Leave it to coach Joel Quenneville to be cryptic and secretive about a lineup for a preseason game.
Quenneville didn’t get into specifics about which of his players will make the trip to Columbus for the preseason opener Tuesday against the Blue Jackets, but he did suggest that top prospect Alex DeBrincat will make his Blackhawks debut.
Typically, Quenneville brings mostly prospects and fringe players on the road in the preseason, with the more established veterans getting the home games. DeBrincat has been skating on a line with Nick Schmaltz and Patrick Kane the last two days but likely will have some lesser linemates at Nationwide Arena.
“It’ll be a lot of young guys, some guys we want to see how they’re progressing, some pros and some experience,” Quenneville said. “But a lot of guys we’ll definitely be keeping an eye on. Maybe it’s their first opportunity to play an NHL game. It’ll certainly be fun to see how they compete and match up against a lot of pros.”
It’s still a safer bet that DeBrincat — who scored 65 goals in 63 games in the Ontario Hockey League last season — starts the season with the Rockford IceHogs. But every day he skates with Kane, the possibility he makes the team increases.
“He’ll make that decision for us,” Quenneville said. “You watch him in practice, he’s competitive every day. He’s one of those guys, the puck follows him around. Tremendous stick and a great knack for the puck. He’ll tell us where he starts the season for us. Either way, we expect him to be a great prospect.”
Schmaltz made the team out of camp last year in his first professional season but was sent down to Rockford midseason before returning a better, more aggressive player. His advice for DeBrincat? Don’t just defer to guys like Kane.
“You might feel a little bit of pressure out there if you try to force plays to Kane, but he understands it,” Schmaltz said. “He’s obviously been a proven goal-scorer in the OHL for a few years, so if he’s got a [shooting] lane, then he should take that.”
Compared with his linemates the last two days, Kane is an old man. Schmaltz is 21, and DeBrincat is only 19. Kane will turn 29 in November and is entering his 11th NHL season.
“It’s pretty crazy how time flies,” Kane said. “Even when you look at someone like [first-round pick Henri] Jokiharju, he’s got a ’99 birth year. I was an ’88, and I thought I was young for a long time. This summer, I was skating with [Maple Leafs star] Auston Matthews, he’s a ’97. Young kids. But if you look at the game, it’s a young man’s game. A lot of these kids are having an impact right away, their first one or two years in the league. It’s good to see, good for the game. They come in with so much energy, it just picks up the energy in the whole locker room.”
General manager Stan Bowman anointed Anton Forsberg the new backup goaltender as soon as he was acquired from the Blue Jackets in the Artemi Panarin-Brandon Saad deal. But Forsberg has played only 10 NHL games, while J-F Berube has 21 games under his belt from the last two seasons with the Islanders. Berube, however, is around for organizational depth and injury insurance, and would have to have a heck of a camp and preseason to challenge Forsberg.
“There’s always competition,” Quenneville said. “There’s always somebody looking in the rearview mirror, [thinking], ‘Hey, I’ve got an opportunity if I’m better than that guy.’ It certainly gives you something to consider. I don’t want to say that the competition is already over. So he can prove he wants the net and is deserving of the net. We’ll see.”
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