By Jay Zawaski–
(CBS) In their strong 2-0 start, the Blackhawks have outscored their opponents 15-2. They started their season well off the Chicago sports radar, behind the championship-contending Cubs, a Bears team with a quarterback controversy and even the dysfunctional Bulls, but suddenly after two convincing wins over quality foes, the Blackhawks are starting to catch the eye of sports fans who may have lost a big of interest after two consecutive first-round exits.
Any time a team begins a season well, it’s noteworthy, but it’s not just how the Hawks are winning but who’s helping them win that way.
Of course, the usual suspects of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and newly re-acquired Brandon Saad (who I predict will score 35-plus goals this year) are performing well, but it’s some of the team’s bigger question marks entering the season who have really turned some heads.
One of those is Richard Panik.
As broadcaster Pat Foley noted in the Blackhawks’ opening game against the Penguins, Panik finished at the top of the team in their preseason strength tests. Those results have shown on the ice. Panik has looked like a true power forward, plowing through defensemen, winning forecheck battles and tossing defenders aside all while adding two goals and an assist in the first two games. Despite Panik coming off a 22-goal season, there were doubts if he was for real, but he’s looked right at home alongside Toews and Saad and is in good shape to shatter that 22-goal mark this season.
Another Hawks forward turning heads is Nick Schmaltz. Despite leaving both games with injury, Schmaltz has made his time on the ice count. He has two goals and an assist of his own centering Kane and Ryan Hartman. Schmaltz has been effective at both ends of the ice and is looking comfortable playing center, which to me was one of the main questions heading in to this season.
He must work to improve his abysmal face-off numbers (33 percent this year, 31 percent in his career), but that can often be the last trait to come for a player adjusting to center in the NHL. If Schmaltz can get that percentage to 47 to 50 percent, then he’ll be close to a complete package. He’ll never be Anze Kopitar or Marian Hossa defensively, but his two-way play is already good enough to stick in a top-six role.
Rookie winger Alex DeBrincat has yet to register his first NHL goal, but he’s been close several times, including a late shot off the post against the Blue Jackets on Saturday. Skill and scoring have never been in question for Debrincat. The goals and points will come.
The concern is his small, 5-foot-7 frame and how it will hold up against the world’s best, biggest and most-skilled players. Though it’s only been two games, we’ve seen DeBrincat win corner battles, muscle through defenders and use his leverage to get close to the net. He even knocked 6-foot-1 Penguins defenseman Ian Cole to the ice with a big hit in the season opener.
Defensively, I’ve been pleased with what I’ve seen from Connor Murphy. On a Blackhawks team with a thin defense, the 24-year-old Murphy’s success is essential to the team’s success. He’s shown strong defensive instincts, shot-blocking ability and a willingness to engage in front of his own net. Time will tell if his offensive game catches up, but the Blackhawks must be pleased with what they’ve seen.
Perhaps the biggest surprise early on been Murphy’s defensive colleague Jan Rutta, who made the jump from the Czech league to the NHL this year and hasn’t shown any difficulty in adapting to the smaller North American ice surface. Other European defensemen who have made the jump, like Michal Kempny, have struggled with the change. Rutta has shown a poise and confidence that one wouldn’t expect to see this early into a player’s NHL career. He’s 27 and more experienced than the typical NHL rookie, and he’s been impressive, looking like a lock to become a staple on the Blackhawks’ blue line.
Of course, with 10-1 and 5-1 wins, Murphy and Rutta have yet to be tested in a tight game. Come Monday, a showdown with the Toronto Maple Leafs, who look like an early Stanley Cup contender, should show just how far all of these young Hawks have come so far.
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.