Chicago Blackhawks ready to spread their wings for new season
The lineup presented in Saturday night's matchup between Chicago and Detroit is probably not terribly far off from what we should expect to see when the Blackhawks play their season opener on October 7th. With the exception of a few veterans who had played Friday night's game at Detroit, the majority of Chicago's Cup-hoisting returning players were on the ice, supplemented by a combination of players who'll either make the final cut or be the top line at Rockford (Chicago's AHL affiliate).
Coach Quenneville has been - not surprisingly - playing with his lines throughout camp. Last season's linemates, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, were split up, and generally played in a mix of combinations. If the 2009-10 season taught fans anything, it's that Quenneville is a line master, constantly reworking them and tweaking them as necessary. If a line became unproductive or simply stuck, he didn't hesitate to move players around, evidenced in the Final Round when he split up Toews and Kane.
The combination of lines has also been to see what levels the new arrivals and rookies are playing at. Nick Leddy and Shawn Lalonde, who turned heads together in prospect camp this summer, were paired early in training camp with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, respectively, on opposing squads. Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp paired up with ex-Leaf Viktor Stalberg. Marian Hossa and Tomas Kopecky flanked Jonathan Toews. Ex-Oilers Ryan Potulny and Fernando Pisani rode shotgun to Dave Bolland. Those were just a few of the lines, but hardly the only ones.
Cuts have whittled the roster down to 34. Of those, 4 are goalies, but Marty Turco is the clear #1, with Corey Crawford being his expected primary backup. Expect to see Alec Richards and Hannu Toivonen guarding the pipes in Rockford.
Turco has been an interesting addition to the Blackhawks. He's known for his puck handling, which is expected to add an extra dimension to the Hawk's two-way defensive skills.
Need an example? Then look no further than Saturday night's game against Detroit. The Hawks were on a power play when Detroit cleared the puck to the Hawks' end of the ice. Turco confidently strode out to the puck and fired it up the ice to the waiting Patrick Kane. From Kane, it went to Fernando Pisani, and Duncan Keith completed the play, making it a 2-0 Blackhawks lead. It happened so quickly that most fans had barely finished gasping from Turco's pass when Keith had drilled it home.
The top two D-lines are clear; Keith/Seabrook, and Brian Campbell/Niklas Hjalmarsson. That leaves Brian Connelly, Jassen Cullimore, Jordan Hendry, Nick Leddy and John Scott to battle it out for the last blueline spots.
Nick Leddy has turned heads in camp, there's no doubt about it. It was surprising to see him leave Minnesota in pursuit of the NHL; but the talent is there. But is he really ready for the NHL? Chances are more likely to end up in the AHL for seasoning - he's apparenly eligible, despite being 19 - and due to his entry-level contract making him a tight fit under Chicago's salary cap.
Connelly has also been noticeable in training camp, so he has a shot as well. But the most likely 3rd line defense pairing will be Hendry and Scott, combining for $1.112M in salary. They're both experienced, and Scott is a two-way player, able to play forward when needed. Scott is also surprisingly agile for a player of his size.
For the front lines, there's several certain players: Toews, Kane, Hossa, Kopecky, Sharp, Bolland, Brouwer. Beyond that, there's a larger number of players competing for the remaining five slots: Kyle Beach, Bryan Bickell, Jake Dowell, Igor Makarov, Jeremy Morin, Fernando Pisani, Ryan Potulny, Jack Skille, Ben Smith and Viktor Stalberg.
Bryan Bickell was generally on the 4th line last season, but his standout play during training camp shows that he's ready to step up his play and have a bigger role within the team.
Fernando Pisani has been racking up the points in camp as well, and is showing the form that made him an asset to the Oilers. He seems re-energized by his move to Chicago, and has an excellent chance of making the club. Ryan Potulny, also coming from the Oilers, has been on the same line with him frequently, with Jack Skille completing the line - and they've been a very productive line in pre-season games. It's not a stretch to think that all three will make the final cut.
Viktor Stalberg was brought to Chicago in the deal that sent Kris Versteeg to Toronto. Stalberg has been touted for his speed and puck play, but so far, we've mostly seen his speed in camp, and not so much the puck prowess.
Igor Makarov and Jeremy Morin, both wingers, have also turned heads in camp. Makarov has spent the past couple of years in the KHL; Morin is the 19-yr old prospect who came from Atlanta as part of the Byfuglien/Eager/Sopel trade.
Jake Dowell, a call-up from the IceHogs, has been providing grit and determination on the front lines. Kyle Beach - well-documented for his muscular presence during prospect camp - has also been working to secure a spot, but his salary hit might see him in Rockford to start the year.
So although the Blackhawks have whittled their prospects down considerably, those players have about 10 more days and four more pre-season games to show that they are the ones who should make the final cut for the Opening Night roster.
Blackhawks fans should have faith, however. The team skating on the ice on Saturday night looked like the champions they are. While some of the faces may have changed, the magic is still there. It will be another exciting season in Blackhawks history.
Oh, and place your bets for the William M. Jennings Trophy now. Odds should be heavily in Turco's favor.