Heading into this season, the Blackhawks have major expectations placed on them not only from the fans, but from themselves as well. This is a team that looks poised to finish as a top team in the NHL standings yet again and make another deep run in the playoffs. There are, however, a few questions about the Hawks as they prepare for another long season. Here are five questions I have for this team:
- Who will get traded? Training camp just started the other day for the Blackhawks, and they are still 2.2 million dollars over the league salary cap. Someone has to go by October 9th when the Hawks start their season in Dallas. Most signs are indicating that it will be either Johnny Oduya or Nick Leddy that gets dealt. Oduya currently has a 3.375 million dollar cap hit, and Leddy has a 2.7 million dollar hit, so if either gets traded away the Blackhawks would be under the salary cap. While trading Oduya might be the more popular thing to do among the fans, the Blackhawks could get a lot more in return for Nick Leddy. Leddy is still just 23 years old and has an incredible amount of talent. I don’t think you’ll find one team in the NHL who wouldn’t take him. If it were up to me, I’d still probably try and find the best deal possible for Johnny Oduya. Trading Oduya means the Hawks will have to find a new “shut down” partner to go with Hjalmarsson, but I’m not overly concerned about that.
- Will the new second line work? The Blackhawks finally have what appears to be a true number two center in Brad Richards. The guy used to be one of the game’s best centers, but is coming off a few disappointing seasons in New York and now finds himself already 34 years old. He will be between Brandon Saad and Patrick Kane on the Hawks’ second line to start the season, which on paper looks like one of the league’s best second lines. The question is whether or not those three will find good chemistry between them. We know Kane and Saad can be successful on a line together, but Richards is the unknown. You wouldn’t think that there would be a problem with this line, but you never know until the real games start. If the first day on training camp was any indication, these three won’t have a problem playing together.
- Kris Versteeg. Versteeg is coming off a very disappointing 2013-14 campaign in which he notched 10 goals and 19 assists. In the playoffs, he managed just 1 goal and 2 assists and routinely found himself either scratched from the lineup or benched for long stretches of the game. He was not the same guy that was traded away following the Hawks’ 2010 Stanley Cup parade. It could be that he was still not 100 percent after having serious knee surgery during the 2012-13 season. This is what most fans are hoping was the case. Either way, Kris Versteeg is going to have to win back the coaching staff and the fans early on this season or else he’ll probably see minimal playing time and become the subject of trade talks. Personally, I’m expecting a good bounce-back season from Versteeg. He was so awful during the postseason this past spring that it’s hard to believe he was his normal self physically. If he hasn’t shown any signs of improvement by mid to late November, then we can hit the panic button on him.
- Will any rookies make the NHL team? We all know who Teuvo Teravainen is by now, but what about Brandon Mashinter? Mashinter is a 26 year old winger who has played in 23 career NHL games with the Sharks and Rangers. He is known for his physical presence on the ice (6’4″, 212 lbs) and is not afraid to drop the gloves. Last season in the AHL, he scored 15 goals to go along with 20 assists and amassed 94 penalty minutes in 58 games between Hartford and Rockford. The NHL has seen that “fourth line grinder” position somewhat disappear in recent years, but if Mashinter has some offensive skill to go along with his grit, he may just make the team. Joel Quenneville has already given Mashinter high praise and has said that there will be a place for someone like him on the NHL roster this year. We saw Brandon Bollig in this role last year with the Hawks, and it was excruciating to watch. If Mashinter does make this team, he better have some skill and not just toughness.
- Speaking of Teravainen… Will he make the NHL team to start the season? Probably not. Will he be in the NHL at all this year? Most likely. What the Blackhawks should and probably will do is have Teuvo start the year in Rockford with the Icehogs. This will allow him to better adjust to playing on North American ice and it will give him time to familiarize himself with the center position. In Europe Teravainen played mostly right wing, so the more time he has to improve at being a center, the better. The last thing the Blackhawks want to do is bring him up too early and have him fail as a center, ultimately killing Teravainen’s confidence. They will wait until they feel he can handle that role at the NHL level and then bring him up. When they do bring him up, they’ll probably start him off on the third or fourth line and let him work his way up. This season will be a tricky year for that to happen though, seeing as how Brad Richards will be the team’s number two center (the hopeful destination for Teravainen). If and when Teuvo gets to the NHL this year, don’t be surprised to see him play some center and wing.
Like I said before, the Blackhawks have some serious expectations on their shoulders this year. They’re going to be good, but just how good? How these five questions get answered could help determine where this team will end up. Obviously, there are many other factors that need to be considered when analyzing the Hawks, but I’m anxious to get these questions answered.