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Blackhawks-Predators Round 1: Who has the edge?

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Blackhawks-Predators Round 1: Who has the edge?

The matchup is set and on Wednesday night, it begins when the Blackhawks face the Nashville Predators in Game 1 of their first-round series.

So who has the edge? No, we don’t do overall predictions, but we will break down the various categories and see who’s got the advantage in them. Let’s proceed.

Forwards

Patrick Kane was cleared on Monday, and with that the Blackhawks’ forward depth gets a tremendous boost. If he is back beginning with Game 1 – we still think that may be a bit too soon, but not our call – the Blackhawks’ puck-possession and scoring games should automatically get better. Kane had 64 points when he suffered his injury on Feb. 24. Only Jonathan Toews has more than that now (66). For all the forward talent the Blackhawks have, they've struggled to score and that hurt them down the stretch.

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The Predators bolstered their lineup over the summer, adding scoring weapons like James Neal and Mike Ribeiro. Filip Forsberg had put together a nice rookie season, recording a team-high 63 points (Ribeiro is next with 62).

We’d give the Blackhawks the automatic edge here normally, even with the Predators’ additions. But since that scoring has gone by the wayside… EDGE: Even.

Defense

Between Nick Leddy’s trade in September and Trevor van Riemsdyk’s injury in November, the Blackhawks defense took some hits. The changes and injuries had coach Joel Quenneville splitting up Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, as well as Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya. Michal Rozsival has struggled, as had David Rundblad. Kimmo Timonen was acquired at the deadline. But between coming off a 10-month recovery off blood clots and missing the last three games with an upper-body injury, he has yet to make an impact.

When you think Nashville you think Shea Weber and that howitzer of a shot he has from the blue line. Opponents who have gotten in its way have the bruises to prove it. Roman Josi has been tremendous, recording 55 points and a plus-15 rating this season. Here’s another toss-up category. EDGE: Even.

Goaltending

Corey Crawford is having arguably his best season with the Blackhawks. Other than the rough spot he had after his off-ice ankle injury, Crawford’s been strong. He was especially key down the stretch, when he led the Blackhawks to victories despite a lack of offense. Pekka Rinne wasn’t at his best as the regular season ended but he was still damn good this season, finishing with an NHL third-best 2.18 goals-against average and an eighth-best .923 goals-against average. Why do we sense a few 2-1 games and maybe a shutout or two coming in this series? EDGE: Even.

Power play

We were all set to give this category to the Predators but their power play is actually ranked lower than the Blackhawks’ advantage (25th in the league compared to 20th). Who knew? But the Predators did score three power-play goals over their last five regular season games. The Blackhawks, meanwhile, haven’t scored a power-play goal since March 30. EDGE: Predators

[NBC SHOP: Gear up for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Blackhawks fans!]

Penalty kill

The Blackhawks took a hit in this department toward the end of the season but there could have been a few reasons for that. Joakim Nordstrom, a good killer, was injured for several games. Then Jonathan Toews was pulled off it to lessen his minutes down the stretch. They finished the regular season 10th best on the kill. The Predators weren’t faring much better and were 18th in the NHL on it this season. The kill has been a strong suit for the Blackhawks the past few years. It probably will be again this postseason. EDGE: Blackhawks

Intangibles

Full marks to Nashville: they got a new coach (Peter Laviolette), a new system and a new attitude. The Predators got off to a fantastic start this season before a few hiccups at the end, but they sat atop the Central for quite some time before St. Louis usurped them. The Blackhawks have a wealth of experience at this time of year. They know how to deal with the ups and downs, know how to enjoy the victory for a short time and forget about the crushing overtime loss immediately. And that experience may prove to be the difference. EDGE: Blackhawks

Blackhawks name Hall of Famer Chris Chelios their latest team ambassador

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AP

Blackhawks name Hall of Famer Chris Chelios their latest team ambassador

After eight seasons with the Detroit Red Wings, Hall of Famer Chris Chelios is coming home.

The Blackhawks announced Monday morning that Chelios will become the newest team ambassador, joining Tony Esposito, Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Denis Savard. He'll be formally introduced at the annual Blackhawks Convention this weekend.

“To be able to join the Blackhawks organization in this role means everything to me,” Chelios said in a statement. “I’m very thankful to Rocky Wirtz and John McDonough for this opportunity to return to the Blackhawks. Chicago is my hometown and returning to this organization is very special to me and my family.”

Chelios has spent the last eight seasons in Detroit where he last played, spending time both in the front office and as a player development coach. The Chicago native and Mount Carmel High School alum will return to his roots where he spent nine seasons, earning seven All-Star appearances while compiling 92 goals and 487 assists - both fourth all-time among Blackhawks defensemen - in 664 games. The team captain from 1995 to 1999 helped the Blackhawks to the playoffs seven times, including a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 1992.

“Through multiple generations of players and fans, Chris Chelios will forever be etched into the history of the Chicago Blackhawks,” Blackhawks Chairman Rocky Wirtz said in a statement. “His contributions to our organization and the overall sport of hockey stand tall. We are proud to welcome Chris and his family back home to the United Center and we are honored to call him an ambassador.”

Chelios won three Stanley Cups during his 26-year NHL career, twice Detroit and once with Montreal, and his 1,651 career games are most all-time for defensemen. He won a silver medal with Team USA in 2002 and was an assistant coach at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. He was named to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2013.

12 takeaways from Blackhawks prospect camp: Evaluating Adam Boqvist and Henri Jokiharju

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USA TODAY

12 takeaways from Blackhawks prospect camp: Evaluating Adam Boqvist and Henri Jokiharju

There was some added excitement around Blackhawks development camp this year.

Fans were able to get their first look at 2018 first-round selections Adam Boqvist and Nicolas Beaudin in Blackhawks sweaters. They were able to check out Henri Jokiharju, evaluate how he's progressed since last year and get a mini glimpse on whether there's a possibility he could make the big club in October. And they got a chance to pick out some prospects who may be breakout candidates and could make an impact with the NHL in the next couple years.

It's important not to put too much stock into anything because the real evaluation will begin at training camp in September, but it was a good time to make a strong first impression.

Here are 12 takeaways from the week:

1. So, how did Jokiharju look?

All eyes were on No. 28 this week. He's the X-factor on the blue line if the Blackhawks go into the season with this group.

If Jokiharju can make the team straight out of camp, they're not expecting him to be just another guy. They want him to step in and be a difference-maker.

Offensively, the talent is clearly there. That's what made him a first-round pick. Defensively is what his biggest challenge will be when breaking into the NHL, and fortunately for the Blackhawks that's the part of his game he tried to strengthen in Portland.

"He’s an impressive all-around player," Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman said. "The one thing he did last year — offensively he had a great season. But he learned how to be a two-way defenseman. The biggest jump for him is going to be, can you defend? I think his offensive skills are elite and I was really impressed when I saw him the first time. He trained hard. He looks like an NHL-type body now. A year ago, he’s always been a fit kid but he really worked hard on that.

"I was impressed with how he came into camp in great condition and you can tell he’s trained hard. Physically, that’s the one thing that’s the challenge you’re going up against the biggest and strongest kids. He took some strides there. It’s going to be, how does he do in training camp on the defensive side?"

Here are a few clips from Jokiharju's camp:

2. Thoughts on Boqvist

He may have been the youngest skater at camp, but Boqvist certainly didn't act or play like it. You can see the potential he has to be a great player in the NHL one day, which will probably be sooner than later for the Blackhawks.

Rockford head coach Jeremy Colliton ran several drills over the course of the week and coached one of the teams during Friday's scrimmage. When asked what he thought about Boqvist, he chuckled because there weren't enough words to describe his ability.

"He's a pretty good player," Colliton said. "You don't want to evaluate too much based on a summer camp, but it's always fun to see them in a game situation and he's one of those guys that can raise his level. You can see the competitiveness. Fun to watch."

There was a mini scare when he took a low hit from Jokiharju, but he eventually shook it off and said after the game: "I feel good."

Here are a few clips from Boqvist's camp:

3. Nicolas Beaudin flying under the radar

It seems like Beaudin isn't gaining as much attention because the focus has been on Boqvist and Jokiharju, but he had a strong camp. During the scrimmage on Friday he broke up a 2-on-1 in the final minute of a 2-2 game, which turned out to be a game-saver considering his team went on to win in a shootout.

Not that the end result mattered here, but it does in the NHL and those are the kinds of plays that coaches notice.

"He’s probably similar to where Henri was a year ago," Bowman said. "He has really good instincts in terms of how to defend and compliment with offense. Really polished, smooth player, he makes it look pretty easy. He doesn’t exert a ton of energy, but he’s a very efficient defender. For him it’s going to be like Henri was a year ago. This is a big year for him to take the next step in terms of his physical development."

Here are a few clips from Beaudin's camp:

4. Skill is evident in Ian Mitchell

If there's one thing that has been noticeable about Mitchell's game, it's that he's got an NHL-type shot. He's not very big, but boy can he snipe it. There were several different occasions where he went bar down, including during a mini 3-on-3 scrimmage on Wednesday:

He also showed some physicality when he laid a nice hip check during Friday's scrimmage:

The Blackhawks think highly of Mitchell, who was drafted in the second round (57th overall) in 2017. They talk about him like he's a first-rounder. That's how skilled he is and how much they believe he could be part of the long-term plans.

It showed in his freshman season at Denver, where he compiled 30 points (two goals, 28 assists) in 41 games. If he takes another big step forward in his development as a sophomore, there's a decent chance he could sign an entry-level deal with the Blackhawks by next spring.

"Every NHL team has a lot of good defensemen prospects, so I mean obviously when you want to go out there you want to showcase yourself as best as you can," Mitchell said. "Obviously you want to be the best defenseman here so that's my goal going into this. I want to prove that I'm a good defenseman, I deserve to play at the next level. There's lots of good players here, but you're trying to all succeed."

Here are a few clips from Mitchell's camp:

5. Colliton's influence on Jacob Nilsson

Prospect camp is usually a time where the Blackhawks can get an up-close look at who they have in the pipeline and who can contribute in years to come.

The one interesting name on this year's roster sheet is Nilsson, who signed a one-year deal out of Sweden this summer and will turn 25 by the time the 2018-19 season rolls around. He didn't make his way to North America to play in the American Hockey League. He's clearly determined to reach the NHL and he felt like the Blackhawks were the right team to help him get there, in large part because of Colliton's influence on his game.

"I got a pretty clear idea of how they wanted to work with the people and develop the players and stuff like that," Nilsson said. "I had Jeremy as a coach a few years back in Sweden, so that was a big point in why I chose Chicago. I think he helped me a lot with some things I had to do better on the ice and then after that we had a really good connection."

It wouldn't be surprising to see Nilsson as one of the first call-ups for the Blackhawks this season if he doesn't start with the team right away. He can play in several different situations, is strong on the puck, has high compete level and is simply more polished and further along in his development curve.

"Very skilled," Colliton said of Nilsson. "Skilled guys are going to want to play with him because he sees the ice very well, he can beat a guy 1-on-1, but he's also a competitive guy. He likes to battle. It takes some time for him to grow into an offensive role, I think he can play a checking role, too. He's got a couple different ways that he can play in the NHL eventually."

Here are a few clips from Nilsson's camp:

6. Get to know Evan Barratt

The Blackhawks have traded away Ryan Hartman and Andrew Shaw over the last few years, two skilled players who also add sandpaper to the lineup. Barratt is probably right up that alley. Skilled player that plays a gritty style.

You may remember him from this viral video, where he had some fun with Minnesota Gophers defenseman Ryan Lindgren in the penalty box:

After exiting the box, Barratt laid a big hit on Lindgren and then scored a goal top shelf. That's who he is, and somebody that would look good in a Blackhawks uniform.

"Definitely my strength," Barratt said when asked where he took his biggest stride last season as a freshman at Penn State. "I put in a lot of work this summer. I really feel like I've improved a lot, transferring it to skating and my strength on my stick and all that, but I definitely my strength has really helped me a lot."

Here are a few clips from Barratt's camp:

7. Checking in on the goalies: Alexis Gravel and Wouter Peeters

It must be challenging to be a young goalie at a prospect camp, where you're surrounded by skaters who are thinking about breaking into the NHL in the next couple years and you know it's not exactly realistic the same can happen for you. It takes time for goalies to develop and there are only 31 starting jobs available. Just ask Jeff Glass how difficult it can be to work your way there.

Gravel, 18, and Peeters, 19, were the only two Blackhawks netminders at camp under contract with the team and they likely still have a long way to go before they have a chance to make an impact at the NHL level. But there were some flashes this week, particularly by Gravel during 3-on-3 where he denied a pair of breakaways in the same shift:

8. Where does Blake Hillman fit into the plans?

Of the 41 players that attended prospect camp, Hillman was the only one that had any sort of NHL experience. He burned the first year of his two-year entry-level deal by playing in four games last season, scoring a goal and averaging 18:02 of ice time per game with the Blackhawks.

That gives him a leg up on the rest of the field, but that doesn't mean a roster spot will be given to him. He's also set to become a restricted free agent after this coming season, which adds some extra motivation.

"I wouldn't have left college if I didn't think this was the right time for me to step in and have my best opportunity to make an impact," Hillman said. "Obviously, you try to set yourself up with the best opportunity so I thought this was going to be the best opportunity."

That being said, there's still a fair chance he'll start the year in Rockford considering there are many other defensemen battling for the same spot. Would he view that as a disappointment?

"No, not at all," Hillman said. "Obviously, I'm shooting for the stars, shooting for opening roster but it doesn't always go your way and gotta work hard to get where the big guys are."

Here are a few clips from Hillman's camp:

9. What will happen with Chad Krys?

It's no secret the Blackhawks have a surplus of defensemen in the pipeline. Krys, who was drafted in the second round (No. 45 overall) in 2016, is one of those guys who has probably been pushed down the chart as the Blackhawks continue to select high-end blue liners, but he shouldn't be an afterthought.

Krys increased his point total by 16 from his freshman to sophomore season at Boston University, and did so in three fewer games. It's possible he signs an entry-level contract after his junior campaign to get himself into the system. But that's not his focus right now.

"I mean, look if I could play in the NHL right now I'd love to," Krys said. "But for me I think it's important that I'm taking the right steps. I want to make that jump when I feel like I'm going to be able to play in the NHL. My two years at BU has really benefitted me. Going back there and playing a lot and take it year by year. There's a lot of defensemen in this organization and we'll see what happens. I want to keep getting better, but for right now I'm just kind of focused on this year, and we'll decide what's going on after this."

Here are a few clips from Krys' camp:

10. Jake Wise loves hockey ... and is good at it

Speaking of Krys, he and Wise were roommates this week because they'll be teammates at Boston next year. A nice way to formulate some bonding team before the NCAA season even starts.

Anything stand out about Wise?

"Really, really nice kid," Krys said, then joked. "Loves hockey. Really likes hockey. Sometimes I'm like, 'You've got to stop.'"

But Wise, who was taken in the third round (69th overall) in June, is certainly good at it. He was one of the standouts at camp.

"Yeah, he was," Colliton said. "I didn't know him at all other than he was a draft pick, but very skilled and a smart player. I think he looked really good in the game. He should be happy about his camp."

Here are a few clips from Wise's camp:

11. The Blackhawks get their guy in MacKenzie Entwistle

When the Blackhawks traded Marian Hossa's contract to Arizona in a nine-piece deal, the Coyotes were adamant about including Vinnie Hinostroza in it. Well, the Blackhawks wanted to make sure Entwistle was part of the return if that was the case.

Bowman said that the Blackhawks would have taken him at No. 70 overall in the 2017 draft, but he got selected at 69 by the Coyotes. The Blackhawks ended up taking winger Andrei Altybarmakyan, but now they've got both of the players they were targeting.

"We followed him closely a year ago," Bowman said of Entwistle. "We liked him. ... We got a chance to see him play quite a bit. The attributes that he has are of interest to us would be, first of all, is his size. He's a big kid. He plays multiple positions, predominantly at center. So the fact he can play on the wing when needed.

"We think he's just scratching the surface. He's got to fill out his frame. He's got a big body. He's going to mature over the next couple of years and add some strength. The other part of his game that's appealing is that he's got a lot of good two-way aspects. He's not just one of these young guys who tries to score all the time. He had a pretty good year offensively, but you talk to coaches and they appreciate the way he cares about being on the penalty kill, taking important faceoffs, blocking shots, really supporting his team and not always trying to get the breakaway and score the goal. Sometimes it's hard to convince young players to take pride in that aspect of the game. He seems to have that naturally. I think he's going to be a player that coaches really enjoy having on their team."

Here are a few clips from Entwistle's camp:

12. Alexandre Fortin working his way back

Remember Fortin? On Sept. 25, 2016 he signed as an undrafted free agent and turned out to be the breakout player out of training camp as a 19-year-old. It reached the point where he was considered a possibility to make the Opening Day roster, but instead went to the QMJHL, where he averaged a point per game (22 goals, 30 assists) with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies.

Last season he made the jump to the AHL, but was plagued by multiple injuries and he could never quite get into a groove. He registered 21 points (four goals, 17 assists) in 53 regular-season games and appeared in only one playoff contest with Rockford.

"Certainly with the training camp he had two years ago and the media narrative, it wasn't what he expected," Colliton said. "But that doesn't mean it wasn't a very successful year for him as far as learning how to be a pro, what it takes to be a pro. And I'm excited to see how he reacts this year. He wasn't healthy all season, he was in and out. And I think it's tough as a first-year guy, 20-year-old, to really make an impact.

"It's not an easy league to play in, the American League. He definitely helped us when he was in, but he didn't play consistently enough health wise, to really grow as maybe he can. So let's hope it happens now. But I really like his mentality."

Here are a few clips from Fortin's camp: