By Jay Zawaski–
(CBS) Believe it or not, the NHL preseason is upon us, as the Blackhawks will take on the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday evening at the United Center.
Everywhere I went this summer, I was asked, “How are the Hawks going to do this year?”
That’s really a great question.
With a first-round exit and less-than-impressive regular season of 2015-’16 fresh in mind, it’s hard to predict how the Blackhawks will play this year. The optimist would tell you that a team with star talent like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Niklas Hjalmarsson is as prepared as any to compete for the Stanley Cup. The pessimist (aka Twitter) would tell you that the bottom-six is trash, the defense is a huge question mark and key players like Keith and Marian Hossa are already a little banged up.
However you look at it, the Blackhawks will need to get legitimate contributions from some new faces. The Hawks have several roster positions to solidify and many candidates to fill those slots.
Let’s break it down, starting up front with the forwards
Line 1: ???-Toews-Hossa
Line 2: Panarin-Anisimov-Kane
Line 3: Panik-Kruger-???
Line 4: Desjardins-???-Tootoo
Those nine forwards should have a leg up and a guaranteed roster spot come opening day. That leaves three spots to fill, plus one or two who would be healthy scratches.
The Blackhawks’ first-round pick (20th overall) in 2014, Schmaltz signed his first pro contract this summer. For a while, it felt like that deal wouldn’t get done. Schmaltz was willing to rejoin his North Dakota teammates for his senior season unless he felt he had a real chance to make the NHL roster this season. He does.
Schmaltz played center at North Dakota and has been playing center with the Blackhawks at camp so far. The Hawks may prefer he begin his career at wing, like Teuvo Teravainen did early in his tenure, but it appears as if he’ll get a shot to earn the third-line center spot. Schmaltz is a playmaker first and also has the ability to score. He likes to carry the puck and drive possession and can make plays at full speed. He has top-end offensive talent and should be a consistent scorer at the NHL level.
However, Schmaltz is undersized 6-foot, 172 pounds and may need to fill out his frame before he can begin piling up points. It would be unfair and unrealistic to expect Schmaltz to be a consistent scorer in his rookie season.
Hinostroza played in seven games with the Blackhawks last season and failed to record a point. In 66 games in Rockford however, he led the team with 18 goals and 51 points. If Hinostroza makes the team, it will likely have to be in a top-six role, which limits his chances. There’s only one spot open on the top six. Hinostroza might win that job, but it’s going to take a strong showing. He did turn heads at the prospect camp this summer and was one of the players routinely highlighted by the coaching staff as one who stood out. It’s going to be an uphill battle, but Hinostroza certainly has a shot to win the job.
Tthe Blackhawks’ first-round pick (30th overall) in 2013, Hartman is running out of chances to make and impact in the NHL. Yes, he’s been held back by the organization’s strong forward depth, but he hasn’t shown much in his brief NHL opportunities. The Blackhawks are looking for Hartman to be the poor man’s Andrew Shaw — hit, agitate, forecheck and add the occasional goal. Hartman should be able to deliver in that role. The spotlight is off, and the pressure to score has been taken away. Perhaps Hartman can thrive under lowered expectations.
The Blackhawks first-round pick (18th overall) in 2011, McNeill is also probably looking at his last chance to make an impression at the NHL level. I was actually surprised to see the Blackhawks bring him back this season. They’re giving him one more chance. Like Hartman, McNeill will be competing for a bottom-six role. They’ll be looking for the same Andrew Shaw-type play from McNeill. He’ll be competing for a spot with Hartman. If I had to handicap it, I’d say Hartman has the edge.
A 2013 draft pick out of the University of Michigan, Motte is high on a lot of people’s radars. He’s a natural left winger, which is an advantage for him in the never-ending search for a first-line left wing. He put up huge numbers at Michigan last season (56 points in 38 games), but who knows how that will transfer to the NHL. Motte is one of the Blackhawks whom I’m most interested in watching this preseason. If he can show he can score, he could be a long-shot candidate to make the team.
The Hawks have an abundance of third- and fourth-line scrap material. I know that sounds cruel, but players like Brandon Mashinter, Tanner Kero and Dennis Rasmussen will get time in the NHL at some point. We saw what they can bring last season, and I’m not sure I’d expect much of a jump from any of these three. Rasmussen is the best of those three and is best candidate to take another step forward. You could see him get some time as the fourth-line center, freeing Marcus Kruger to be elevated to the third line, centering a line with Hossa on his right wing, but I think that’s down the road a bit.
The Blackhawks did a solid job at strengthening their biggest weakness. The additions of Brian Campbell and KHL free agent Michal Kempny should make for a consistent 1-6 on defense.
In Campbell, the Hawks bring back an absolute bargain defenseman who’s coming off one of his best all-around seasons. Since he left Chicago after the 2010 season, Campbell has improved his defensive game while maintaining the ability to move the puck and skate with speed. Campbell’s offensive skill set is something the Hawks lacked last season. Their offense runs and thrives through the defense moving the puck with stretch passes and possession. That’s Campbell’s bread and butter.
Kempny still remains a bit of a mystery. He was signed as an international free agent this summer after a terrific year in the KHL with Omsk Avangard, where he registered 21 points in 59 games. The Hawks aren’t looking for offense from Kempny, though. He will contribute to the power play, but they look at him primarily as a defender. Adjusting to the NHL ice surface will be Kempny’s biggest challenge, as it is with most European players making the transition. However, Kempny played in the ongoing World Cup of Hockey with the Czech Republic team and never looked out of place. Yes, his minus-4 rating looks bad, but keep in mind that the Czech team was among the weakest in the tournament, he was competing against All-Star players and was paired with Roman Polak. That’s never good.
In my mind, Kempny is the key to the Blackhawks’ season. If he can provide what they expect him to provide, the Hawks defense is in good shape.
The Blackhawks acquired Forsling when they shipped defenseman Adam Clendening to the Vancouver Canucks in January 2015. Forsling has wowed virtually every scout and coach who has seen him play, and the rave reviews keep coming. He’s only 20 years old, so the Blackhawks will likely want to give him another year to develop his game. If he blows people’s socks off in the preseason though, he just might stick around.
Everything I just said about Forsling? Say the same about Fortin. The only difference is that he’s a forward. The 19-year-old Fortin has been turning heads at camp, so much so that the Blackhawks signed him to a three-year deal earlier this week.
As I broke down earlier in this piece, there are a lot of players competing for a limited number of forward spots. I think it’s a long shot that Fortin makes the team this season, but he can certainly make the decision tougher on the Blackhawks as their Oct. 12 season opener approaches.
Jay Zawaski is the executive producer of the Spiegel and Goff Show on 670 The Score and the Blackhawks columnist for CBSChicago.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast with James Neveau of NBCChicago.com that you can listen and subscribe to here. Follow him on Twitter @JayZawaski670.