After a number of players were sent to juniors and the AHL this weekend, the limited roster spots available for prospects in the NHL are starting to become a bit more clear for the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks.
Up front, the Blackhawks have most of their spots locked up in veterans. In fact, the top three lines should be made up completely of NHL veterans with the only moderate exception to the word "veteran" being Viktor Stahlberg, with 40 games of NHL experience.
Based on their performances in the first three training camp games and scrimmages, the top three lines could look something like this:
- Marian Hossa, Jonathan Toews, Tomas Kopecky
- Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Viktor Stahlberg
- Fernando Pisani, Dave Bolland, Troy Brouwer
Avoiding the headache of arguing about whether or not Joel Quenneville will break up Toews and Kane, let's simply agree that these nine forwards, in some variation of this alignment, will be on the NHL roster. If I was making up the lines, I would swap Brouwer and Kopecky, but I'm a blogger and Quenneville's getting a ring in two weeks; I trust his judgement.
In spots 10 through 12, it appears that Bryan Bickell has a lock on a roster spot. He could factor into one of the top three lines, possibly bumping Kopecky to the fourth line if Quenneville wants to put his size in front of the net. So we're looking for two players to complete the active roster and probably one for the bench.
The players fighting for those three roster spots are:
- Kyle Beach
- Jake Dowell
- Igor Makarov
- Jeremy Morin
- Ryan Potulny
- Jack Skille
The most impressive player in training camp has been Morin, but he has a lot of options. Because of his age, the Blackhawks could go as far as sending him to juniors. I don't see that happening; he's been too good, and the Hawks might want him to be available to join the NHL club soon if an injury happens. Because of a numbers game (and by numbers, we're thinking largely financial numbers), Morin probably gets a bus ticket to Rockford.
The other two names that have impressed a lot of people in camp have been Beach and Makarov. Beach has had his maturity questioned at times but has also showed flashes of physical ability that not many players on the NHL roster can bring to the table. However, again based on money and age, Beach will probably be one of the many talented 20-year-olds in Rockford.
Makarov, on the other hand, has been playing professionally in Russia for a few years now and is older/more mature than Morin and Beach. He's done a nice job of creating scoring chances for himself and others and might have won a job in the NHL. However, it would probably be as the 13th forward, giving veterans like Pisani a night off and rotating in on the fourth line.
The two spots on that fourth line have most likely been won by Skille and Potulny. Potulny was the only youngster to see extended time on both the power play and penalty kill in Saturday night's win over Detroit, and he has a 16-goal NHL season on his resume. Because he's a solid defensive forward that gives Quenneville options on special teams, he will probably make the NHL roster.
Skille, on the other hand, needed to prove himself. A spot on the roster was his to lose in camp, and he almost did just that while youngsters like Beach, Morin, and Makarov were impressive. He skated fairly well and was aggressive in his first preseason game, but he showed flashes of legit NHL ability while playing with the Blackhawks "A-Team" on Saturday night, likely locking up the job for him. He could be in line to fight for games throughout the season with Makarov and Potulny, but the job should be his.
With that in mind, here are the four lines as I see it:
- Hossa, Toews, Kopecky
- Kane, Sharp, Stahlberg
- Pisani, Bolland, Brouwer
- Bickell, Potulny, Skille/Makarov
There might actually be more intrigue with the third defensive pair than there is with the forward situation. Because of his stupidity, Nick Boynton put his job in jeopardy when he was suspended for Opening Night by the NHL. John Scott, who received a two-year deal, plays a similar role as an enforcer, and neither is seen as an 82-game option. Carrying two similar players might not make sense, and Boynton's play hasn't been good enough to keep a hold on a spot.
Jordan Hendry was the seventh defenseman last year who played a significant role into the playoffs, and he should feel safe about a job somewhere at the bottom of the rotation. However, like Scott and Boynton, he isn't an 82-game player, and the Hawks shouldn't feel comfortable about carrying three players who can't/shouldn't play every night.
This is where Nick Leddy comes in.
Leddy is arguably the top prospect in the Hawks organization and has been overwhelming the entire summer. Starting in prospect camp, when he didn't have a pro contract, Leddy has garnered the attention of Hawks' brass and has received nothing but compliments from the coaching staff during camp. He tied with Brian Campbell for the team lead, skating 5:24 on the power play in Friday night's loss against Detroit's "A-Team," and also skated 1:52 short-handed. His performance, that totalled 19:44 total ice time against the best Detroit has to offer, showed that he's ready for the big time.
Leddy's situation is also different than the forwards that have been sent to Rockford. He was on record saying that he patterned his game after Campbell and Duncan Keith before becoming part of the Blackhawks organization last year, and his development could actually be accelerated by staying in Chicago.
This could cost a forward their job though.
Because Leddy has a $1.4M cap number, if the Hawks carried him on the NHL roster they would probably stick with 22 rather than 23 players. However, because Scott has played both forward and defenseman in his career, the Hawks have the versatility to do this without hurting Quenneville's options.
Here's how I see the defensive group starting the season:
- Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook
- Brian Campbell, Niklas Hjalmarsson
- Nick Leddy, Jordan Hendry/John Scott
If the Hawks carried the 20 players proposed here, plus goalies Corey Crawford and Marty Turco, the Hawks could carry a team that's still over $600k under the cap and is as fast if not faster than last year's team when camp broke for the season.
The other important reality to remember is that the team that breaks camp is rarely the same team at Christmas and is almost never the same in April. Remember Aaron Johnson? And Cam Barker? That might be Tomas Kopecky or Jordan Hendry this year, but the players the Hawks have available and ready to start the regular season should excite their fans.