Blackhawks: Roster hopefuls feeling excitement and anxiety


Blackhawks: Roster hopefuls feeling excitement and anxiety

Erik Gustafsson admits he’s anxious about it all.

The 23-year-old defenseman has made it this far in the Blackhawks’ training camp. The days leading up to the regular season are dwindling, and the roster numbers are doing the same. So he’s always wondering: am I staying with the Blackhawks or am I heading to Rockford?

“I’d be lying if I’m saying I’m not nervous,” Gustafsson said following Wednesday’s practice. “I’m nervous that I’ll wake up in the morning and get that call where you get sent down to Rockford. I’m just going one day at a time; hopefully I’ll be here to premiere next week.”

For players who are on the bubble of making this team, the next few days are a mix of excitement and apprehension. There aren’t many spots: there’s one, maybe two among the forwards and with Michal Rozsival likely not ready to start the season, one on defense. Nevertheless, competition is high. Gustafsson and Viktor Svedberg could compete for an early season chance on defense. Kyle Baun, Ryan Hartman and Vincent Hinostroza are among the prospective forwards still here.

For those vying for one of those spots, it’s been difficult to balance the emotions these last few days.

“Obviously [you’re] a little nervous because you definitely want to be here. But it’s a cool and exciting time,” Baun said. “The season’s just around the corner. I’m just trying to come here every day and do my job and hopefully get better and hopefully that equals me making it.”

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Some Blackhawks who have been here for some time can relate to the feelings.

“It’s nice to have that where they give you the call and say, ‘You can look for a place.’ For the other times, when a guy comes around, calls us and tells us to meet in the office, you know it’s not good,” Bryan Bickell said. “It [was] three or four times where I had to go down and work on my game in the minors, but it just fuels the drive to make that next step. That’s the hardest step, from the AHL to the NHL.”

Coach Joel Quenneville said he’s not talking to the “bubble” guys on an individual basis – “it’s not a discussion you have ongoing because we’re still watching everybody and things will be sorted out,” he said. The final decision could partially be about money; if the Blackhawks don’t make another trade prior to the season, they’ll be right up against the cap. But it’s also about the work done on the ice; and any player who shows versatility, especially among the forwards, helps his cause.

“I’m sure they don’t care which position they play as opposed to being here. Everyone would like to do what they can and play whatever position you put them in. Certain guys may be more compatible in a certain area,” Quenneville said. “At center, with Teuvo [Teravainen] being there right now, there aren’t a lot of options there. But I don’t mind guys being able to play the middle as well and take faceoffs along the way. For some, that versatility could come into the decision making on some players.”

Until decisions are made, those players waiting to find out their fate are staying distracted. From doing extra workouts to catching movies to taking a nap, anything that keeps their mind worry free is beneficial.

“It’s definitely stressful when you’re here. When I’m home, I’m taking a couple of courses; I’m finishing school, so that helps take your mind off it,” said Baun, who signed with and joined the Blackhawks after his junior year at Colgate. “You see a movie. A few of us went [Tuesday] to see Black Mass. So that was a good way to take your mind off things and just relax a little bit.”

The moviegoers included Hinostroza, Hartman and Garret Ross. So any talk of the competition/nervousness come up?

“Maybe a little bit, just kind of seeing where everyone’s at,” Baun said. “But we’re trying to distract ourselves from even thinking about it, so usually we don’t talk too much about hockey when we’re away from the rink.”

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Bickell said players have to approach this the right way: even if they don’t stick right now, they obviously made a good enough impression to be here this long. And they can build off that.  

“Those guys have had good camps and any one of them could be in that spot,” he said. “I’ve had that a couple times where I got the call that I was going back down, but it gave me more drive to work up and get ready for that call-up or the next year. They’re still young; they have time to improve and grow their game. They’ve been playing well and I know they’re nervous, but they can take positives out of this.”

There are only a few days and two preseason games remaining in training camp. And those days will be nervous ones for those players waiting to see if they make it. They obviously want to be here but they’ll prepare for whatever news they get. And if they don’t start here, they’ll be working to get here as fast as they can.

“If I got the call that I got sent down, then I’ve just got to work hard down there too and take a chance that they call me back here,” Gustafsson said. “I’m for sure going to be mad [if not here next week], but I’ll try to take every day I’m here to do some good work.”

Evaluating Blackhawks options after Anton Forsberg is placed on waivers


Evaluating Blackhawks options after Anton Forsberg is placed on waivers

The Blackhawks have said all along that they don't plan on carrying three goaltenders, but wanted to do so during the three games in four days stretch just in case, with Corey Crawford coming back from a 10-month layoff because of a concussion.

After being encouraged by how Crawford has responded to his return, the Blackhawks placed goaltender Anton Forsberg on waivers Monday morning. Teams have 24 hours to put in a claim for the 25-year-old goaltender and would have to keep him on their NHL roster for 10 games and/or 30 days before he's eligible to go through the waiver process again.

His chances of getting claimed by any of the other 30 teams essentially depends on which teams believe Forsberg would be an immediate upgrade over their current backup — or starter, for that matter — or whether there's an injury to one of the team's two goaltenders that requires a placeholder, like we saw the Carolina Hurricanes do by claiming Curtis McElhinney from the Toronto Maple Leafs after Scott Darling's injury in the preseason.

If Forsberg goes unclaimed, the Blackhawks can assign him to the American Hockey League with the Rockford IceHogs. With Collin Delia and Kevin Lankinen sharing the goaltending duties in Rockford, it's possible Lankinen gets sent to the Indy Fuel in the ECHL to get consistent starts under his belt.

A third option, one that isn't very common but we've seen in the past as recently as last October with Maple Leafs goaltender Kasimir Kaskisuo, is that Forsberg can be loaned to any AHL team while still being a part of the Blackhawks organization. This would allow the Blackhawks to keep Delia and Lankinen in Rockford while Forsberg gets his starts in the AHL, too.

Or, the Blackhawks could simply trade Forsberg to another NHL team that could stash him in the AHL, as long as he clears waivers. They did it last season with Chris DiDomenico, who cleared waivers as a member of the Ottawa Senators but was then traded to Chicago for Ville Pokka days later. Had DiDomenico been claimed by the Blackhawks, he would have had to stay on the NHL roster as noted above.

Forsberg was 10-16-4 with a 2.97 goals against average and .908 save percentage in 35 appearances last season but has not appeared in a game yet this year. He was acquired as part of the Brandon Saad package for Artemi Panarin in June 2017.

Blackhawks looking for defensive improvement from everyone, not just defensemen


Blackhawks looking for defensive improvement from everyone, not just defensemen

The Blackhawks were able to get away with their defensive lapses in the past solely because of Corey Crawford. When he went down with a concussion last December, those issues were magnified because he wasn't there to mask the flaws.

But it's reached the point where they can't rely on their goaltender to bail them out on a nightly basis, which is becoming another trend. Cam Ward allowed six goals to Tampa Bay on Sunday night, but made 49 saves — including 30 in the second period alone. He did everything he could to keep his team withing some sort of reaching distance and without his timely stops, the scoreboard could've looked much worse for the Blackhawks.

Something's got to change. 

When the Blackhawks talk about tightening things up defensively, they're not just putting it all on the defensemen. All five guys on the ice need to do their part and they're not doing it right now.

"I think we're trying to do too much and running around trying to do each other's job," Jonathan Toews said. "Sometimes we just need to simply and finish our checks and support each other."

No team has given up more even-strength high-danger chances through eight games than the Blackhawks at 110. That's 15.77 per 60 minutes. For reference, the New York Islanders finished worst in the league in that category last season and their number was at 12.96.

It didn't help that the Blackhawks spent nearly the entire second period in their own end on Sunday.

"We just couldn’t get it out of our zone, couldn’t get our stick on it, didn’t see pressure, didn’t feel pressure when we had it, were stripped," coach Joel Quenneville said. "Hence, we didn’t advance it. Kept looking like we were going up the ice and there were going to be some odd-man situations and then we’re the ones who were facing it."

That's one way to eliminate those high quality scoring chances, is getting the puck out of their own zone effectively or else it opens the door for Grade-A opportunities because of self-inflicted wounds. And it usually happens at the end of shifts when guys are tired, which often leads to goals.

"We have to learn how to play without the puck better and learn how to keep it," Quenneville said. "Whether it was our execution going up the ice, first pass poor and then we couldn’t change. A lot of things that happened yesterday were there tonight."

The Blackhawks weren't using three games in four nights as an excuse because Tampa Bay was in the same situation. It was an even playing field in that respect.

It's all about execution from everyone involved, forwards and defensemen. And the Blackhawks feel they're correctable issues.

"Of course," Toews said. "We've had some good periods this season so far. The first three, four, five games, everyone was excited and you guys are all talking to us much differently than you are right now. It's just getting back to playing that smart defensive game and playing with effort and letting our offense do the work. We know what's got to improve. It's right there in front of us."