Blackhawks

Line changes: Kane back at right wing

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Line changes: Kane back at right wing

Patrick Kane said earlier this season he felt more comfortable on right wing. On Thursday, he was back there.

Kane was at wing again with Jonathan Toews and Viktor Stalberg as the Chicago Blackhawks prepped for the New York Islanders. It was one of several line changes for the Blackhawks, who also had Marcus Kruger centering the second line with Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa

For Kane, its a change thats not really a change. He feels better there, and it never hurts to reunite with Toews, either.

Weve played together a lot and theres chemistry. Whenever were put together, it raises the excitement, Kane said. Im sure itll take some shifts to get used to it again but Im excited about the opportunity. Whenever you play with Johnny, Sharpie or Hossa, youre going to be excited about it.

Kane proved he could play the center position just fine through the first two months of the season, and his line with Hossa and Daniel Carcillo thrived through October. But as November continued, that lines production quieted. Kane has just three assists over his last six games.

I proved I could play there. But I got on the road and got on a long trip and things didnt click for me, personally, at that position. They thought my game was fine there, I didnt, Kane said. Im excited to be back at the wing, playing the game that I know and developed for a long time. Its not going to come back right away; it may be a couple shifts or periods maybe. But Ill get familiar with it.

Dont be surprised if it doesnt click right away, however. Kane and Toews just have that chemistry together and its likely to come back together again soon. Toews feels it, too.

The good thing about playing with Kaner is sometimes you can just get away from the puck and get away from all the attention on the ice and sneak back door and hide sometimes, Toews said. He can hold onto it, get his head up and back opponents up and buy some time. Its nice to play with a guy like that.

Things were getting stagnant, so coach Joel Quenneville is making changes to try and re-invigorate that offense again. Kane proved he can play center with no problem, and he could go back there again this season. He just does right wing better.

Everybodys had stretches where theyve been at top end of their game and producing at rate theyre accustomed to; theyve all had stretches where it hasnt come. When you move them around a little bit, sometimes it comes out and all of a sudden theyre more confident in scoring area and get back to where we expect them to be, Quenneville said. Both lines should be able to score and produce regularly. We have a lot of options. This is one we havent explored yet. Its one well try.

Briefly

Jonathan Toews was named the NHLs No. 2 star for the month of November. Toews finished November with nine goals and 18 assists. He had a career-high five points in the Blackhawks 6-5 victory over the Anaheim Ducks on Friday.

Defensemen Brent Seabrook and Steve Montador also took maintenance day on Thursday. Theyre both expected to play Friday night. Corey Crawford will start against the Islanders.

2019 NHL Draft Profile: C Dylan Cozens

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NHL

2019 NHL Draft Profile: C Dylan Cozens

From June 10-20, Charlie Roumeliotis will profile one top prospect per day — 11 total — leading up to the 2019 NHL Draft as the Blackhawks prepare to pick third overall.

Dylan Cozens

Position: Center
Height: 6-foot-3
Weight: 180 pounds
Shoots: Right

Scouting report from Blackhawks vice president of amateur scouting Mark Kelley:

"Dylan Cozens is a two-way centerman who plays fast and he plays inside."

Scouting report from NHL draft expert Adam Kimelman:

"Guys who can move the way he moves at that size are rare. And when you add in talent, the work ethic, the skill, the hands in tight, the shot, he's the complete package. ... To me, he is the second-best center in this draft after Jack Hughes."

Cozens describes his own game:

Strengths: "I’d say my strength is just my skating. That’s the biggest thing: being able to use my speed to create separation between other players and allowing time and space for myself and my teammates. I’d also say my shot. I’m more of a shoot-first guy but I can still make a play. I’d think those are the two biggest things: my speed and my shot.

Improvements: "I just want to be strong on my stick in going into battles and when I’m on the puck. I think that’s the biggest thing. That will come with strength when I get to the next level and as I get older. That’s the biggest thing: just having the mentality going into every battle that you’re going to win it and being as strong on your stick as you can be."

NHL player comparable: Jeff Carter

Fit for Blackhawks:

The Blackhawks will have a pool of centers to choose from. Cozens has been one of the five candidates discussed as an option, and for good reason. He has all the tools to become an elite player in the NHL, which includes size, speed and skill. And perhaps a little bonus: He was very confident at the scouting combine that he could make the jump to the big leagues as soon as next season.

Cozens has often been compared to Carter, who has also played both center and wing in his career. The Blackhawks like when their forwards have some versatility and Cozens offers that. There aren't many flaws in Cozens' game, and his two-way prowess could make the Blackhawks' decision a difficult one.

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Six thoughts on Blackhawks-Penguins trade involving Olli Maatta and what's next

Six thoughts on Blackhawks-Penguins trade involving Olli Maatta and what's next

Here are six thoughts on Saturday's trade that centered around the Blackhawks acquiring defenseman Olli Maatta from the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for forward Dominik Kahun and a 2019 fifth-round pick:

1. What Maatta brings to the table

It's no secret that the Blackhawks' biggest weakness in 2018-19 was the defensive inefficiencies. They allowed the second-most goals per game (3.55) and and most high-danger chances per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 (13.7), and the blue line group was a big reason for that.

So Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman tried getting out in front of the trade market by acquiring Maatta, who's a defensive-minded defenseman and logged more than 120 minutes on the penalty kill last season, which would've ranked third among Blackhawks defensemen. And he played in only 60 games. Expect Maatta to play a large role in that department for the Blackhawks, who finished tied for the worst penalty kill percentage in 30 years.

Maatta doesn't provide much on offense and skating is considered to be a real concern, but his defensive metrics are strong. According to The Point, Maatta ranked ninth among NHL defensemen in blocked shots per game (2.05), 26th in defensive zone puck battles won (2.45), 40th in blocked defense zone passes (3.77) and 47th in outlet passes (8.95). 

"There's a lot of things to like about Olli Maatta," Bowman said on a Sunday morning conference call. "Certainly his strength in the last few seasons has been his ability to be a good, reliable defender. He's got good size, he's not necessarily a bruising defenseman, but I like the fact he's got an active stick. He's good at using his body to shield the front of the net. And I think he's shown the ability to be used in several different situations over the past few years for Pittsburgh. They have some high-end offensive players there, so he didn't really get the power-play minutes. He was probably more used as a penalty killer and that's something that we certainly want to improve next year.

"There's a variety of ways to go about that, and certainly bringing in some players that have shown the ability to do that is one way to accomplish our goal. I just like his all-round game. Good instincts with the puck. He finds the open man. Can move it quick, move it up to the forwards. The biggest thing is just his ability to play a sound, defensive game and I think that's important. That's one aspect that we weren't strong in last year and I think he's going to give us that ability to match up against players. With his pedigree — he's a young guy, but to have already played over 300 games and almost 70 playoff games and a couple Stanley Cups — there's an experience level that he has at a young age and I think he's going to fit in real nicely with our group."

2. Injury history

The one other area of concern on Maatta is his inability to stay healthy. He just finished his sixth season in the NHL, but he's played a full 82 games in only one of them. His injury history includes concussion, hand, hip and most recently shoulder. He also had a health scare in 2014 when he underwent surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his thyroid.

Whether or not the accumulation of those injuries has played a role in his overall progression is unclear, but the Blackhawks aren't worried about it. 

"I would say that’s part of being a hockey player, is it’s not that uncommon for guys to get hurt," Bowman said. "It’s a contact sport. And he’s missed some time, but I don’t think he’s had an unusual number of injuries. Pittsburgh was very forthright in everything, we certainly were able to check out all those things. There’s no long-term implications of the injuries. They healed up, he’s fine. From that perspective, it wasn’t a big issue. If it was the same injury year after year, I guess you might have a concern. But it wasn’t necessarily the case. As a result, that wasn’t a big stumbling block in the trade."

3. What went wrong last season?

One year after tying a career-high with 29 points (seven goals, 22 assists) in 82 games, Maatta had a difficult time matching that production this past season. He scored only one goal and had 13 assists in 60 games. Obviously, a shoulder injury sidelined him for six weeks in February and March, but he struggled to find his groove upon returning.

Maatta played in Game 1 of the first round against the New York Islanders, but admitted he "had a bad Game 1" after having a minus-2 rating and found himself watching from the press box in the final three games as the Penguins were swept. Maatta took ownership of his play and hopes a fresh start in Chicago will benefit him.

"Obviously I wasn't happy," Maatta said. "I'm not going to say it was a terrible season, but I knew I can be way better than I played last season. I don't think I was able to do defensively as much as I wanted this year. I don't think it was a terrible season defensively or anything like that, but I expect way more from myself offensively than I had last season.

"I think [Chicago is] a new opportunity, that's how you have to look at it, and I'm just trying to better myself through that way."

4. Trading from a position of strength

Every team looking for a top-four defenseman has to explore the trade market to acquire one because there just aren't many available via free agency. And the ones that are unrestricted on July 1 will cost a lot, both in term and dollar value, which is fine, but there's no guarantee because bidding wars ensue on the open market and it's all about the players' preference.

With Dominik Kubalik and Swedish forward Anton Wedin signing entry-level contracts and expected to battle for an Opening Day roster spot, the Blackhawks knew they had a surplus of secondary forwards and used Dominik Kahun to fill a need elsewhere. And it was important for the Blackhawks not to subtract too much from the current roster or pipeline to do it.

"The strength of our team now is we got a lot of depth on the wing," Bowman said. "Looking at some of our young players that are getting ready to take on a bigger role, you can look at guys like Dylan Sikura. He didn't have the offensive success at the NHL level but I liked the way he played when he was with us last year in Chicago. It felt like his game was real effective other than the production part. Then when he was in Rockford I really liked the way he was able to score down there. So I think he's not far from being a guy and he's got sort of a similar skill set that Dominik (Kahun) has.

"We have a couple new players coming in from Europe in Anton Wedin and Dominik Kubalik. There's three young players that didn't play on our team last year very much and I think they're all ready to take a spot. So I feel like we had the ability to make a move there without damaging our team. ... We were sort of dealing from a position of strength which made it a very comfortable deal from our perspective. It's hard to acquire young defensemen. You look around the league and there's not a lot of them available and then when they are you usually got to pay a premium for somebody who's under contract or there's a manageable number. We like the way this played out for us."

5. Contract situation

Maatta agreed to a six-year, $24.5 million extension with the Penguins in 2016. He has three years left on that contract, which carries a $4.083 million cap hit. He's now the third-highest paid defenseman on the Blackhawks, surpassing Connor Murphy ($3.85 million cap hit) but staying under Duncan Keith ($5.538 million) and Brent Seabrook ($6.875 million).

When Maatta signed his contract, it included a modified no-trade clause in the final two years, according to Cap Friendly. Because he was traded prior to the NTC taking effect, the Blackhawks will have the option to either honor that clause or nullify it.

We saw a similiar situation play out when P.K. Subban was traded from Montreal to Nashville in 2016. Subban's eight-year deal with the Canadiens began during the 2014-15 season. He had a no-movement clause that was supposed to kick in on July 1 ahead of the 2016-17 season, but the Canadiens traded Subban on June 29 — two days before the start of the new calendar year. The Predators did not honor his NMC, respectfully.

6. What's next?

Before making the trade on Saturday, it was reported that the Blackhawks were interested in landing a top-four defenseman. Maatta has played top-four minutes in the past and did so, most notably, during the Penguins' back-to-back Stanley Cup runs in 2016 and 2017, but he's probably better suited as the No. 4 or in a third-pairing role.

The question for the Blackhawks now is whether the Maatta acquisition is just the beginning of more moves to come or whether they're satisified that they've filled their big need on the back end. Bowman has been widely known to be a GM that constantly works the phones, so he certainly isn't done looking.

"We're going to keep looking for ways to improve our team, not just the defense but I'm not setting that aside either," Bowman said. "Right now we're focused more on the trade market just because the free-agent market doesn't open up for another week until you can start talking to agents. But I think we want to find some new players for our team — whether that's through trades or free agency, it doesn't matter too much. It's really important to look at both. But right now the trade chatter has been pretty active throughout the league.

"I've had a number of conversations and I expect that to continue over the next week. This is the time of year where there's a lot of player movement with the draft and July 1st on the horizon. We're going to continue to look into other ways to improve our team through trades, and if none of that comes to be, then we'll look at the free-agent market. We expect to be active. That's our job. My job is to make a lot of calls and find out what options we have to bring in some new players. So this is a great start. We're a week out from the draft here and we've already improved our defense in a big way. We're going to keep looking at other ways to improve our defense and the rest of our team. So from that perspective, I expect it to be active over the next couple weeks."

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