Blackhawks mailbag: What will the opening-night lineup look like?

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Welcome to the first of what I hope will be many mailbags over the course of the season, my fourth on the Blackhawks beat. Twitter Q&As while I’m stranded on a tarmac somewhere are fun, but character limits and battery life make it difficult to delve too deeply. So let’s give this a try.

Starting with the next mailbag, I’d like to add a fun wrinkle to this, too. If you have a question you’ve always wanted to ask a hockey player, ask me, and maybe I’ll do it for you. Have you always wanted to know what goes into a player’s pregame routine? Or why so many players in hockey are left-handed? Or what a particular player’s favorite arena is? I’ll be your liaison. No promises —especially if you ask something really personal, really weird or really specific. But if your curiosity piques my curiosity, I’ll go get us both an answer.

You can email questions to me at mlazerus@suntimes.com, or tweet them to me using the hashtag #HeyLaz. And away we go…

Ralph Larosa (@LaroSos1)

Who’s your surprise player in camp? One you’re most impressed with. Rookie and/or vet.

I’m most impressed with Kyle Baun, but I don’t know if it’s fair to say I’m surprised by that. I thought he didn’t look out of place at all in his three-game stint with the Hawks at the end of the season, and that’s rare for a rookie. Like Trevor van Riemsdyk before him, he stepped up straight from college to the NHL and fit right in, looking like a man among men, not a boy. Baun is big, he’s strong, he’s physical, he goes to the net and he’s got better hands than you think — you saw all of those qualities in his tomahawk goal during the preseason opener against Detroit. Basically, he looks like Bryan Bickell when Bickell is at his best.

But with 13 forwards who are either locks or are on one-way contracts ahead of him, I’m just not sure how he fits in the lineup. I think Joel Quenneville would like to figure out a way, though. Put it this way — Baun should make the team. But I’m not so sure he will.

Julie F. (via email)

What do you think the opening-night roster will look like? And what do you think are the ideal line combinations?

The Baun situation makes this difficult. But let’s assume he starts in Rockford as the Next Man Up (especially with Phil Danault out for a few months). Assuming no more salary dumps before Oct. 7 (and I wouldn’t rule one out), here’s the lineup I’d go with:

FORWARDS

Marko Dano — Jonathan Toews — Marian Hossa

Artemi Panarin —Artem Anisimov — Patrick Kane

Bryan Bickell —Teuvo Teravainen —Ryan Garbutt

Andrew Desjardins — Marcus Kruger —Andrew Shaw

Extra: Viktor Tikhonov

DEFENSE

Duncan Keith — Brent Seabrook

Trevor Daley —Niklas Hjalmarsson

Trevor van Riemsdyk —David Rundblad

Extra: Viktor Svedberg (until Michal Rozsival returns)

GOALIES

Corey Crawford

Scott Darling

This presumes Panarin and Bickell are healthy, of course. Baun would fit in nicely at either of those left-wing spots. The last few practices, Quenneville has had Andrew Shaw on the top line with Toews and Hossa, but it simply makes too much sense to put Dano there and see if he can have the kind of meteoric rise there that Brandon Saad had. Shaw and Garbutt are basically interchangeable, so why not keep together that fourth line that was so good during the postseason?

As for the blue line, Hjalmarsson might be the best defensive defenseman in the league, so pairing him with Daley — an offensive force who is coming off a rather miserable defensive season —makes sense. The third pairing is going to be a little terrifying in the early going, but that was always going to be the biggest concern this season with Johnny Oduya in Dallas.

Ryan Winn (@rrwinn)

#HeyLaz Do you like hockey more or less now that you cover it every day?

Interesting question. I grew up a massive hockey fan on Long Island, watching nearly every Islanders game with my dad and occasionally tuning in to Devils broadcasts just so I could hear Doc Emrick call the game, so I’ve always loved the sport.

I have a much greater appreciation for the sport now — its intricacies and strategies, the skill and the dedication of its players. I can watch any game between any two teams and enjoy the hell out of it, which I probably couldn’t do as a 14-year-old. But my fandom has all but disappeared. I was a die-hard Islanders fan growing up (I imagine every hockey writer grew up a big fan of one team or another), but this job turns off that part of your brain pretty quickly. Last year in the playoffs, I found myself sort-of hoping the Islanders would beat the Capitals, but that was because I wanted it for my dad, not myself. I was almost disappointed with how little I cared when they lost. The Isles were a big part of my childhood; Dave Volek’s goal in 1993 to beat the Penguins is still my favorite pro sports memory, and I’ve seen the Giants win four Super Bowls. But that’s pretty much gone now.

I’m still a big fanboy in sports I don’t cover (#LGM), but I’ve lost that in hockey. I think any professional beat writer in any sport will tell you the same. I’m curious to see what happens if and when I’m not a hockey writer anymore. I’ll always love the sport and follow it obsessively. But will the fan part come back? No idea. Frankly, I hope so.

Pokka Fan Club (@Hostile_Derek)

#HeyLaz Why isn’t Pokka in the consideration for a defensive spot this season? I don’t think another year in RFD will net much.

I thought I had an obvious answer to this question — that Joel Quenneville had enough young, largely unproven defensemen in his lineup in Trevor van Riemsdyk and David Rundblad. But that’s when Lubomir Visnovsky and Jan Hejda were still in camp. Now it looks like Viktor Svedberg and Erik Gustafsson are battling it out for the seventh defenseman spot while Michal Rozsival (and Kyle Cumiskey, for that matter) recovers from injury.

That said, don’t discount the value of more time in Rockford. Last season was just Pokka’s first in North America. He fared well, with eight goals and 22 assists, but he’s only 21. If Duncan Keith can spend two full seasons in the AHL while trying to crack a lousy NHL lineup, Pokka can spend more than one season in the AHL while trying to crack an elite NHL lineup.

Svedberg is 24 and was with the Hawks throughout the postseason last spring as a Black Ace. Gustafsson is 23 and has a significant booster in general manager Stan Bowman. Pokka will get his chance, eventually. The Hawks have traded away most of their blue line depth, so those three guys next on the depth chart now.

Also: Pokka’s not Swedish. That’s a huge mark against him in Chicago.

Emelie (@okquiche)

#HeyLaz what’s the best part of your job?

This might come as a surprise to those out there who lose their minds and yell at me every time I dare to tweet about a flight delay or something, but I love the travel. I love being on the road, finding good spots to eat, grabbing a drink with other writers, and visiting all 30 rinks in a season.

I spent about 120 nights in hotels last season, and took more than 90 flights, which is an awful lot. The super-early flights after night games take their toll, too. And it’s really hard to be away from my family so much (our second daughter was just born 13 days ago, so it’s only going to get harder for me and my wife). On a macro level, the travel is brutal and difficult and taxing. On a micro level, though, it can be a lot of fun. And from a professional standpoint, being on the road is so much better than being at home. Far fewer reporters in the dressing room means far more access for the few of us that do travel. I think I do nearly all of my best work on the road. Probably helps that I’m writing in quiet hotel rooms without a 3-year-old running around, too. (And now a screaming infant! Whee!)

Steve Racine (@southside_tk)

#HeyLaz Tikhonov has been pretty quiet, and haven’t heard Q say much about him. What’s the buzz on this guy?

Tikhonov was an interesting signing. He was a first-round pick by the Coyotes in 2008, and played 61 games that year as a rookie. But he could never crack the lineup again after that, and went to Russia to revive his career. With 55 goals over four seasons in the KHL, he’s proven he can be a productive player at a high level.

The question is, did the Hawks sign him because of that potential, or did they sign him to ease friend and teammate Artemi Panarin’s transition to North America? Tikhonov, who was born in Latvia but raised in California, speaks fluent English and Russian, and has been Panarin’s interpreter and chaperone, for lack of a better word. But with Kyle Baun making a strong case for a roster spot, Tikhonov — who hasn’t had the strongest preseason —could be the most vulnerable. He’s on a one-way contract, though, and might prefer going back to Russia rather than going to Rockford, which further complicates things.

A strong final two preseason games could solidify his position.

Lenny (@crazylenny)

#HeyLaz What sport are you bad at?

Nearly all of them. These days, I play softball and golf, because I’m an old person. I’m mediocre, at best, at both. I was a halfway decent tennis player back in middle and high school. You know what they say, those who can’t, teach. And those who can’t teach, write.


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