Blackhawks

Fourth line providing plenty for Blackhawks

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Fourth line providing plenty for Blackhawks

For most of the regular season, the Blackhawks had a decent fourth-line presence.

The defense was there, as it usually is with a line centered by Marcus Kruger. But the trio wasn’t spending much time in the opponent’s zone or creating many scoring threats.

Three games into the playoffs, however, that’s all changed. Now the fourth line is back to being a line that can play ample minutes, can keep defending well and can add a goal here or there.

Andrew Desjardins, Kruger and Andrew Shaw have made a successful fourth-line combo, one that’s contributed on both sides of the puck. Desjardins scored a goal in his first postseason game with the Blackhawks (Game 3 vs. Nashville). Kruger scored in Game 1 vs. the Minnesota Wild while Shaw has three assists in eight playoff games.

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No, they’re not putting up brilliant scoring numbers; they’re not there for that. But any contributions on that side, coupled with the defense on the other, is certainly gravy.

“I think they work well with each other in the puck area,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “They’re relentlessly pursuing pucks and they rotate well off one another. Defensively, there’s awareness. Offensively, all three can make in-tight plays. We usually use them in a defensive role but when they can get that offensive-zone time that’s a bonus.”

Sometimes the trade-deadline move that gets the least fanfare can make you a four-line team again. When the Blackhawks acquired Desjardins from San Jose on March 2, it was met with little fanfare. Most of the attention was on Kimmo Timonen and Antoine Vermette, who the Blackhawks had traded for the previous weekend. When Quenneville altered the lineup entering Game 3 vs. Nashville — Vermette went to the third line and Desjardins joined Kruger and Shaw on the fourth — everything clicked. Once again the fourth line was bringing balance and taking some of the pressure off the top three lines.

“You have to spread the workload,” Desjardins said. “It seems like that’s the case. It’s great to have that feeling, to feel like you’re trusted and be in situations. Again, you can’t take it for granted. You have to do the job out there.”

[NBC SHOP: Gear up for the playoff run, Blackhawks fans!]

The Blackhawks’ fourth line rarely changed through the first half of last season. At the time, Kruger, Ben Smith — who went to San Jose in the Desjardins trade — and current Flames forward Brandon Bollig brought stability to that fourth line. Shaw, who is back at the wing on this line, said the current trio is working just as well.

“I just think we have the chemistry,” Shaw said. “We all have the same mindset: get pucks deep, make their D turn and cycle the puck. [Kruger and Desjardins] both have good skill, too. They make plays and support you as well.”

The Blackhawks are rolling four lines again because their fourth line is bringing a solid game on both sides of the puck. Good timing.

“To go deep in the playoffs you need all four lines, all six [defensemen] and you need everyone to contribute any way they can,” Kruger said. “Playing with Andrew and Andrew has been a lot of fun for me. [They’re] two great players who love to play aggressive and forecheck and hold onto the puck down low. That helps me out a lot, and it’s been a lot of fun so far.”

Do the Blackhawks have room to sign John Tavares?

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USA TODAY

Do the Blackhawks have room to sign John Tavares?

The NHL Draft is over. Farm systems have been restocked and now the focus has shifted to free agency, where the fun is just beginning.

The biggest fish on the market is John Tavares, a franchise-changing center in the heart of his prime. For a little bit, it seemed like the loyal New York Islanders captain was ready to move on after they took another step back by missing the playoffs for the second consecutive season.

But then Lou Lamiorello became available and was snatched up by Long Island. His first order of business was relieving GM Garth Snow and head coach Doug Weight of their duties, the first real sign that significant changes were coming. The next was securing Barry Trotz as head coach after he couldn't agree to terms on an extension with the Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals.

For the first time in a while, there appears to be structure in the front office and coaching staff.

Yet, Tavares has remained committed to visiting with reportedly five teams in Los Angeles during the free agent negotiating window that opened Sunday. And he's absolutely earned that right. San Jose and Toronto are believed to be two of the teams. The rest is unclear.

When asked by NBC Sports Chicago's Pat Boyle at the end of the draft on Saturday, Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman wouldn't confirm nor deny that they were one of the teams scheduled to meet with Tavares.

"I wouldn't want to spoil the surprise, right?" Bowman said with a smile.

Whether or not they are, could the Blackhawks realistically even make it work?

They actually have the cap space to do it. Or at least they can make room without shuffling too many cards.

As of Sunday, the Blackhawks have $9.225 million in open cap space to fill out six roster spots. If you can find a trade partner for Marian Hossa's contract, that creates an extra $5.275 million, which brings the total up to $14.5 million. That's without subtracting any real bodies from the roster. 

Tavares is likely to command in the $10 million range for average annual value over the next seven years, and the latter part is key. While it would certainly be challenging to have three players eating up at least $10 million each in cap space — with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews at $10.5 million — they could make it work in the short term.

But signing Tavares to a seven-year deal would probably get in the way of the Blackhawks' longer-term goals, which includes re-signing Alex DeBrincat and Nick Schmaltz when their entry-level deals expire and even Vinnie Hinostroza when his new two-year contract ends.

Are the Blackhawks willing to risk that?

For Tavares, maybe. But Toews is 30, Kane is 29 and Tavares will be 28 by the time this upcoming season starts. At some point, an infusion of youth would be required to remain competitive for the long term.

Stan Bowman plays coy when asked about pitching free agent John Tavares

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USA TODAY

Stan Bowman plays coy when asked about pitching free agent John Tavares

The unrestricted free agent market opens up for the NHL on July 1. Five-time All-Star John Tavares is will reportedly be meeting with five different teams to talk about the possibility of leaving the only team he's played for his entire career, the New York Islanders. 

After a highly disappointing 33-39-10 finish to the 2017-18 season, many expect Chicago general manager Stan Bowman to be very aggressive this offseason. When asked by NBC Sports Chicago's Pat Boyle if the Blackhawks would be one of the five teams going after Tavares, Bowman gave a very reticent answer.

"I woudn't want to spoil the surprise, right?" Bowman said with a smile. 

"No, I'm not going to comment on that, but I know we're gonna have a lot of discussions over the next five or six days and we'll see where it goes."

Reports indicate that the Islanders and Tavares had been trying to work out the terms of a long-term extension, but with so many attractive options out there, it will be a tough decision for him. There are several teams coming off of playoff runs expected to go after Tavares, including Tampa Bay, Las Vegas and San Jose. In addition to those teams, his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs are expected to be in play as well.

But Chicago's rough year was so out of place for a team so used to winning consistently, that one can imagine their pitch will be enticing.

Elliotte Friedman of CBC's Hockey Night in Canada had this to say about the Blackhawks potential pursuit of Tavares: "They're not going to tolerate being that bad again, they're going to try something. I think they'll make a run at John Tavares too. I do, I think they'll ask, is there any way we can get him here?"

When taking all of this into account, it is sure to be an extremely exciting free agency period for the Blackhawks. The team is in full "re-tool" rather than "rebuild" mode, and there have been discussions that Kane may be becoming the more vocal leader of the team. But the addition of Tavares to a core of Kane, Jonathan Toews and Corey Crawford could boost the Blackhawks back into Stanley Cup contention.