blackhawks going into All-Star break

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USA TODAY

State of the Blackhawks going into All-Star break

It's been a crazy first half of the 2018-19 season for the Blackhawks. There was a coaching overhaul, two trades, multiple call-ups, an injury to their star goaltender, a Winter Classic spectacle and an insane travel schedule looped into an already busy schedule with the club being tied for the second-most games played of any NHL team.

The All-Star break and nine-day hiatus from game action is coming at a great time for the Blackhawks, to say the least. And they left off on a positive note, with back-to-back home victories against the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals on national television and a comeback shootout win over the No. 1-ranked defense and hottest Eastern Conference team in the New York Islanders.

But in the bigger picture, the Blackhawks are still not where they want to be. Not even close.

Going into Wednesday, they mathematically have a 1.4 percent chance of make the playoffs, according to hockeyreference.com, and that's likely to drop by the end of the day with eight Western Conference teams in action before the NHL shuts down for All-Star weekend. Only two other teams have a better chance at landing the No. 1 overall pick than the Blackhawks (11.5 percent), and that's Los Angeles (13.5) and Ottawa (18.5), the latter of which is actually Colorado's pick.

"We’re going to play until we’re out of it," coach Jeremy Colliton said. "No reason to give up. We’ll do everything we can. However, my approach is still the same. We have to get better. We’re not good enough right now. We have to play better. And so that’s how we’re going to approach each day and then we add it up at the end, see where we’re at."

The reality is, the Blackhawks are closer to the earning a top pick than making the playoffs. And that's fine, especially in a retooling year. In fact, it's better than sitting just outside the playoff picture because mediocrity is the worst spot to be in — it doesn't guarantee you an immediate impact-type player in the draft if you miss out on the postseason.

But the Blackhawks have to come to grips with it. It seems like they have, although that doesn't mean they're going to lie down for the final 31 games. This is still an important stretch run to determine what you have going into the offseason.

Scouting meetings are happening this week in Chicago, an annual occurrence where the organization gets together to decide how they want to approach the Feb. 25 trade deadline. Should they be sellers? If so, how aggressive should they get without creating more holes? Trade anyone you can to clear roster spots and open up even more cap space to take a big run at this upcoming unrestricted free agent class or only pull something off if you're filling a long-term positional need elsewhere?

Right now, non-playoff and bubble teams across the NHL are asking themselves these same questions. If they're buyers, the Blackhawks will certainly be one of the teams they call to ask who's available. It's up to Stan Bowman and the Blackhawks front office to determine who is and who isn't, what the market value is for players drawing interest and whether a potential trade is something that benefits them in the long run but, at the same time, can make an impact as early as next season.

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Hawks Talk Podcast: Bold predictions about the Blackhawks' post-All-Star schedule

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USA TODAY

Hawks Talk Podcast: Bold predictions about the Blackhawks' post-All-Star schedule

On the latest Hawks Talk Podcast, Jamal Mayers and Pat Boyle discuss whether the Blackhawks can get back in the Wild Card race. They tell us which Blackhawks player has been the biggest surprise so far and have they figured out their defensive zone issues?

Jammer weighs in on what he would like to see from this team after the All-Star break, how they can improve their penalty kill and will they be a buyer or seller at the NHL trade deadline?

The guys close out the podcast with their bold predictions for the final 31 games of the regular season.

0:15 Teasing us or can they get into WC race?

2:00 Why is the power play clicking?

3:45 Biggest surprise between Kane, Toews and DeBrincat

6:00 Toews finds confidence

7:30 Biggest surprise from players not named Toews, Kane and DeBrincat

10:00 Strome factor

11:30 Have Blackhawks figured out defensive zone issues?

13:30 Jokiharju after the World Juniors

16:00 What would you like to see post All-Star break?

17:00 How do they improve penalty kill?

19:00 Buyer or seller at trade deadline?

21:00 Bold Predictions

Listen to the entire podcast here or in the embedded player below.

Blackhawks Talk Podcast

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