Blackhawks

5 biggest questions for Blackhawks entering training camp 2018

For the first time in a decade, the Blackhawks are projected to be a below-average team. Here are the five biggest questions they face as they open training camp today:

1. Will goalie Corey Crawford be healthy?

Crawford’s status will be a consistent question mark through camp — and possibly through the early weeks of the season.

Crawford is arguably the Hawks’ most indispensable player. Before his injury in December, he had the second-best save percentage (.929) in the NHL.

Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford plays against the Nashville Predators during the second period in Game 3 of a first-round NHL hockey playoff series Monday, April 17, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn. | Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

The Hawks took out an insurance policy for Crawford during the offseason by signing Cam Ward, who played 13 seasons for the Hurricanes and has a .906 save percentage in his career.

But even with Ward as a safety net, it’s clear the Hawks need Crawford to be their No. 1 goalie.

2. Will center Marcus Kruger’s homecoming work out?

For the second consecutive season, the Hawks are trying to bring their past to their present.

The Hawks reacquired Kruger in July as part of the deal that sent forward Vinnie Hinostroza and winger Marian Hossa’s contract to the Coyotes.

It didn’t work out when the Hawks brought back two former players last season. They traded for winger Brandon Saad and re-signed winger Patrick Sharp. The result was a burned-out Sharp and an unlucky Saad, who couldn’t rediscover the chemistry he once had with center Jonathan Toews.

Kruger, who had hernia surgery in April, likely will have a similar role on the fourth line as the one he previously filled when he was with the Hawks. He also likely will help the Hawks’ penalty kill, which was 20th in the NHL last season with a success rate of 79.1 percent.

3. What are the Hawks’ plans with their unused salary-cap space?

When the Hawks traded for Kruger, they also unloaded Hossa’s $5.275 million cap hit. This is the first time in years the Hawks have cap flexibility.

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The Hawks haven’t done anything with their newfound $5.49 million cap space. That’s likely because they’re waiting to see how they start this season. If the Hawks look strong in the first few games, they could invest that money into an area of need. If they struggle early, they might consider putting that money toward future assets.

4. Is defenseman Henri Jokiharju NHL-ready?

Jokiharju, a first-round draft pick in 2017, has made it clear he wants to be on the Hawks’ roster on opening night.

Jokiharju, who has been praised for the way he maneuvers through traffic, especially in the neutral zone, was one of the top
defensemen in the Western Hockey League last season. The 19-year-old had 71 points, including 12 goals.

Unfortunately for Jokiharju, if he wants to break camp with the Hawks, he’ll have to get through some stiff competition.

The Hawks added free agent Brandon Manning on a two-year contract and re-signed Jan Rutta and Erik Gustafsson. They also offered Brandon Davidson, who has four seasons of NHL experience, a professional tryout.

Still, that’s not to say Jokiharju won’t be able to earn a spot.

5. How can the Hawks fix their power play?

This was more than just bad luck. The Hawks couldn’t convert prime opportunities last season and finished with the ninth-worst power play in the NHL, with a conversion rate of 15.99 percent.

Improvement falls on assistant coach Kevin Dineen, who is in charge of the power play. The days of passing the puck to winger Patrick Kane and waiting for him to work his magic are over.