By Jay Zawaski–
(CBS) Preseason hockey is one of the most easily dismissed parts on the sports calendar. A decade ago, the Blackhawks’ regular season didn’t even matter. Then when the team started building stacked rosters and compiling Stanley Cup banners, the lineup was set before the season even began.
These days, after salary cap dumps, expansion draft losses and the natural aging process, the Blackhawks find themselves with a lot of questions heading the preseason opener against the Blue Jackets on Tuesday.
Up front, the Blackhawks’ top nine is pretty set. On the first line, you can expect Jonathan Toews to center Brandon Saad and Richard Panik. On the second line, Joel Quenneville and the coaching staff have been experimenting with an “All American” trio of Nick Schmaltz centering Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat. In early season practices, the third line has featured long time second-line center Artem Anisimov centering Patrick Sharp and Ryan Hartman. That leaves about 11 players competing to fill three spots on the fourth line, plus a reserve forward spot.
Tanner Kero seems to be a virtual lock at the fourth-line center spot. The Blackhawks feel he’s ready to take on the Marcus Kruger role, and he’s assuredly the favorite in that battle.
That leaves Tomas Jurco, Jordin Tootoo, Vinnie Hinostroza, John Hayden, Alex Fortin, Kyle Baun, the newly acquired Lance Bouma and Tommy Wingels and camp invites John Mitchell and Drew Miller as the other candidates.
While the fourth-line competition doesn’t interest most, there could be a lot to read between the lines when the final roster is announced. General manager Stan Bowman made a statement in firing assistant coach Mike Kitchen, Quenneville’s right-hand man, this summer. If players like Jurco or Fortin make the roster over veterans like Tootoo, Bouma, Mitchell or Miller, it could show that Quenneville has lost some authority regarding the roster.
Last season, Quenneville showed an uncharacteristic willingness to play — and stick with — young players, though he didn’t really have many other options. Bowman has added some of those options this offseason.
As for the top nine, DeBrincat’s camp will be the top story of the preseason. He lit the Ontario Hockey League on fire over the last three seasons, tallying 332 points in 191 games with the Erie Otters. The offense is there. It’s his two-way play that will decide his ultimate fate on the roster. To his credit, DeBrincat is aware of this and has focused much of his offseason on improving his two-way game. Has he come far enough to please Quenneville? We’ll find out in short order.
Schmaltz’s ability to play center looms large for the Hawks as well. If he can find success up the middle, it makes life a lot easier for the Blackhawks. Like DeBrincat, Schmaltz will have to show the ability to play at both ends of the rink and show he can win face-offs semi-consistently. Last year, he only won 30.9 percent of his draws. That’s not good enough. To be considered average, a player should be close to 50 percent.
On the blue line, the top four is pretty set. Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Connor Murphy are certainties. Veteran defenseman Cody Franson was brought in for a pro tryout, but it’s expected he will sign as soon as Marian Hossa is officially moved to injured reserve once the season begins.
Look for Michal Kempny and Gustav Forsling get the first cracks are the bottom two spots. Kempny showed glimpses of excellence last year but also had some horrific moments. With a full NHL season under his belt and a year in the states, he should be more comfortable on and off the ice.
Forsling, who turned 21 in June, struggled a bit in his 38 games as a rookie. The Blackhawks aren’t fazed by his performance, though. They see Forsling developing into a legitimate top-three defenseman, and he should be a fixture on the Hawks’ blue line for years to come.
The Hawks will typically carry eight defensemen during the season, which means two more players will by vying for a spot. Is this the year Ville Pokka finally makes the jump? It’s hard to say, but he will be given every opportunity to take the job. Swedes Erik Gustafsson and Viktor Svedberg are still in the mix but will probably start at AHL Rockford. Veteran Mark Stuart is in camp on a pro tryout, but it’s hard to imagine him earning a spot over any of these younger-but-equally effective kids.
Is all that not enough to get you interested in the preseason? It’s not?
OK. How about the backup goalie situation? Scott Darling is now in Carolina, so look for Anton Forsberg or J.F. Berube to take his place behind Corey Crawford. Forsberg has a 4.02 goals against average and a .879 save percentage in 10 NHL games, while Berube carries a 3.11 goals against average and a .900 save percentage in 21 NHL games.
Forsberg, 24, is younger and will probably have to lose the job to Berube in camp. At the start of the Blackhawks’ fan convention said, Bowman said Forsberg’s “time is now.” Bowman has shown a knack for finding goalies and as of today, Forsberg appears to be his guy.
That’s just one of many preseason storylines to follow as the Blackhawks look to return to championship form with an array of new faces on the roster.
Jay Zawaski is the executive producer of the Spiegel and Parkins 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.