Blackhawks

An early look at Lightning and a few ties to Blackhawks

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An early look at Lightning and a few ties to Blackhawks

We’re just about at the month of June. And this year, much to their liking, the Blackhawks will be playing through the start of it.

One year to the date after the Blackhawks wrapped up their 2014 postseason, they’re continuing their 2015 run when they face the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Final. The series starts Wednesday at Amalie Arena, with Game 2 there on Saturday.

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But with all the focus we’ve had on the Blackhawks and their Western Conference foes, what do we know about the Lightning? We’ll save our edges for when the series begins later this week. For now, however, here are a few tidbits about the Lightning, and a few connections to the Blackhawks.

— Familiar faces. Lightning goaltending coach Frantz Jean knows Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford very well. Jean coached Crawford when the latter played for the Moncton Wildcats (QMJHL) from 2001-2005. Last postseason, Jean spoke of how far Crawford’s come since those early days. “I’ve seen him grow from a teen to a man,” Jean said. When I see the work he had to go into the minors, to pay his dues and learn to be a consistent goaltender and then to be able to duplicate that in the pros, I’m very proud of him.”

— Seems like old times. Brad Richards will experience “a lot of different feelings” in facing his former team this series. Richards played his first seven seasons with the Lightning, winning the Stanley Cup – and the Conn Smythe Trophy – with them in 2004. The Lightning were going through severe financial issues when Richards was traded to the Dallas Stars in February of 2008, and he’s impressed with the team’s turnaround. “I’m very happy that it is back on track and doing what they’re doing down there,” Richards said. “It is going to be special, but I want to win [a Cup] so we’ll worry about friendships later.”

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— Unsung hero. Every postseason has a surprise outstanding performer, and Tyler Johnson has been that for the Lightning. The undrafted Johnson has scored 12 goals in 20 playoff games, including a hat trick in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final against the New York Rangers. Johnson isn’t the biggest player out there, but he’s been a tremendous force for the Lightning.

— Former captain on current captain. Brenden Morrow, who signed with the Lightning last summer, is making his first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 2000, when he was with the Dallas Stars. In 2010 Morrow, then captain of the Stars, was Team Canada teammates with Jonathan Toews, who had just gotten the Blackhawks captaincy that offseason. A few months later the Blackhawks would win their first Stanley Cup in 39 years and Morrow saw the effect Toews had on the team. “I think at that point, they already had success,” Morrow said. “So you could tell that team was on its way, and [Toews] was the guy catapulting it.”

— Heating up at the right time. Show of hands: who was convinced Tampa Bay captain Steven Stamkos was hurt as the playoffs began? We were, and the no goals and three assists Stamkos had in the first round against the Detroit Red Wings seemed to back that up. Well, apparently he’s OK, because Stamkos has gotten better as the playoffs have continued. He scored four goals in as many contests (Games 2-5) against the New York Rangers. He also had three assists in that series.

— Bishop over King. Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop outdueled Henrik Lundqvist in the Eastern Conference final. Yes, we realize it’s not truly goalie against goalie but Bishop won out regardless. He had his rough outings, including giving up five goals to the Rangers in Game 6. But he shut out the Rangers on their home ice in Game 5 and again in Game 7. That’s pretty darn impressive.

After bursting onto the scene in Rockford, Collin Delia generating buzz at Blackhawks training camp

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USA TODAY

After bursting onto the scene in Rockford, Collin Delia generating buzz at Blackhawks training camp

Collin Delia has emerged as an intriguing prospect for the Blackhawks. A year ago, nobody knew much about him at training camp. Now there's buzz around the 24-year-old and his role with the team going forward.

He appeared in only 28 games last year for the Rockford IceHogs in the American Hockey League, but took control of his opportunity by going 17-7-2 with a 2.72 goals against average and .900 save percentage. It wasn't until the Calder Cup playoffs when he really started to raise eyebrows, helping the IceHogs reach the Conference Final with a 2.34 GAA and .924 save percentage.

With Corey Crawford out at the time and the revolving door at the backup position, it was interesting to think about Delia's chances at having a real shot in that role for the 2018-19 season.

"Why not?," Blackhawks senior director of minor league affiliations Mark Bernard said in May whether Delia could challenge for the backup spot this season. "You know, what not? That's what training camp is for. He's proven this year that he's a quality netminder. He's someone in our organization [who's] a high-level prospect for us and the more he plays at this level, the more experience he gains ... he's playing in high-level pressure games here and he's proven himself. 

"So going into training camp next year, he's got just as much of a chance as anybody. It's going to be interesting when camp opens. I think those things will be determined through the exhibition games and Stan [Bowman] and Joel [Quenneville] will have some tough decisions."

Training camp has been so far, so good for Delia. 

He stopped 17 of 19 shots in his preseason debut against the Ottawa Senators, and drew rave reviews from coach Joel Quenneville from it and his camp in general.

"He's done a real good job," Quenneville said. "Last year was a good year for him as far as getting stabilized and being a pro and getting a lot of net, and did a really good job of getting [Rockford] in the playoffs. He's coming off a special game the other night, and he can do some pretty neat things."

That's always a big confidence builder for a young kid, especially when it comes from a Hall of Fame coach.

"It's always nice to have praise from the coach," Delia told NBC Sports Chicago. "Honestly it's just one of those things in the preseason game, you've got to see where your game's at by playing in a couple games; happy to come in there and make stops, just continue to play at this level it's truly amazing."

A big part of why Delia has had the success he's had early on at this level is his mental strength. You have to have that as a goaltender. You especially have to have it when you go undrafted, like Delia did, to still have that belief in yourself that you can make it to the NHL one day.

"Obviously you have to be physically able to put your body through those rigors, but a lot of it is will power and mental fortitude," Delia said. "I think it's a balance between the mental capacity and physical ability and kind of the spiritual side. It's threefold. But if you don't have the mental fortitude to withstand ... if you go down a couple goals early, you've still got to keep playing like it's 0-0. You're trying to keep the ship going straight so to speak, but a big thing of being mentally sound is doing the same things when something positive happens and something negative happens. 

"For instance: you get scored on, you take a sip of water. We score, take a sip of water. Do your thing. Be balanced out, don't put so much emotion into the highs and lows. Keep it steady. So that's one way that I kind of approach it."

The Blackhawks brought in veteran Cam Ward this offseason to back up Crawford, who could practice with the team as early as this weekend but is unlikely to be ready by Opening Night, according to Quenneville. That means the backup to Ward for the time being is up for competition.

Forsberg likely still has the inside track because he hasn't done anything that would force the Blackhawks into giving up on his abilities and putting him on waivers, but Delia is preparing like he could have a shot as the No. 3 goalie on the organizational depth chart.

"I think that's always the goal, to play at the highest level, so you prepare for that always," Delia said. "It's something that I visualize in my off time. If that's the case, that's great. And if not, I'll still keep developing, still keep progressing because at the end of the day that's really what it's all about, continuing to get better. When it's your time it'll be your time. Just be patient and trust that the organization has your best interest at hand and I think when you have that trust, it's reciprocated with myself and the organization."

While Forsberg has also had a strong camp, the Blackhawks aren't ready to make a decision on that quite yet. There's still one more week of training camp with three preseason games remaining. And with teams across the league trimming their roster in half as the regular season approaches, these are the games where players will be evaluated the hardest.

So if Delia gets another chance to build his case, he could make it difficult on the coaching staff when they're ironing out the final roster.

"We'll see how it all plays out," Quenneville said. "Those things are going to get answered for us either by performance or time. 

"We're in a winning business. Sometimes it's who's more deserving. We know with goalies, time is probably beneficial, but at the same time, if a young kid's ready to go, we don't want to get in their way."

Blackhawks Opening Day roster starting to take shape

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks Opening Day roster starting to take shape

The Blackhawks' Opening Day roster is starting to take shape.

With the Rockford IceHogs starting training camp on Sunday, the Blackhawks made a large wave of roster cuts over the weekend and trimmed their roster from 51 players to 33.

Let's take a look at the remaining list:

Forwards (17):
— Artem Anisimov
— Alex DeBrincat
— Victor Ejdsell
— Alexandre Fortin
— John Hayden
— Matthew Highmore
— Luke Johnson
— Dominik Kahun
— David Kampf
— Patrick Kane
— Marcus Kruger
— Chris Kunitz
— Andreas Martinsen
— Brandon Saad
— Nick Schmaltz
— Dylan Sikura
— Jonathan Toews

Defensemen (12):
— Adam Boqvist
— Carl Dahlstrom
— Brandon Davidson
— Gustav Forsling
— Erik Gustafsson
— Henri Jokiharju
— Duncan Keith
— Brandon Manning
— Connor Murphy
— Jan Rutta
— Brent Seabrook
— Joni Tuulola

Goaltenders (4):
— Corey Crawford
— Collin Delia
— Anton Forsberg
— Cam Ward

Of those 33, Forsling and Murphy are expected to start the season on injured reserve. It's unclear whether Crawford will be ready by that point too. That means seven more cuts need to be made for the Blackhawks to reach the 23-man limit.

A few things to note: Joel Quenneville reiterated on Sunday that they will not carry eight defensemen, which eliminates a spot on the back end. He also said the hope is to have 22 players rather than 23 — to avoid having three healthy scratches every night — but that will likely depend on who's most deserving of the vacant spots. If three players are deserving of being on, it wouldn't seem fair to cut one simply because they want to stay at 22 even though it would be beneficial to have whoever is sitting out play meaningful minutes in Rockford.

Up front, five guys appear to be battling for one or two spots: Fortin, Highmore, Johnson, Kampf and Kahun. Each of them have made a solid case to stay.

Kahun was promoted to the top line with DeBrincat and Toews during Sunday's practice, indicating they've liked what they've seen from him and are giving him a stronger look at what he can do in a top-six role.

"He's coming off a real good game the other night in Ottawa," Quenneville said of Kahun. "He can play basically all three positions, I thought he played well at center. But I want to see how handles playing up there and playing some top guys. I think he sees plays, makes plays. We'll see how well he complements them."

It's also worth noting there's a clause in Kahun's contract that allows him to return to Europe if he doesn't make the team out of camp, but even if he didn't, he has been one of the standouts from the young crop and it's unlikely the Blackhawks would keep him around strictly because of that. He's earned his way if he's one of the 23 left standing.

At the same time, Johnson has been equally impressive and could be fighting for the 13th or 14th forward spot if the Blackhawks choose to go that direction.

"He’s really improved each year, how he’s trained, how he’s taking care of himself, his quickness in the game," Quenneville said of Johnson, who said he dropped a lot of weight this summer. "Bigger, stronger, faster. He always had a pretty good head for the game but he’s got some bite to his game as well and has made some nice plays. Some physicality, some tight areas. From the faceoff circle, he’s been really effective."

On the back end, Boqvist, Dahlstrom, Davidson, Jokiharju and Tuulola are essentially vying for two spots. At this point, it's hard not to see Jokiharju making it. But Dahlstrom and Davidson have also each done their part so far on making these decisions difficult on the coaching staff.

There also remains the possibility of Boqvist staying on and playing in a few regular-season games — up to nine before burning the first year of his entry-level deal — before getting sent to the OHL's London Knights. Quenneville said there's a "good chance" he plays in each of the remaining three preseason games at the United Center and will re-evaluate then. Boqvist took several shifts with Keith at practice on Sunday, so don't be surprised to see the two of them together during one of the preseason games to see how Boqvist handles playing against top competition and with high-end players.

It's all up for grabs.

In goal, Quenneville has already been on record saying he doesn't plan on carrying three goaltenders, so a decision will have to be made on whether Delia or Forsberg will back up Ward if Crawford isn't ready to go. Forsberg might have the inside track because of experience along with the fact he'd have to clear waivers if he were to be sent to Rockford, but Delia has been sharp and it showed during Friday's preseason game in Ottawa.

"He’s done a real good job," Quenneville said of Delia. "Last year was a good year for him as far as getting stabilized and being a pro and getting a lot of net, and did a really good job of getting [Rockford] in the playoffs. He’s coming off a special game the other night, and he can do some pretty neat things. But [Forsberg] has had a good camp as well. We’ll see how it all plays out. Those things are going to get answered for us either by performance or time.

"We’re in a winning business. Sometimes it’s who’s more deserving. We know with goalies, time is probably beneficial, but at the same time, if a young kid’s ready to go, we don’t want to get in their way."

All of this could get interesting if Crawford is, indeed, cleared to play by Oct. 4. He has yet to practice with the team after skating on his own with goaltending coach Jimmy Waite for a little more than a week now, but Quenneville said Crawford had a "real good day" on Sunday and didn't rule out the possibility of him joining the team this week.