Training camp for the Chicago Blackhawks begins on Saturday. Here are five pressing questions and issues heading into it:
1. Is Marcus Kruger ready? It’s a simple question with far reaching ramifications. And it’s an even bigger question now that Patrick Sharp will miss the preseason and maybe some of the regular season after undergoing an emergency appendectomy on Monday. Anyone who follows the Hawks knows they are thin up the middle. The organization has high hopes for Kruger, who put on some weight this offseason to weather the rigors of the long NHL season. If he can handle being a top-9 center, the Hawks are in much better shape. He needs to get the puck more and do more with it than he did in his trial by fire at the end of last season. But he showed promise. He’s as smart as they come, and in a best case scenario he eventually moves up to a second-line center role but that’s in the far distance. Without Sharp around early he has every chance to grab the No. 3 center role and run with it entering October. If he has a bad camp, then more than likely Sharp has to fill the center void the moment he returns. An easier start for him would be on the wing so Kruger’s ability to play center, in a quasi-prime role in the NHL, makes him the most important training camp question.
2. Who plays on special teams? Offseason departures have left a void on both the power play and penalty killing units though many of the usual suspects will fill their respective roles on special teams. More than anything, Steve Montador’s presence needs to be felt killing penalties. The Hawks were woeful in that department last season and Keith and Seabrook had a lot to do with that. Montador can take the pressure and minutes off those two as will a re-energized Hjalmarsson. The power play openings created by the loss of Brian Campbell, Troy Brouwer, and even Tomas Kopecky will be something to watch. Will Nick Leddy take Campbell’s role on the second unit? Expect Andrew Brunette to fill the role of Brouwer and Kopecky as a guy who goes to the front of the net. With a healthy Patrick Sharp, the top unit still looks formidable. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Andrew Brunette, Sharp, and either Duncan Keith or Brent Seabrook should get first crack at it before the revamped second unit, led by Marian Hossa, takes over. Dave Bolland will undoubtedly be in the mix with that second group as will either Keith or Seabrook along with Ben Smith and possibly Leddy or Michael Frolik. Camp will sort out that second unit.
3. Can Leddy fill a top 4 defenseman role? This will probably be a more important question heading into the regular season, but it starts with camp. If he takes a step back and is overwhelmed for some reason he might not start the year paired with Niklas Hjalmarsson as a top 4 defenseman, assuming Keith and Seabrook are together as usual. Leddy needs to be aggressive in camp while still showing his patented patience with the puck. His game showed less of that patience as last season wore on, but a fresh start with last year’s experience should do him a world of good. If Hjalmarsson can handle the defense for that pairing while Leddy moves the puck in a Chris Campoli or a poor man’s Campbell style, it could be a very effective pairing. Camp will tell some of the story about Leddy’s improvement.
4. Alexander Salak or Ray Emery?: In some organizations, maybe the fight for the backup goalie isn’t that interesting but when you consider the last two back-up netminders have won a Stanley Cup and taken the Hawks to the playoffs, this battle might have some meaning. No one is suggesting Corey Crawford will take a step back, but strange things happen in an NHL season and an unknown player can all of a sudden make an impact. Emery brings the experience and desire while Salak brings “highly touted prospect” status. Salak has the one-way contract while Emery is on a tryout so Salak seems to be the frontrunner entering camp. However, Emery has a flair and sometimes brilliance to his game as he showed late last year going 7-2 while beating the Hawks 2-1 on March 26 at the United Center. Returning from near devastating hip problems, Emery was a godsend to the Anaheim Ducks when Jonas Hiller went down. But the Hawks raved about Salak when they acquired him from the Florida Panthers last season and many dubbed him the best goaltender in Europe in 2010-2011. While Emery has no contract guarantees like Salak, there is little doubt if he stands out in camp the Hawks will retain him and send Salak to the minors. When the Stanley Cup finals are a team’s goal, a $600,000 one-way contract won’t stand in the way of the better player earning the job. It’s simple. Their time in preseason games will determine the winner with a tie probably going to Salak because of his contract, unless the Hawks simply want to keep them both in which case Salak can easily be stowed in Rockford.
5. Who’s rested?: Possibly the longest summer the Blackhawks will enjoy for the next few years comes to a close Saturday, and if the core group didn’t get their rest, they never will. Four months later, Keith and Co. have to be feeling better, and it should show in camp. Looking back, ironically, Marian Hossa was about the only core member who looked in prime shape last September despite coming off three consecutive finals appearances. It didn’t last long for Hossa, and after a fast start, he got injured and eventually ran out of gas like the rest of the team. Seabrook and Keith are the two players to watch. They should have that jump back in their step which helped earn them Olympic gold medals and a Stanley Cup title two seasons ago. Hossa will also be watched closely as will Hjalmarsson, who simply needs to forget about most of last season. Nothing else matters if the core group isn’t ready for action.