Three-time champ and four-time 30-goal scorer Patrick Sharp? Gone. Top-line power forward Brandon Saad? Gone. Steady, minutes-eating defenseman Johnny Oduya? Gone. Impact veterans Brad Richards and Antoine Vermette? Gone. Versatile and valuable utilityman Kris Versteeg? Gone.
Superstar and top scorer Patrick Kane?
The 2015-16 Blackhawks will look a whole lot different than the Stanley Cup champion 2014-15 Blackhawks. There could be five or six new forwards in the opening-night lineup. There could be two new defensemen. It’ll take weeks, if not months, if not all season, to find the right line combinations and to develop chemistry. It might be Joel Quenneville’s toughest coaching job since he came to Chicago, even tougher than 2010-11, when he lost half a championship roster in much the same way.
Yet, here we are, two days from the Hawks opening camp in South Bend, and Bovada (among other gambling sites) still have them as the favorites to repeat. The Hawks still have enough talent, and enough history, to earn the benefit of the doubt.
Training camp and six preseason games should give us at least some idea of how realistic that is. Here are the five story lines to watch as the Hawks return to the ice.
The Kane conundrum
It all starts with Kane, of course. The Hawks’ summer of celebration turned into a summer of silence last month when Kane became the subject of a police investigation, and now a grand jury. The Hawks still have not said whether or not Kane — who is entering the first year of an eight-year, $84-million contract — will be at camp. They haven’t even announced a camp schedule or a media day yet. It’s a big decision, and one on which the Hawks are obviously spending a lot of time.
Kane has not been charged with a crime, but will the image-conscious Hawks trot Kane out there with his teammates in front of the public as if nothing’s changed? Will they try to keep him away from the media circus his presence will surely create? Will they have him actually address the situation publicly for the first time? The safe and prudent thing to do is to keep Kane away from the team and have him work out on his own until the investigation reaches some sort of resolution, for better or worse. It might cost him the preseason. It might even cost him some of the regular season. But, at this stage of the investigation and at this stage of the season, the risk of having Kane on the ice is far, far greater than the reward.
There is no good answer here. Kane’s presence, fairly or unfairly, would be a massive distraction. And even without him there, Kane’s status will be the dominant story line of camp, and for the foreseeable future.
Finnish rookie Teuvo Teravainen came into his own during the Stanley Cup playoffs, with four goals and six assists in 18 games. He just turned 21 last Friday, but will be asked to take on a major role this season. Quenneville said earlier in the summer that he wanted to give Teravainen (who has played right wing with the Hawks) a shot at his natural center position to open the season.
With Toews and Artem Anisimov penciled in on the top two lines, and Marcus Kruger locked in to the fourth line, that could leave Teravainen centering grinders such as Bickell and Andrew Shaw, or an unknown such as Viktor Tikhonov or Daniel Paille (the former Bruins winger will be in camp on a tryout). Not the best fit for the uber-talented Teravainen, but he’d have some physical protection that way. Teravainen has the defensive instincts to be an outstanding two-way centerman, but does the slight, slinky Finn have the size and strength to withstand a full season at center yet? We’ll see.
Of course, it’s still possible he could stay on the wing (Quenneville frequently defaults to Shaw at center, even though he’s most effective on the wing), and Teravainen would be a natural fill-in for Kane should Kane miss time.
Blue line blues
The Hawks won the Stanley Cup with basically four defensemen. But playing guys 30 minutes a night for a full season isn’t a feasible strategy (though Duncan Keith surely would welcome it). The Hawks have three all-star-caliber defensemen in Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson. But for the first time in a long time, defense is a perilously shallow spot for the Hawks. Trevor Daley is an offensive force, but had dismal possession numbers with the Dallas Stars. Hjalmarsson is good enough to cover for some of those defensive lapses, but Daley’s going to have to reinvent himself to play for Quenneville.
After that, yikes. The third pairing is down to Trevor van Riemsdyk, David
Rundblad, Jan Hejda (a 37-year-old veteran in camp on a tryout), and maybe a rookie to be determined. That should turn any remaining dark hair on Quenneville’s head white in a hurry.
Sharp was a left wing. Saad was a left wing. Versteeg was primarily a left wing. That leaves Bryan Bickell and Andrew Desjardins as the only two returning left wings, and both are bottom-six forwards (as is Ryan Garbutt, acquired from Dallas in the Sharp trade). That leaves (at least) two very big holes on the left side of the lineup. Russian phenom Artemi Panarin figures to fill one of the spots, presumably on Kane’s line, if Kane plays.
That leaves one of the most coveted spots in hockey — the left wing alongside Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa; the spot that made Saad a star at 20 years old — to be filled. Perhaps the Hawks will try to catch lightning in a bottle a second time and give 20-year-old Marko Dano (acquired in the Saad trade with Columbus) a shot there, even though he’s a natural right wing/center.
Panarin’s skills are undeniable. Will they translate immediately to the North American style of play? How long will it take for Anisimov and Kane to develop the kind of chemistry Richards and Kane had, especially if Kane is held out of camp? Will Tikhonov’s second stint in the NHL go better than his failed first one did six years ago? Is there room for two agitators in Shaw and Ryan Garbutt? And with the likes of Stephen Johns, Adam Clendening and Klas Dahlbeck all traded, which young defensemen will step up in camp and give the Hawks a safety net on the blue line?
These are just some of the questions the Hawks need to answer. But it all starts with the big question: Will Kane even be at camp? We’ll find out soon enough.