Q: With the new and "tougher" Blackhawks, do you think it's going to be a slow start like last season considering the players and coaches have to get to know each other all over again? -- Gil (Chicago)
A: No, I don’t. I think the roster turnover last year was secondary to the Cup hangover. The combination of the two did the Hawks in, there is no doubt about that, but I think a rejuvenated core and a better schedule will help the Hawks. The biggest issue, chemistry-wise, will be with the new defensemen gelling with the forwards. But the top four D-men are returning so it’s really only the fourth line and the back end of the blue line that needs to fit in. That’s a little different than last year.
Q: Do you think the Hawks can finish in the top 3 in the Western Conference? And which do you think will rank higher, the Hawks' penalty kill or their power play? -- Pete (Europe)
A: Of course they can finish in the top 3, but I’d probably say that every year this core is together. They need some help from their role players, but when you consider they went 44-29 in an off year, there is always a chance for them to have that monster regular season, especially after a long summer. I think the power play will rank higher. That first unit they had last year carried them, and I don’t see why it won’t again. The jury is still out on the penalty kill. As I’ve mentioned at other times, the most perplexing thing was how the stars on that team struggled when down a man. Let’s see how they respond this season.
Q: The Hawks have faced a lot of criticism this offseason for not getting any skill players. Every pick-up has been a physical presence but none seem to be good with their hands. Should we be concerned with scoring this season or do you think our top 6 will have enough in them to still be a top-5 scoring team? -- Mike (Chicago)
A: I’m not sure what category you would put Andrew Brunette in but a decade-long 20-goal scorer who doesn’t skate well probably has good hands, especially when you consider his work in front of the net. Without him I might agree with you and with him I wonder if the Hawks have slowed down too much. However, they seem to have enough skill, and if Ben Smith and/or Marcus Kruger continue on a positive trajectory then there are two more guys that can do something with the puck. I think the combination is right. My only question is did they get the right gritty guys? We’ll find out soon.
Q: Great job on the coverage, Jesse! Growing up a Hawks fan and having to move out east, I appreciate the time and effort you put into your work. Thank you. Which new player on the roster will have the biggest impact on the season and why? -- Meredith (Ithaca, N.Y.)
A: I’m obviously getting this question a lot at this time of year, and it really is a tough one. I can’t even remember how I’ve answered it in the recent past because I’m sure my mind has changed a few times but of all the newcomers/prospect types I’d say Brunette. Simply because he’s done it on mediocre teams in the past and now he’s playing on a highly skilled one. I mean if he’s 20 goals, for sure, with the possibility for 30, then I would have to go with him.
Q: Based on the offseason moves for the key teams in the Western Conference, which teams do you see as having gotten better and which teams might have taken a step back? -- Skip (Aurora, Ill.)
A: An obvious answer -- although they haven’t been a key team in the past -- is Columbus. Considering they are in the Hawks' division, if they jell, they could throw a monkey wrench into the whole thing. I’m not sure if people realize how productive James Wisniewski can be. He had 51 points last season. The reigning Norris Trophy winner at the time had 45. I’m not saying I would take Wisniewski over Duncan Keith but he can play. So can Jeff Carter. The question for them is in net but it’s now or never for the Jackets with Rick Nash in his prime. Though Phoenix under Dave Tippett has been amazing the last two years, I’d say they took the biggest step back by losing Ilya Bryzgalov and replacing him with little. That team, more than any in the conference, relied on goaltending, especially under Tippett’s conservative style. They may take a step back.
Q: What are the Blackhawks' plans for Ben Smith? -- Ed (Trumbull, Conn.)
A: It’s a good question. Assuming he makes the team (the only reason he wouldn’t would be a really bad camp or he’s caught in a numbers crunch since he can be sent down with no issues) I think they have big plans for him. I actually think he’ll start out on the third line as a winger but that could easily change. He could be their second-line center if it came down to it, but I don’t think that will happen. The point is he could be just about anywhere, including the top line with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane if need be. I’m wondering how he’ll be used on the power play. I’m guessing as the guy in the middle on the second unit but look for him to line up next to Marcus Kruger and Michael Frolik to start the year. That’s an educated guess.
Q: With the new additions to the Hawks to bring more strength, physicality, and presence, how will previous bangers and role players such as Bryan Bickell, John Scott, and Dave Bolland have an impact on this year's team? -- Rob (Chicago)
A: I think it simply takes the pressure off them. Bolland is going to be Bolland. It doesn’t really matter who he plays with or what line he’s on, but the other guys might feel like they can just play hockey instead of filling a role. Scott intimated as much at the fan convention in July. I think he felt he was on an island when it came to the rough stuff. He even said he’ll let Dan Carcillo take care of the middle weights, and he’ll handle the heavyweights. He wants the help. And all eyes won’t be on Bickell to deliver some big blows. Carcillo and Jamal Mayers can help out, so like I said, less pressure.
A: I think the Hawks would love to have it work out that way. Salak will definitely go down and play there if Emery beats him out, but it’s hard to know what will happen to Emery if Salak is the back-up to Corey Crawford. There is little doubt if another team wants to sign him to a one-way contract to be their back-up after watching him in preseason they will do it. The Hawks would undoubtedly offer a two-way deal and hope he would go down to the minors and be ready in case he’s needed. This will be an interesting story in camp, but certainly the Hawks would like to have the loser of the back-up battle playing for them. That’s assuming they both are decent enough in the preseason.
Q: After the 2011-12 season will the Hawks have an extra &5.6 million to spend since Cristobal Huet will be off the books? Or is that money already off since he is playing overseas? Thanks Jesse, you do Hawk-Nation proud. -- Slarm (Wauconda, Ill.)
A: In terms of the salary cap he’s already off the books but the Hawks are still paying him out of their “pocket.” What’s newsworthy is when his contract is finally up after this year they might be more likely to “bury” other contracts since they’ll be done shelling out his money. It’s why it’s hard to imagine the Hawks shipping Rostislav Olesz out this year since he’s owed $3.1 million which would have the Hawks paying almost $10 million to two players not on the team. That’s a lot of money. We’ll see.