Here are five storylines to follow at Blackhawks training camp, which begins Friday at Fifth Third Arena:
1. Is Kirby Dach NHL ready?
Hours after the Blackhawks drafted Dach with the No. 3 overall pick in June, both the team and player acknowledged that making the team out of training camp as soon as the 2019-20 season wasn't out of the realm of possibility. GM Stan Bowman said they're going to give him every chance to prove he belongs and Dach said he wants to make the decision as difficult as possible on management to keep him off the 23-man roster.
The journey begins on Friday and it's not out of the question to think Dach can make the roster. The first four overall picks in 2018 (Rasmus Dahlin, Andrei Svechnikov, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Brady Tkachuk) all broke into the NHL last season and stayed there for the whole year. On the flip side, Miro Heiskanen and Elias Pettersson, both of whom were taken in the Top 5 of the 2017 NHL Draft, benefited from another year of development overseas before cracking the NHL on a full-time basis and were two of the top rookies last season, with Pettersson taking home the Calder Trophy.
The question will really come down to what role Dach would play over the course of an 82-game season. There's a clear opening at third-line center that he could slide in to, but sheltering him there may not be the best idea because he's someone who's used to playing top minutes and in all situations. The Blackhawks want him to flourish as an NHL player, not just survive.
The Blackhawks could also go the route of letting Dach play in the first nine games of the regular season before deciding what to do with him. If he plays in fewer than 10 games, his entry-level contract will slide and kick in during the 2020-21 season. But that's a bridge that could be crossed later on in training camp.
2. How will Corey Crawford and Robin Lehner dynamic work?
It's been more than two months since the Blackhawks signed Vezina Trophy finalist Lehner to a one-year deal to form what could be the most formidable 1-2 punch in the NHL if both goalies can stay healthy. Lehner has already voiced his excitement level for working with Crawford and said he didn't come to Chicago to take anyone's job. We'll here from Crawford for the first time on Friday and how he expects the dynamic to work.
But there's an interesting wrinkle in this situation: Crawford and Lehner are both playing for new contracts next season and they could be competing for the same spot. Crawford has two Stanley Cups on his resume, but he will be 35 next summer and his concussion issues have been well documented. Lehner was a Vezina Trophy finalist last season and is looking to turn in another strong season in hopes of securing a long-term deal.
As we go into training camp, it feels like this will be close to a 50/50 split or somewhere around that. But injuries happen and if one goalie is playing better than the other, Jeremy Colliton won't be hesitant to play the hot hand.
3. What could the lines look like?
Training camp is going to be fascinating because not only are there positions battles to follow, there are also roles, too.
If Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews start on the first line together, who is going to be their left winger? And if Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome make up two-thirds of the second line, who could be their right winger?
Other questions: What will the third line look like? And who will center it? Is Brandon Saad better suited on the third line or in a top-six role? Where will Andrew Shaw be slotted to start the season?
Colliton has a bunch of new toys up front, which include Ryan Carpenter, Dominik Kubalik, Alex Nylander, Shaw and Zack Smith to name a few. He’s certainly going to have options all season long and he likes it that way.
4. Have the Blackhawks done enough to address defensive issues?
The Blackhawks’ glaring weak spot in 2018-19 was their defense, hands down. They allowed the second-most goals, second-most scoring chances, most high-danger chances and had the worst penalty kill unit in the league. Addressing those issues was priority No. 1 this summer.
But did they do enough?
The Blackhawks acquired defensive-minded defensemen Calvin de Haan and Olli Maatta to help shore up that area, added Carpenter and Smith to do the same up front and hired assistant coaches Marc Crawford and Tomas Mitell to oversee things. The roster surely looks different from last season, but is it better defensively?
5. Which darkhorse candidate could emerge from camp?
Usually there are one or two players who stand out in camp and emerge as candidates to crack the Opening Day lineup when they perhaps had an outside chance to start. We’re not sure whether he qualifies as a darkhorse, but Dominik Kubalik is someone who could surprise some people this season and get a big role early on.
Bowman said during exit interviews that they expect Kubalik to be on the roster this coming season and it’s really a matter of what role he’ll play. Obviously a lot has changed since then, but the organization has high hopes for him and believes he could be a sneaky good offensive player. Keep an eye on him.
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