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.