Healthy and rested, Blackhawks ready for busy final stretch

Healthy and rested, Blackhawks ready for busy final stretch

The Blackhawks filtered out of the Johnny's IceHouse West locker room on Wednesday. Some of the veterans couldn't gotten one more day off but, after three days off for some, Wednesday was back to work.

"I think they know why: you don't want to be too stiff the next day," Marian Hossa said. "But it was nice to take a break because you know it's going to be game after game after game [now]. There won't be much of a break."

The mini-vacation, if you could call it that, is over. Starting with Thursday night's game against the Anaheim Ducks, the Blackhawks will play 17 games over the final 31 days of their regular season. Just about every hockey player would rather play than practice, and the Blackhawks are no different. They also thrive off that schedule. Factor that in with a just-about fully healthy lineup, something that's been rare this season, and the Blackhawks are looking to finish as strong as possible.

The Blackhawks enter Thursday night's game one point behind the Minnesota Wild for the Western Conference lead. Even with a few injuries prior to the break they found ways to win. Now with nearly everyone back – including Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson, both of whom are expected to play Thursday – the Blackhawks can use these last 17 games as their personal playoff primer.

"We have some different looks again," coach Joel Quenneville said. "We can always mix pairs on the back end. We have the four lines that have been the best part of our game that consistency has helped us in making other teams defend, generating an attack, chances and drawing penalties. That's been the difference in our team game. We're probably looking to make some moves up front to see what's best for matchups and line combinations as we're going along. It's not like we're going to be experimenting but at least there'll be some things we'll be sorting out."

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The Blackhawks resume play with defensive depth that rivals the 2015 team. Oduya feels ready to go after the few extra days and returning to the United Center as a Blackhawk again – "I've been here with a different team but of course it'll be special. The fans are on your side instead of, not against you, but on the other side," he said. It's a different mix than in 2015 overall – the Blackhawks' younger players have been a big boost to this year's team. But Oduya said, regardless of lineup, everyone knows what's expected this time of year.

"I've seen it mostly from the outside but watching some of the games, I think it's as good as any team. That said, we know there's a long road," Oduya said. "We want to play good hockey games. That's what you have in your mind."

The Blackhawks are in the regular-season home stretch. They're healthy again and have the Wild in their sights. For a team that started the last postseason on the road, playing their best hockey and taking the division are top priorities.

"It's something to shoot for right now. It's something we set out to do every year is try to win the division. It's a tough one to win but we have a chance to do that," Patrick Kane said. "We have 17 games left here. We might as well try and do it."

NHL Draft Profile: D Adam Boqvist

NHL Draft Profile: D Adam Boqvist

From June 17-21, Charlie Roumeliotis will profile two prospects per day — 10 total (five forwards, five defensemen) — leading up to the NHL Draft.​

Adam Boqvist

Position: Defenseman
Height: 5-foot-11
Weight: 168 pounds
Shoots: Right

Scouting report:

"Boqvist is a finesse defenseman who is very skilled, possesses excellent vision and tons of talent. He is fun to watch and full of surprises on the ice. He often plays bigger than his size and skated in his first games with Sweden's Senior National Team in April."

NHL player comparable: Erik Karlsson

Fit for Blackhawks:

The Blackhawks would love to have Karlsson, who is probably being traded out of Ottawa this summer. Every team would love to have him. But that's not realistic for Chicago. So what if they drafted his potential mini me?

Boqvist is electric with the puck and has drawn comparisons to the Swedish defenseman as a best-case scenario.

There are two concerns, though. One is that he may need some time to develop at just 17 years old and his defense a work in progress. The second is that he's sustained head injuries over the course of his young career, which adds a little bit of risk to the equation.

If he can stay healthy and his development isn't rushed, there's major upside here. But are the Blackhawks willing to be patient? We're not so sure.

Should the Blackhawks explore bringing back Artemi Panarin?


Should the Blackhawks explore bringing back Artemi Panarin?

Here's an interesting development as we approach the NHL Draft: Artemi Panarin has informed the Blue Jackets that he's not ready to consider an extension "at this time" and because of that, Columbus is testing the market for the Russian winger, according to Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet.

Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen responded to the report shortly after in a statement released by the team:

"Artemi is an elite National Hockey League player. Our position has been that we want him to be a Blue Jacket for many years and that has not changed. He has a year left on his contract, so there is plenty of time to work towards that end. Should anything change moving forward, we will address it at that time and any decision we make will be in the best interest of our club.”

Ironically, Panarin was traded to Columbus on the afternoon of last year's draft as part of a blockbuster package that sent Brandon Saad back to Chicago. It shook up the hockey world, and has the potential to do so again.

Panarin is set to become an unrestricted free agent in 2019, but is free to sign an extension with Columbus on July 1. Clearly, that doesn't seem to be in the cards right now and it's why the Blue Jackets have to put out feelers. They can't risk losing him for nothing.

On the flip side, Panarin has every right to test the open market. He has one year left on his contract that carries a $6 million cap hit. He's due for a hefty raise, will be 27 years old next summer — the prime of his hockey career — and will certainly be looking for a long-term deal after accepting a bridge contract with the Blackhawks.

Speaking of whom, should his former team explore bringing him back to Chicago now that he's on the market?

Every general manager should and will do their due diligence and call for an asking price, Stan Bowman included. Those conversations might start with Alex DeBrincat or Nick Schmaltz, and if that's the case, you say thanks but no thanks and move on. 

The Blackhawks have the Nos. 8 and 27 picks in this year's draft as possible ammunition, but the Blue Jackets are ready to take that next step. They were up 2-0 in their first-round series before losing four straight to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals. It's unlikely they'd be looking to center a potential deal around draft picks. 

The only way you even consider it from the Blackhawks perspective is if Panarin is guaranteed to sign a long-term extension at a price you're comfortable with, but that's one of the main reasons why they traded him in the first place. 

To cap it all off, trading for Panarin wouldn't even address the Blackhawks' biggest need and that's a Top 4 defenseman. Those don't grow on trees. The Blackhawks will have the cap space to sign a player like James van Riemsdyk to patch up their top 6. You can't say the same for the free-agent blue line group.

So while it may certainly be fun for Blackhawks fans to come up with possible trade scenarios to get Panarin back in an Indianhead sweater, it just doesn't make great sense for a variety of reasons.