Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Maple Leafs tonight on CSN

Five Things to Watch: Blackhawks collide with Maple Leafs tonight on CSN

Watch as the Blackhawks take on the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight on CSN and streaming live on Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live. Then stick around after the final buzzer to watch Blackhawks Postgame Live for highlights and analysis.

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Five Things to Watch:

1. Auston Matthews and Jonathan Toews.

Even before he was drafted No. 1 overall in 2016, Matthews drew early comparisons to Toews, and it's easy to see the connection. They're both terrific two-way centermen, are difficult to knock off the puck, are just as effective in the defensive zone that they are in the offensize zone, own a lethal shot, and are leaders both on and off the ice.

Matthews is having a sensational rookie campaign, with 31 goals and 24 assists for 55 points in 69 games. He's neck-and-neck with Patrik Laine in the Calder Trophy race as the league's top rookie, and is even challenging for the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy as leading goal scorer. 

2. Patrick Kane and Mitch Marner.

Like Matthews and Toews, there are many similarities between Kane and Marner. They're both undersized offensive wingers, possess great hands, are smooth skaters, and are dangerous on the power play. Kane joined Sportsnet's Hockey Central earlier in the year and acknowledged those comparisons, and even admitted that Marner is more of a two-way player than Kane was when he was 19 years old.

Marner, the No. 4 overall pick in 2015, is tied with Matthews for first on the team with 55 points in 64 games this season, and is on pace to finish with more points than Kane did (72) during his rookie campaign. Marner is averaging .86 points per game while Kane's average was .88.

3. Mike Babcock and Joel Quenneville.

When two of the best coaches in NHL history go up against each other, it's always fun to watch the chess match that occurs during the game. With the Blackhawks being the road team, Babcock will have the luxury of last line change. Both rosters are loaded with talent, so it will be interesting to see how Babcock plays his cards against Quenneville.

Babcock and Quenneville have combined for 1,434 regular-season wins, 200 playoff wins and four Stanley Cups. They also helped Team Canada capture gold at the World Cup last fall.

4. James and Trevor van Riemsdyk.

Because they're in different conferences, the van Riemsdyk brothers only see each other twice a year. But Trevor wasn't able to play in the first meeting all the way back on Oct. 22 due to an upper-body injury, and James missed both contests in 2015-16 with a fractured foot. So this will be their first game against each other since Nov. 1, 2014, which was the first time they faced off in the NHL.

In that game, Trevor was on the ice against his older brother for 8:03 of his 19:21 minutes, the highest amount of time he spent on the ice against one Maple Leafs player. James scored a goal in that game, and he also lit the lamp in the first meeting this season.

5. Beware Toronto's power play.

As mentioned above, the Maple Leafs have a handful of young, skilled forwards that can make you pay on the man advantage. They're No. 1 in the league in that department with a 23.7 percent success rate. And they're in a nice groove right now, too, having scored at least a power play goal in five of their past six games, going 6-for-19 (31.6 percent) during that stretch.

The Blackhawks have been great on the penalty kill in eight games this month, allowing only one goal in their last 16 tries (93.8 percent). As Pat Foley would say, something's gotta give!

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Stan Bowman explains how Blackhawks may utilize extra cap space


Stan Bowman explains how Blackhawks may utilize extra cap space

The Blackhawks had cap space to use this summer but elected to shore up their depth rather than make a splash when free agency opened up on July 1. Perhaps a large reason for that was because Marian Hossa's $5.275 million cap hit over the next three years complicated what they could do exactly in the short term without jeopardizing the long term.

Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman admitted Tuesday that they had had discussions about moving Hossa's contract for a year now. But it finally reached a point where they simply needed to get it off their hands, even if it meant giving up Vinnie Hinostroza as a sweetener.

"We tried to make that deal work in every other way possible but they obviously said he had to be in it," Bowman said of including Hinostroza.

That's how important it was to free up even more cap space. By trading Hossa's contract in a nine-piece trade with the Arizona Coyotes, it created more options for the Blackhawks and financial flexibility going forward.

"It was a difficult trade from a sentimental perspective, because we'd love to not have to do that," Bowman said. "But on the practical matter, it was becoming challenging to try to operate with that contract here. It necessitated us trying to make the move that we did make. You don't know when those opportunities are going to come to try and make that type of a move. ... When this presented itself, we talked it through and got to the point where we thought it was something we had to take advantage of."

The problem for the short term is, it's mid-July and the big-name free agents are off the market. There's not much the Blackhawks can do to improve their roster externally unless they make a trade, which would require dipping into the pipeline.

And it's unfair to put a grade on the Hossa trade as a whole without seeing how they utilize that extra cap space. Could that be before the 2018-19 season starts?

"It's an option if we can find the right player or the right situation," Bowman said. "We certainly have more options now than we did before. I wouldn't say we have to do something. Having cap space is an asset in and of itself, so things will come along maybe in the summer or maybe in the beginning part of the year where teams have a couple players that make their team unexpectedly and that makes some other players more expendable. In the past we probably haven't really been a good match for those types of situations because we didn't have the cap room at that time, so now we're going to be in the mix for those types of things.

"Whether we use it right away or whether we use it during the season, I think the nice thing is we have the flexibility now going in to the coming years where we're going to need cap room, all that and more, to sign the young players."

It doesn't sound like there's much urgency to pull something off between now and when training camp rolls around in September. At least for now.

That doesn't mean there won't be once the market picks back up again. 

"Each year teams have surprises, good and bad, in camp," Bowman said. "Our team’s the same way. You have ideas on how your lines are going to look or how your players are going to be ready. Sometimes guys surprise you in a good way, sometimes it’s not what you think. There’ll be some adjustments around the league, but probably not a lot of activity.

"If you look back the last couple of seasons, late July and August are quieter as far as transactions. But there are some arbitration cases coming up around the league; those may get settled ahead of time. But if they do go to arbitration, if the number's not the way the team likes it, they may look to do something. There’s the possibility of moves, but probably closer to training camp is more when changes may happen."

All eyes on Blackhawks defensemen as prospect camp opens


All eyes on Blackhawks defensemen as prospect camp opens

The second wave of Blackhawks defensemen is on the way. That's exactly where all the attention was when prospect camp opened up Monday at MB Ice Arena.

Nicolas Beaudin. Adam Boqvist. Henri Jokiharju. Ian Mitchell. Call it the Big Four. Where are they all at in their development? When will they be ready to make an NHL impact? Who's the most pro ready? 

Lots of questions. Those will slowly start to get answered and it begins now.

While there may not necessarily be an open competition among the group right away, there's certainly a desire to make a strong first impression in front of the upper brass that included Stan Bowman, John McDonough and Joel Quenneville watching on Day 1.

"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 to everyone that I'm a good defenseman, I deserve to play at the next level. Obviously there's lots of good players here, but you're trying to all succeed."

Said Beaudin: "There's a lot of competition. There's a lot of good, young defensemen. I think you just need to be different when you play when you show what you can do."

Said Boqvist: "I'm trying to be better every day. Of course I will play in the NHL one day and win Stanley Cups, so that's my mindset."

The theme? Focus on your own game, take what you learn out of this week and apply those tools in your game when advancing your development next season. The rest will take care of itself.

Mitchell will go back to Denver for his sophomore campaign to continue his development. Beaudin is expected to return to the QMJHL with the Drummondville Voltigeurs. Boqvist signed with the OHL's London Knights, where he will look to get accustomed to the North American style of play.

For Jokiharju, the goal is different. This is his second development camp. He signed an entry-level contract in June. Making the big club is a real goal and a legitimate possibility for a Blackhawks team looking for young, impact defensemen immediately.

"I think if Henri has a really good summer of training, comes into camp, I certainly thinks he gets a good look," Blackhawks vice president of amateur scouting Mark Kelley told NBC Sports Chicago last month.

Jokiharju showed poise and confidence with and without the puck during drills, like someone who knows this is only the first step towards that ultimate goal.

"Yeah," Jokiharju responded when asked if the expectation is to make it to the NHL this season. "You want to set the bar high, you don't want to set the bar too low. I want to dream big and that's the dream."

That's the dream for everyone. When that happens, it's up to them. This week is a chance to set an early tone.