Blackhawks: Can Versteeg-Kane-Richards line work again?


Blackhawks: Can Versteeg-Kane-Richards line work again?

The first sight was somewhat of a surprise. We all figured Patrick Kane would be back sooner rather than later, given the constant updates of his steady progress.

The second sight, considering the first one, wasn’t all that shocking either: with a healthy Kane ready to go, it was time to put him back with Kris Versteeg and Brad Richards. It worked once. Now they’ll see if it works again.

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Versteeg, Kane and Richards made a great combination in mid-November/early December, when the Blackhawks went on an eight-game winning streak. They’ll be together again on Wednesday when the Blackhawks face the Nashville Predators in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series.

The three were put together just as the Blackhawks embarked on their Circus Trip. That line was a catalyst for the team’s success at that point. When Kane was injured on Feb. 24, the Blackhawks lost their leading scorer and coach Joel Quenneville lost the chance to put that group together again as the season ended. So they’ll try it again now.

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“I obviously really enjoyed playing with him and it’s too bad the year he was having to see that happen to him. I wish we could’ve kept that going and learned more about each other. But that’s hockey, that’s our job,” Richards said. “Hopefully we can get to a better level [this time].”

But why did it work so well the first time?

“Obviously Kaner is on a different level, but we all think the game similar and play the game the same way,” Versteeg said. “That’s how we can all kind of complement each other.”

Relationships don’t hurt, either. Kane and Versteeg have been friends dating back to Versteeg’s first go-around with the Blackhawks. Richards and Kane formed a rapport early on this season, partially thanks to living in the same building.

But there’s something else: when these three were clicking, they were holding onto the puck plenty. Credit Kane for a lot of that; his talent for that was evident during his injury, when the Blackhawks’ puck-possession game diminished.

“I think we were smart with it and knew the times to do it; we had the puck a lot,” Richards said. “We’re not three big monsters where we’re going to come in and put you through the end boards, so you want to have the puck and made it hard on the other team that way. But playoffs is a different game, where you’ve got to be a lot smarter sometimes, and sometimes you do have to give up the puck and live to fight another day. But all three of us have been through playoffs enough to know that.”

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A trio that got the Blackhawks going earlier this season is together again, potentially getting them going early in the playoffs. It worked once. The Blackhawks hope it can work again.

“Yeah, we had some good success,” Kane said. “It seems like both of them are skating really well and it seems like they have a newfound energy come with this new postseason coming around. Wherever they put me in the lineup,I’ll be happy. But knowing we had some success earlier in the season, hopefully we can recapture that.” 

What Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan trades mean for future of Blackhawks defense

What Olli Maatta and Calvin de Haan trades mean for future of Blackhawks defense

After finishing 30th in goals against average (3.55) and 31st in penalty kill percentage (72.7) this past season, the Blackhawks are clearly making it a priority to patch up their defense this summer. And that's been evident with the acquisitions of defensive-minded defensemen Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta.

But it raises some interesting questions about the future of the Blackhawks blue line.

With the de Haan and Maatta additions, the Blackhawks now have five defensemen under contract through at least the 2021-22 season: Brent Seabrook ($6.875 million cap hit), Duncan Keith ($5.538 million), de Haan ($4.55 million), Maatta ($4.083 million) and Connor Murphy ($3.85 million). That's $24.8 million tied up to five guys.

The money isn't the primary concern, though. It's the limited amount of roster spots available. The Blackhawks don't have to immediately figure out how it's going to work a year from now and beyond, but it makes you wonder how the cards may eventually be shuffled.

Let's run through the situations:

— Erik Gustafsson had a breakout season and is set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer. He's obviously not part of the five current players under contract after next season, putting the Blackhawks in a spot where they have to consider trading him or be comfortable with letting him walk for nothing if he isn't re-signed. (They could always trade his negotiating rights after next season and pull off a sign-and-trade as well, if it came to that).

And even if Gustafsson is re-signed, the Blackhawks would then have six players locked up for the 2020-21 season and on, and that's enough to submit a lineup.

— Henri Jokiharju, who was drafted No. 29 overall in 2017, is probably ready to take the next step and become an everyday player. Where does he fit into the long-term plans?

— Adam Boqvist, who was taken No. 8 overall in 2018, likely needs one more year in the OHL before making the jump to the NHL, which would put him on a timeline to become part of the Blackhawks next season. Does he occupy that sixth spot if another one isn't opened by then?

— Nicolas Beaudin, who was drafted No. 27 overall in 2018, is expected to start the upcoming season in Rockford after four years in the QMJHL but might be NHL-ready by the 2020-21 campaign.

— And then there's Ian Mitchell, who's returning to Denver for his junior season and will serve as the team's captain. He's said all along that he intends to sign with the Blackhawks once he's finished with college, but does the organization value him enough to create a spot for him when he's ready?

To make things a little more complicated, the Seattle expansion draft is set to occur in 2021 and the same rules will apply as Vegas in 2017.

The Blackhawks have the option to protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender or eight skaters and one goaltender. All players with no-movement clauses at the time of the expansion draft (and who decline to waive them) must be protected; Keith and Seabrook have a NMC. And all first- and second-year pros are exempt; Jokiharju would have to be protected.

As of this moment, the Blackhawks are likely to use the eight-skater option, but they will also have valuable forwards to protect. They're going to lose a good player one way or another, and it's probably going to come from the defensive group. All of this comes into play when weighing roster decisions for next season and beyond.

As stated above, the Blackhawks do not have to make an immediate decision on the future of their blue line corps. They can play out the 2019-20 season with the group as currently constructed. But the decisions the Blackhawks have to face next season could impact how Stan Bowman operates the rest of this summer and throughout the upcoming campaign.

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WATCH: Blackhawks draft pick Kirby Dach throws out the first pitch at Wrigley in his first trip to Chicago

WATCH: Blackhawks draft pick Kirby Dach throws out the first pitch at Wrigley in his first trip to Chicago

Kirby Dach was taken by the Blackhawks with the No. 3 overall pick in the draft on Friday.

On Monday, the Blackhawks introduced him to the city of Chicago. Dach took his first trip to Chicago for his introductory press conference.

Later in the day, the Canadian threw out the first pitch at the Cubs game at Wrigley Field. Dach didn't throw a strike, but it wasn't a blooper reel pitch either.

Watch Dach's first pitch in the video above.


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