Blackhawks

NHL 2016-17 Central Division preview: Can Blackhawks roll a four-line rotation?

NHL 2016-17 Central Division preview: Can Blackhawks roll a four-line rotation?

CSN Chicago will unveil a preview each day for every Central Division team leading up to the NHL's season-opener. Next up: Chicago Blackhawks.

If there's any team that needed an extended offseason to rest and recharge, it was the Blackhawks.

After capturing three Stanley Cups and appearing in five Conference Finals since 2010, you could argue the toll of playing deep into June almost every year caught up to them in a first-round exit to the St. Louis Blues last postseason.

But it was also the inability to roll four consistent lines while trying to hide a leaky back end of the defense. The latter shouldn't be an issue this year. In fact, it's become their strength.

The Blackhawks' defensive corps from top to bottom is the deepest it's been in years, anchored by two-time Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Seabrook. The addition of Brian Campbell was arguably the best bargain signing of the offseason, and he immediately slots into a top-four role.

The emergence of Gustav Forsling has given the Blackhawks another weapon on a crowded blue line that is rounded out by Michal Kempny, Trevor van Riemsdyk and Michal Rozsival.

Combine that with Corey Crawford, who was on his way to becoming a Vezina Trophy finalist before a late-season injury deflated his chances, and Scott Darling, the reliable backup who puts a stamp on one of the best goaltending tandems in the league, and it will be difficult for opposing teams to find the back of the net.

[SHOP: Gear up for the 2016-17 season, Blackhawks fans!]

Up front is where the questions will lie all season.

Coach Joel Quenneville will surely be blending his lines even more than he's used to in an effort to find balance.

The line of Artem Anisimov, Patrick Kane and Artemi Panarin was one of the most effective units in the NHL last year, controlling 53.41 percent of the even-strength shot attempts when on the ice together. But they could see more time apart if the Blackhawks have trouble distributing the scoring on the other three lines.

Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa will reunite on the top line, but Hossa is expected to take on more of a checking role on the third line with Marcus Kruger so it's only a matter of time when the juggling begins.

It's a top-heavy forward group to start, but that could change over time as prospects such as Ryan Hartman, Vinnie Hinostroza, Tyler Motte and Nick Schmaltz get acclimated to the NHL and will be relied upon to take on larger roles on the fly.

The rejuvenated Blackhawks will certainly be among the top teams in the Central Division and always pose as a serious threat come playoff time. How far they go will depend on how quickly the young guys can gel and help the Blackhawks be a strong four-line team again.

Other previews: Colorado Avalanche | Dallas Stars | Minnesota Wild | Nashville Predators | St. Louis Blues | Winnipeg Jets

Four takeaways: 'Vintage' Corey Crawford steals two points for Blackhawks

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AP

Four takeaways: 'Vintage' Corey Crawford steals two points for Blackhawks

COLUMBUS — Here are four takeaways from the Blackhawks' 4-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena on Saturday:

1. Corey Crawford steals the show

The Blackhawks had no business winning this game. They were being outshot 28-15 through two periods, committed four penalties and gave up 18 high-danger chances in the game. 

But Crawford bailed out his team like he often has done in the past, and was zoned in from the moment the puck dropped. He finished with 37 saves on 38 shots for a save percentage of .974, picking up his first win since Dec. 17, 2017.

"Yeah, I felt good," Crawford said. "I think everyone was playing hard, rebounds, taking away sticks. That was a great effort by everyone."

"He was standing on his head for us," Patrick Kane said. "As Q would say, that’s a goalie win for us."

Said coach Joel Quenneville: "That was vintage Crow."

2. Tic-tac-toe leads to go-ahead goal

The Blue Jackets were clearly the better team through two periods. The Blackhawks were fortunate to go into second intermission with the game still tied at 1-1.

The next goal was crucial, and they got it thanks to a give-and-go play by Brent Seabrook and Kane, who buried home a wide open net to give the Blackhawks a 2-1 lead with 4:14 left in regulation.

Was Kane expecting Seabrook to pass it back?

"No. Not a chance," Kane said laughing. "That’s his wheelhouse, coming right down there. He scores a lot of goals from that area. Saw it was like a 2-on-2, he was coming late, he jumped in the play on the first goal, did a great job, jumped in the play on that goal. Made a great pass. When I saw it come back, I just tried to stay patient, settle it down and make sure I hit the net, because I knew I had the whole open net."

3. Busy night for PK

The Blackhawks penalty kill was very busy. It was also on it's A-game, partly because their best penalty killer was Crawford.

The Blackhawks spent 6:31 of the first 40 minutes killing penalties, allowing 11 shots total on it. But most importantly, they killed off all four penalties.

"We had some tough clears, but I thought we did some good things," Quenneville said. "We withstood some extended PK zone time there and found a way to keep us in the game. Obviously that next goal was huge and that second period was a big part of them having so much zone time, keeping us in our end. We'll say, hey good job, but Crow was the best penalty killer tonight."

4. Catching up with Kane on Artemi Panarin

Kane and Panarin spent only two seasons together, but they brought Blackhawks fans out of their seats on a nightly basis and it was amazing to watch the instant on-ice chemistry they shared. And most of it was non-verbal, which made it even more impressive. They were always on the same wavelength.

"Sometimes it takes time to build some chemistry but that was one of those things where it was like, I don't want to say instant chemistry, but after one or two preseason games we kind of new that maybe something special was going to happen," Kane told NBC Sports Chicago. "I think he scored in his first game in the NHL, we had a really good game, we had the puck a lot, we sensed that this could be a fun way to play hockey."

Off the ice, Kane said Panarin would use Google translate on his phone to communicate while Kane would try using a Russian accent while saying English words.

The two of them got a chance to hang out for a little bit on Friday and Kane still keeps tabs on his former linemate.

"I always really enjoy watching him," Kane said. "If we have an off night or something, he's a really fun player to watch."

Blackhawks and Blue Jackets both going through own challenges of Artemi Panarin and Brandon Saad trade

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks and Blue Jackets both going through own challenges of Artemi Panarin and Brandon Saad trade

COLUMBUS — The Blackhawks and Blue Jackets blockbuster trade from the 2017 offseason is always a hot topic in Chicago when things aren't going great. It especially is when the two teams square off against each other, like Saturday at Nationwide Arena for the first time this season.

If it wasn't already apparent in Chicago, Artemi Panarin has emerged as a real NHL superstar and is set for a giant payday when he becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2019. He set a Blue Jackets record with 82 points in a single season and has nine points (three goals, six assists) through six games this season.

Brandon Saad, on the other hand, had a challenging first year back with the Blackhawks in 2017-18 after netting only 35 points in 82 games and is off to a slow start this year as well with zero goals and two assists through six games. After a demotion to the fourth line, he was close to being a healthy scratch on Thursday, which only magnifies where things are at as the two get ready to clash.

But Saad was never going to be able to replace Panarin's offensive production. Everybody knows that. Yet, the offensive comparisons will always be there as a barometer and that's something Saad doesn't think about, no matter how much fans talk about it.

"I don't think I do it," he said. "We're different players. He's a great player. Fans are going to do whatever comparisons they want, but at the end of the day you've got to be true to yourself and do what you bring to the table. He's a great player around the league. You can see his highlights and his goals, he's definitely a special player. But at the end of the day I've got confidence in my abilities too. We both bring different attributes, but they're going to make comparisons regardless."

A big reason why the Blackhawks reacquired Saad, other than his ability to play a 200-foot game, is because he carries a $6 million cap hit through 2020-21, which is two years more than Panarin at the same cap hit. (It's also important to note that the Blackhawks hoped they were getting a reliable, young backup goaltender in Anton Forsberg, but the injury to Corey Crawford thrust him into a role he wasn't exactly prepared for.)

It's not all rainbows for Columbus right now regarding where things stand with Panarin, who has made it clear he's not ready to sign a long-term extension. All signs point to the 26-year-old winger hitting the market, putting the Blue Jackets in a tricky situation ahead of the trade deadline. The Blackhawks very well could have found themselves in this position, too, had a deal not been made.

Both sides are dealing with their own challenges of the trade. Saad is still a key piece to the Blackhawks' puzzle and they're hoping to get more out of him, for no other reason than the team's overall success.

"You want to have success regardless of who you're playing for, who you're traded for, things like that," Saad said. "Naturally, just as competitors, you want to bring that excitement and you want to have success with the team and personally."