Blackhawks

Blackhawks mailbag: linemates, prospects and potential

Blackhawks mailbag: linemates, prospects and potential

Ah, summer is nearing its end. That can only mean one thing: hockey is about to begin soon.

Sure, it’ll be starting a little earlier this season with the World Cup of Hockey (preliminary games begin Sept. 17 in Toronto). But we’re going to leapfrog that event for the time being and talk Blackhawks.

What lies ahead for the Blackhawks this season? The team that had plenty of depth two seasons ago is now somewhat depleted, especially at forward. Of course, that’s where most of the questions lie entering this campaign. So let’s shake off the summer rust and open our first mailbag of the 2016-17 season.

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I won’t be surprised if Nick Schmaltz gets the first shot at that left wing spot. Schmaltz’s opportunity opened up when Teuvo Teravainen was traded (don’t forget he signed not long after that move). Schmaltz has mainly played center or right wing but hey, when you’re with the Blackhawks, you adjust quickly.

Hossa played most of the season with Toews but was on the Blackhawks’ shutdown line with Marcus Kruger late in the postseason. Coach Joel Quenneville liked what he saw and said at the convention that, “won’t say for sure they’ll start together this year, but I’d like to see it. Maybe he carves out a different niche.” I still wouldn’t be surprised if Hossa starts the season on the top line. Putting Toews with two unproven NHL forwards right off the bat is unlikely. And while Richard Panik got a shot there and probably will again, I think Quenneville’s going to want to bulk up that top line, at least to start.

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The Blackhawks have a little salary-cap space left, according to generalfanager.com (about $2.4 million). I’ve been down this road too many times to completely deny the possibility of the Blackhawks doing something. That said, I’d be surprised if they do. General manager Stan Bowman has said several times that it’s time some prospects get an opportunity, so don’t be surprised if the Blackhawks stick with what they have right now.

[SHOP: Gear up for the 2016-17 season, Blackhawks fans!]

Yes, Mr. Versteeg is back on the NHL free agent list after his deal with Bern (Swiss League) didn’t work out — TSN’s Darren Dreger reported “insurance complications.” Versteeg will land somewhere, even if it’s just for a tryout. He’d certainly fit right in if he were to return to the Blackhawks, but I just don’t see it happening.

Scott Darling saved the day and helped save the series against the Nashville Predators in the 2015 postseason but he struggled last season. Hey, it happens. Let’s remember when Crawford had a tough sophomore season and half the fan base wanted him traded (OK some silly fools still do but whatever). Darling has the ability and he will keep learning. Eventually, yes, he could be No. 1 goalie material but he’s not there yet.

Now your second question: no, I never thought the Blackhawks would trade Crawford. When Crawford signed his six-year, $36-million deal in the 2013 offseason, he was coming off his first Stanley Cup victory and there were still a lot of questions about him. Now he’s got a second Cup and was damn good last season when the Blackhawks didn’t have their usual defensive depth. Here’s how his contract stacks up to other NHL goaltenders, according to spotrac.com. Not so bad, really. But long story short he’s a great goaltender; and when a team gets one of those it shouldn’t let go of him.

I want to see what Michal Kempny has to offer. Yeah, I saw him at prospect camp (same with Schmaltz and Tyler Motte) but it’s one thing to see those guys with fellow prospects and another to see them with established NHL players. As Artemi Panarin had a Russian teammate or two to help him get used to his new surroundings, Kempny will have the same with fellow Czech Michal Rozsival. Clearly, the Blackhawks’ brass already thinks highly of Kempny. Asked potential defensive pairings at the convention, assistant coach Mike Kitchen threw out these possible combinations: Duncan Keith-Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brian Campbell-Brent Seabrook and Kempny-Trevor van Riemsdyk. So I’m curious to see how quickly he adapts and fits in with the Blackhawks defense.

OK, those are two very unrelated questions, so let’s go with the hockey one first.

As of now I’m guessing Marcus Kruger takes over the third-line center spot and Dennis Rasmussen goes on the fourth line. As much as that Kruger contract still makes you wince, there’s no doubt the Blackhawks missed him on face-offs and especially the penalty kill when he was injured last season. Rasmussen benefitted from staying here a while last season, so he should just pick up where he left off. He also centered about 25 players last season (give or take) so the numerous line changes won’t throw him off, either.

Now onto the wine. I need to stress I’m not a connoisseur by any means. Basically if it’s cheap and good — I’ve never believed that higher price automatically equals better taste — I’ll give it a try. The Blackstone cab is pretty nice. I’m more of a Malbec woman myself, or maybe a blend. In the latter department, I still recommend 19 Crimes.

I’ll listen to jazz or rock. When I’m writing my post-game stories I tap into the John Coltrane station on Pandora. Can’t explain why, but it keeps me focused. My favorite album is “Everybody Got Their Something” by Nikka Costa (didn’t see that one coming, I bet). I’m not a big concert goer but I’ve been fortunate enough to see Bruce Springsteen twice and the Rolling Stones once.

Please don’t make me choose...

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Is Crawford ready to go?

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USA TODAY

Sports Talk Live Podcast: Is Crawford ready to go?

Jimmy Greenfield, Connor McKnight, and Matt Spiegel join Kap on the panel to discuss Corey Crawford back on the ice for the first time in 10 months. The Bears have good news when it comes to Khalil Mack, who injured his ankle against the Dolphins.

Plus, Fred Hoiberg announces that Jabari Parker is coming off the bench for the season opener.

Listen to the full episode here or via the embedded player below:

Niklas Hjalmarsson 'wasn't happy' about trade, but remembers time with Blackhawks fondly

Niklas Hjalmarsson 'wasn't happy' about trade, but remembers time with Blackhawks fondly

Apparently time doesn’t heal all wounds. 

Nearly a year and a half since being traded to the Coyotes, Niklas Hjalmarsson will return to the United Center ice on Thursday playing for the visiting team.  

“It’s going to be strange coming in as the away team and being in the other locker room,” said Hjalmarsson on Wednesday. “I bet it’s going to be a lot of emotions and mixed feelings.” 

This is also the first time Hjalmarsson has been back to the city of Chicago since he was traded, a city he called his “second home.” A home where he spent parts of 10 seasons, and never really planned on leaving.

“I wasn’t happy, to be honest with you,” said Hjalmarsson of the trade to Arizona. “I was shocked. It took me a couple days to actually realize I wasn’t going to play for the Hawks anymore.”

Including the playoffs, Hjalmarsson played 751 games in the Indian head sweater. Despite that and the team’s three Stanley Cup victories, the Blackhawks shipped him off to Arizona for Connor Murphy and Laurent Dauphin in June of 2017.

“You kind of let it go after a while,” he said. “Now I’m just hoping all the success for the guys over here too.”

Hjalmarsson was known for his toughness, repeatedly blocking shot after shot, giving up his body, while never missing a shift. He credits his long-time teammates — Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook — for a lot of his success and identity on the blue line.

“I couldn’t have had better role models coming into a team,” he said. “I’m very thankful to have played on the same team as those guys and created a lot of success together. We’re always going to be connected with the Cups that we’ve had.”

The third championship won by that defense-trio was on United Center ice against the Lightning in 2015, but that isn’t the memory that stands out most for Hjalmarsson.

“The first Cup is always going to be pretty special,” said the 31-year old. “Even just going to the conference final (in 2009), even when we lost against Detroit that year, the year before was great memories too. The first time for me going into the playoffs and playing deep.”

The tables have turned now for both Hjalmarsson and the Blackhawks. 

The Coyotes have yet to score an even-strength goal this season, while the Blackhawks have claimed eight of a possible 10 points thus far through five games and expect to have their starting goaltender back between the pipes. 

But you won’t hear any ill-will from Hjalmarsson, he’s still rooting for the Hawks.

“I always think that Chicago deserves to have a team in the playoffs,” he said. “It’s not that I wish them not to do well. It’s the total opposite. I want them to have continued success.”