Artemi Panarin is in Columbus, Niklas Hjalmarsson is in Arizona, and Trevor van Riemsdyk and Scott Darling are in Carolina. Johnny Oduya is gone, Brian Campbell is in limbo, and Marcus Kruger could be on the way out, too. Marian Hossa might be done.
Stan Bowman promised change in the wake of the Nashville Predators’ stunning first-round sweep of the Blackhawks, and change came in a big way over the past week. Now that the dust has settled, it’s a good time to see just what’s left, and just what the Hawks might look like on opening night, 101 days from now.
For the purposes of this exercise, we’re assuming Marcus Kruger will be traded to get the Hawks cap-compliant. Kruger is due a $2-million signing bonus on July 1 (it won’t affect the Hawks’ cap situation), so it probably won’t happen until after that. We’re also assuming that the Hawks won’t place Marian Hossa on long-term injured reserve until after opening night. That likely will prevent the Hawks from making any big splash in free agency on July 1, but it will give the Hawks maximum flexibility to make a big addition during the season, perhaps at the trade deadline.
As good as Artemi Panarin is, the top six is significantly better now than it was before the week’s wheeling and dealing. A trio of Brandon Saad, Jonathan Toews and Richard Panik is the best-looking top line the Hawks have had in two years, since it was Saad, Toews and Hossa. All three have speed, size, skill, and can finish. It’s perfectly reasonable to expect them to combine for 70 goals or more. If reuniting him with Saad doesn’t bring Toews back to his usual level of offensive consistency, then there’s a much more troubling conversation to be had.
Joel Quenneville suggested that Nick Schmaltz will get the first crack at replacing Panarin on the second line with Artem Anisimov and Patrick Kane. And Schmaltz is a gifted playmaker who can feed off of Kane’s creativity. But the most intriguing option on this line is 19-year-old Alex DeBrincat, who torched the Ontario Hockey League for 65 goals and 62 assists in 63 games this past season. We won’t know if DeBrincat is NHL ready until training camp, and it might be a long shot. But he’ll probably get a shot at some point during the season, and there’s certainly no point in putting him in a bottom-six grinder role. When he finally makes the NHL, it’ll absolutely should be on Kane’s left wing. The thought of Schmaltz (a natural center) in between DeBrincat and Kane is tantalizing, but until Schmaltz develops into more of a complete, two-way player (he showed flashes of it last season), the bigger, more reliable Anisimov is the safer choice.
The bottom six is where things get dicey, and where Hossa is missed the most. Ryan Hartman is coming off a 19-goal rookie season and gives the Hawks some needed depth scoring, but unless DeBrincat makes the team and Schmaltz moves down to third-line center, there’s not a lot of offense down here. Hartman and John Hayden bring a nice combination of size and skill to the third line, and either Tanner Kero or Schmaltz will be in the middle. A depth-forward addition in free agency could slot in here, as well.
The fourth line will be competitive, if not overwhelming. Restricted free agent Dennis Rasmussen and newly acquired Laurent Dauphin both can play center, and they could be battling for playing time with Tomas Jurco, Vinnie Hinostroza and Jordin Tootoo. Andrew Desjardins is probably gone as an unrestricted free agent.
Niklas Hjalmarsson was the Hawks’ best defender, and his absence looms large. With him gone, Quenneville hinted that Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook could be reunited, though Seabrook fared better with Michal Kempny last season.
The Hawks are high on Connor Murphy, and he brings both youth and a right-handed shot — two things the blue line desperately needs. But his underlying possession numbers in Arizona were not good. It’ll be interesting to see how much of that was a product of playing on a lousy team. It certainly can’t hurt to be on a better team with better structure.
Assuming a top pair of Keith and Seabrook, perhaps Gustav Forsling slots alongside Murphy. That leaves three Czechs — Kempny, Jan Rutta and veteran Michal Rozsival —to rotate on the bottom pairing.
It’s still conceivable that the Hawks bring back Brian Campbell at a bargain rate —Campbell said repeatedly he only wants to keep playing if it’s for the Hawks. Campbell (or another depth defender in free agency, or the possible resurgence of Erik Gustafsson) could stabilize things, and allow for Forsling and Rutta to be eased in to the NHL a bit more, and Rozsival to play the fringe role he played this past season.
The Hawks have been spoiled in recent seasons with backup goaltenders. Ray Emery received Vezina Trophy votes in 2013, and both Antti Raanta and Scott Darling are on the verge of becoming starters with Arizona and Carolina, respectively. Now the job falls to Anton Forsberg, acquired from Columbus in the Saad deal. He’s 24 years old, and has only played in 10 NHL games. But he’s a Calder Cup champion, and had a .926 save percentage last season for Cleveland of the AHL.
The good news? Corey Crawford likes to work. A lot. And as long as he stays healthy (which is more important than ever given the lack of goaltending depth in the system right now), Forsberg shouldn’t have to play more than 15 or 20 games.
Extras: Jurco, Dauphin, Tootoo
Gone: Panarin, Kruger, Desjardins, Hossa
Extras: Rozsival, Gustafsson
Gone: Hjalmarsson, van Riemsdyk, Oduya, Campbell