Monday, Oct 3, 2011
Posted: 12:36 p.m. Updated: 3:57 p.m.
By Chris Boden
Unless you're into exhibition wins and losses, the Blackhawks probably couldn't have asked for much more from their preseason. Provided Dave Bolland and Ben Smith return to practice early this week, as Joel Quenneville predicted Sunday, the most important thing was to enter the regular season healthy. If you don't ask Viktor Stalberg, they've done that, and Quenneville even indicated he might be back before the projected three weeks from Wednesday's apparent knee-on-knee collision. They just have to hope the Patrick Sharp appendectomy becomes the most significant of their freaky, quirky health encounters this season.
That holds true for the road ahead. I can't help feeling that key injuries would be the only thing preventing this year's team from making a long, deep run into the playoffs again. There are some interesting new contenders and obstacles in the West this season, which we'll take a closer look at later this week. The seven practice games didn't always provide proof of what the Hawks need from some veterans, both new and returning. They'll need some to play their roles better, and hope the opening bell Friday in Dallas supplies that. Some need to play smarter and tighter. Others need to find that extra dose of mean-streak, or that final gear, or simply familiarity with another ample dose of off-season roster turnover. Just like any other preseason. But the pieces assembled, the talent on-hand, and the work of Quenneville and his staff should make this a pretty fun ride.
Two surprises emerged from the past 2-12 weeks: Brandon Saad and Patrick Kane. Saad doesn't turn 19 for another three weeks, but already has an NHL body and consistently made the right play during exhibitions, whether it put his name on the scoresheet or not. He could be back in juniors by, or shortly after, that Oct. 27th birthday, but his star rose quickly here after it fell to the second round in the June draft. Camp was just a continuation of what he displayed with the team's other prospects in July, as well as the rookie tournament early last month.
Despite early, widespread doubts, the Kane Experiment in the middle hasshowed promise. He had a rough day in the faceoff circle Sunday, goingup against more experienced centers, especially with Jonathan Toewsnot making the trip. He'll need to grow as he goes along in order tostay there, but he won slightly more than half of his faceoffs overthree games. Entering a season in which he hopes to elevate his gameinto the Hart Trophy conversation, he could do worse than playingbetween Marian Hossa and Andrew Brunette.
The flip side of Kane-at-center is part of the reason it came about. Marcus Kruger didn't live up to what coaches and management expected these past couple of weeks and was outplayed by Brandon Pirri.Both wound up being sent to Rockford Monday, meaning (barring a latetrade or signing) fourth-line anchor duties could initially rest with Jamal Mayers or Ben Smith. Both Kane and Sharp would not be used at center at the same time, unless it's an emergency.
The Corey Crawford we saw in his three starts looked very much like the one we saw carry the team down the stretch last season, easing Sophomore Slump concerns of some. So what would the start of a Blackhawks season be without some goalie angst (Turco, Niemi, Huet, Khabibulin, etc.)? This one fell to the backup decision that went to Ray Emery Monday afternoon.
He caught some tough breaks, but made mistakes of his own, both in decision-making and rebound control. After not finding takers this summer and coming here on a tryout deal, he likely did not raise his value much in other teams' eyes. But he's taken a team to the Stanley Cup Finals and was very sharp when Anaheim needed it most down the stretch last season after Jonas Hiller was sidelined. That came approximately a year after hip surgery that most people thought would end his career. Some respected, experienced observers expressed concern over a drop in his quickness during camp, even compared to last spring's duty with the Ducks.
More time in Rockford certainly can't hurt Alexander Salak, who had the more impressive camp, but owns just two games of NHL experience, two years ago. Would he be able to handle the backup role like Antti Niemi did a couple of years ago? He played only 32 (roughly half) of his Swedish Elite team's games a year ago, but enjoyed his best season. In the end, the decision was Emery, with the trust his game will improve as he continues working with Stephane Waite and the Hawks' staff. This time a year ago, he was shedding crutches. If he can overcome that, Hawks brass feels he can find a way to regain the form he reached just six months ago.
The good news is the NHL preseason is the shortest of all major sports. The bad news is it still doesn't provide clear answers to every single question we've had.
Chris Boden is the host of Blackhawks Pre and Postgame Live on Comcast SportsNet.