What will the revamped Blackhawks look like on opening night?

Hockey has gone into hibernation for the summer, but let’s wrap up a wild offseason with one last mailbag:

Hawks Win! (@Taser0105)
#HeyLaz Give us your 12F 6D to start the year and what will SB do with the 5+M cap space from Hossa’s LTIR during the yr?

It’s hard to remember a time when the Blackhawks lineup was so unsettled entering a season. Wait. No, it isn’t. It was just as unsettled last fall, when six or seven rookies were in and out of the lineup on a regular basis. What makes this season’s lineup so hard to forecast is how many fourth-liners and bottom-pairing defenders the Hawks have been stockpiling. But here’s the lineup I would start with (not necessarily the one Joel Quenneville will go with):

FORWARDS:
Brandon Saad-Jonathan Toews-Richard Panik
Patrick Sharp-Nick Schmaltz-Patrick Kane
Ryan Hartman-Artem Anisimov-John Hayden
Vinnie Hinostroza-Tanner Kero-Tommy Wingels
Extras: Jordin Tootoo, Tomas Jurco, Lance Bouma
Notes: It’s probably a long shot that Schmaltz bumps Anisimov, at least at the start. But Schmaltz prefers to play center, and had great chemistry with Kane in limited action as his center late last season. Schmaltz’s faceoffs are a concern, but Sharp is a career 49.6 percent at the dot and can alleviate some of those issues. If Schmaltz takes the next step and Anisimov slots in at 3C, suddenly the Hawks look pretty solid down the middle (Kero is the new Marcus Kruger, a reliable fixture at 4C). Bouma is making $1 million this season, so I doubt the Hawks want him in civilian clothes most nights. So he could bump Hinostroza from the lineup, especially against more physical opponents such as St. Louis. But I like Hinostroza’s speed and ceiling a bit more.

DEFENSE:
Duncan Keith-Connor Murphy
Michal Kempny-Brent Seabrook
Gustav Forsling-Michal Rozsival
Extras: Jan Rutta, Jordan Oesterle, Ville Pokka, Erik Gustafsson
Notes: Yikes. The Hawks will still score goals. And Corey Crawford is still one of the best goaltenders in the game. But the blue line is the flashing red light on this roster. The Hawks like Murphy a lot, and as a 24-year-old who has spent his whole career on a bad team, he deserves a chance to prove himself on a better team with better structure. But he was under water in terms of possession in all three of his full seasons with Arizona, and he has shown little offensive upside so far. Keith tends to bring out the best in his partners, though, and Murphy being a right-handed shot should help out Keith offensively (left-handed Niklas Hjalmarsson preferred to play his off-side, but for defense, not offense).

Patrick Kane (left) and Nick Schmaltz enjoyed good chemistry during a brief stint together last season. (Getty Images)

Forsling’s ceiling remains high, and the Hawks are counting on him becoming an everyday NHL player sooner than later. After that, who knows? Rutta is a total unknown, and he’s coming from the Czech league, not the KHL, so it’s hard to know if he’s NHL ready. Rozsival is a perfectly adequate third-pairing guy in the meantime, but needs to be playing 25-35 games, not 50-60 games. Oesterle is a left-handed shot, which will make it tough for him to crack the lineup on a regular basis. Pokka has yet to break through, and Gustafsson (who is a lefty but can play both sides) is trying to climb back up the depth chart after spending all of last season in Rockford. The good news is, the Hawks have a lot of options on the back end. The bad news is, it remains to be seen which, if any, are good options.

Hjalmarsson Misser @Whitey_83
#HeyLaz which Central team has, in your opinion, improved the most this offseason? Which has gone the furthest in the opposite direction?

The Dallas Stars went hog wild, signing winger Alexander Radulov to a five-year deal, signing center Martin Hanzal to a three-year deal, trading for defenseman Marc Methot, and finally ending their long nightmare at goaltender by acquiring Ben Bishop. Bishop alone makes the Stars significantly better, after the disastrous duo of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi held Dallas back for two years. The Stars are loaded with talent — a top line of Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Radulov is tantalizing — but what will coach Ken Hitchcock do with all that talent? Hitchcock is the fourth-winningest coach in NHL history for a reason, but his smashmouth style doesn’t suit the Stars’ high-flying talent. Will he adapt to a more speed-oriented NHL? Or will he try to cram a bunch of round pegs into square holes and waste the talent?

As for who took the biggest step back in the division, it has to be the Blackhawks. Their top six is better, but their bottom six is not. The defense is significantly worse without Hjalmarsson and Brian Campbell. And they went from one of the best backup goalies in the league, Scott Darling, to an unknown in Anton Forsberg. The Hawks should still be a playoff team, but they likely won’t sniff another 50-win season.

Sean T Rohacik @SeanRohacik
#HeyLaz Do you feel the need to clap to the Friends theme song when the cue in the music hits?

“Friends” was a bad show about bad people that only looks worse in hindsight. But yes.

Jenni @Kaner_88fan
#HeyLaz so what do you do when they cut your pizza wrong? Do you say something or just eat it?

Oh, I eat it. It’s still pizza. But I don’t understand the appeal of square-cut pizza. Those slices in the middle with no crust are simply unworkable — you’re just sticking your finger in hot cheese grease. Pizza crust is both utilitarian and delicious. People who don’t eat the crust are monsters.

Rich Ehmer @richehmer
#HeyLaz do you have any predictions about how the new defensive coach will affect the D corps?

Given the drastic changes in personnel on the blue line, it’s going to be really difficult to quantify the effect Ulf Samuelsson has in his first year as an assistant coach. Besides, Samuelsson is another former Whalers teammate of Joel Quenneville, and the Hawks still will be running Quenneville’s system. Samuelsson’s primary job will be to get the new guys to buy into Quenneville’s system, not to make wholesale changes to the way the Hawks do things.

Mike Walsh @mikewalsh4609
#HeyLaz How much will the Hawks miss Hjalmarsson this season? I understand the trade, but he was the glue guy back there. Thanks.

A tremendous amount. As great as Duncan Keith is (and he is great), Hjalmarsson was the Hawks’ best defender. Sure, he didn’t bring much to the table offensively, but his gap, his positioning, his defensive savvy, and his reckless disregard for his own body made him one of the best true defensemen in the game. I think Hawks fans understand how good he was, but I don’t know if fans around the rest of the league did. In his absence, they might find out.

That said, I get the reasoning behind the trade. Beyond just the cost certainty of having Murphy locked up for five seasons, Hjalmarsson is 30 years old. And while he’s still at or near the top of his game, his style of play is not conducive to a super-long career. Every player declines eventually. And if and when Hjalmarsson starts his decline, it’s likely not going to be gradual, but sudden and precipitous. The human body can only take so much punishment (as Ryan Kesler surely would tell you).

RC @BongimusPrime
#HeyLaz when’s that book Comin’ fam

November! Thanks for asking. This whole book publishing process is very foreign to me. I’m used to writing something and posting it online right away and seeing it in the paper the next day. I finished writing the book at the end of March, but these things take time. For those who don’t know, it’s called “If These Walls Could Talk: Chicago Blackhawks,” and it chronicles the rise of the Blackhawks from the dark ages of the mid-2000s through the golden age of the 2010s through mostly never-before-told behind-the-scenes stories. I think (I hope?) Hawks fans will love it.

B @Man107088
#HeyLaz who do you see as the Hawks’ biggest threat? I think NSH goes back and it becomes EDM, if they beat EDM I see CHI winning the cup

Nashville won the conference in the postseason and is the team to beat until someone proves otherwise. Edmonton, like Toronto in the East, is going to be contending sooner rather than later. Dallas is going to be worth keeping an eye on. St. Louis will still be solid, as will Anaheim and San Jose. And don’t forget how good Minnesota was throughout the regular season under Bruce Boudreau (that feels like a Boudreau Mad Lib at this point). The Hawks by no means should be the favorites to win the Stanley Cup. But they will have some cap space to work with to make significant improvements during the season. And with that top six, and with Crawford in net, I think people have been too quick to completely write them off.

Ray John @matt4pep20
#HeyLaz which Alex do you think has a better chance of making an immediate impact, DeBrincat or Fortin?

I don’t expect either to make the team out of camp, so I don’t think either will make an “immediate” impact. There are just too many forwards on one-way contracts who are further along. And neither DeBrincat nor Fortin has played a single professional hockey game. Some time in Rockford would be good for both of them. I do expect to see both of them in a Hawks sweater at some point this season, though, once things shake out with all the new forwards.

s^m @Time_Arbiter
#HeyLaz Do you see Cody Franson panning out?

As others have reported, I’ve heard Franson’s name mentioned as a possible tryout contract for training camp. It’s easy to envision a scenario in which Franson participates in training camp on a PTO, then signs with the team after the Hawks put Marian Hossa on long-term injured reserve once the season starts. The unsigned Franson is a possession-driving veteran and a right-handed shot, who could offer a little stability on the back end and lessen the immediate need for someone like Jan Rutta or Ville Pokka.

But Franson’s no guarantee. We all remember such previous veteran PTOs as Daniel Paille, Jan Hejda and Lubomir Visnovsky, right? And he still could be signed by someone else before camp even opens. He turns 30 next week.

CC @CCinTEJAS
#HeyLaz Favorite Chicago steakhouse? Favorite Chicago music venue? Too hot for hockey talk.

My favorite Chicago steakhouse isn’t actually in Chicago. Pete Miller’s in Evanston is my pick. That’s one of the many things I love about Chicago — everyone has his or her own favorite steakhouse, and almost all of them are correct answers. As for music venues, there are plenty, but I love seeing shows at The Vic. Intimate and loud.

Linda Joyce @lmj510
#HeyLaz now that @10PSharp is back will the #PearlJamCounter be even higher than normal this season? #TheMoreYouKnow #UselessButFunFacts

Considering we hit double-digits on the #PearlJamCounter a few times last year, it’s hard to imagine it going higher. But if anyone can make it happen, it’s Sharp. He has a bit more pull than I do.

barefoot dave @xDQxx
Favorite album of 2017 so far? #HeyLaz

I haven’t been blown away by anything this year yet (though, admittedly, ever since I got satellite radio several years ago, I buy less music than I used to). I’ll go with Kendrick Lamar, even though DAMN. can’t hold a candle to To Pimp A Butterfly (not sure what can).

Sue @KlinkhamerSue
#HeyLaz Any thoughts on Mets 2017?

*whimpers softly*

teems.zoro @fatems_19
#HeyLaz Most intriguing prospect from the development camp?

Dylan Sikura was very impressive, as Stan Bowman also noted after camp broke. I fully expect to see him in a Hawks sweater sometime in March after he finishes his senior season at Northeastern. He’ll go the John Hayden route.

Here’s one last question, which I saw in my mentions earlier this week but can’t find now. It was too good not to use, and I spent way too much time agonizing over it. I was asked for my top 10 bands (in order), and my single favorite song (no ties) from each of those bands. No. 1 was easy (though the song changes on a daily basis), Nos. 2-7 were basically interchangeable, and nearly a dozen bands could have gone in Nos. 8-10. Try this yourself. It’s not easy. And enjoy the rest of the summer. I know it’s been a while, but hockey will be here before you know it.

1. Pearl Jam — Hail Hail
2. The Strokes — Reptilia
3. Garbage — Parade
4. The Sounds — Great Day
5. The White Stripes — I’m Bound To Pack It Up
6. Against Me! — High-Pressure Low
7. Our Lady Peace — Paper Moon
8. Franz Ferdinand — Walk Away
9. Metric — Gimme Sympathy
10. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers — Big Weekend

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