How might the Blackhawks look this fall?
While NHL training camps are six weeks away, it hardly means players are sitting back and enjoying these lazy summer days.
Fifth Third Arena, the Blackhawks' practice facility, is abuzz with activity with Jonathan Toews, Connor Murphy and others working out on a regular basis. Seeing how Toews progresses after a season away from the NHL will be the biggest story heading into the season opener Oct. 13 at Colorado.
Will he be the same? Or better because he's fresher? Or worse because he's rusty and/or still suffering affects of the illness that kept him away?
In the meantime, let's take a look at how the Hawks might look in the early going:
• Alex DeBrincat-Tyler Johnson-Patrick Kane
• Adam Gaudette-Jonathan Toews-Dominik Kubalik
• Brett Connolly or Alex Nylander-Kirby Dach-Brandon Hagel
• Ryan Carpenter-Jujhar Khaira or Henrik Borgstrom-Dylan Strome or Philipp Kurashev
Johnson, who boasts nearly 600 games of experience, is an ideal center for Kane and DeBrincat. As a proven scorer, he'll free up more ice for two of the Hawks' deadliest weapons. He's also solid in the faceoff dot, winning 50.9% of his draws over the last five seasons. You want Kane and DeBrincat to start with the puck as often as possible, so this is the way to go until Dach improves to at least a 45% clip.
It's a no-brainer to reunite Kubalik and Toews, as they played some fantastic hockey for a long stretch in 2019-20. Gaudette's a bit of a wild card, but he has the offensive potential to thrive here. If it isn't panning out, then putting the hard-nosed Hagel on his off side works as well. He has an uncanny ability to steal the puck or pick off passes, which will have Toews heaping plenty of praise on the second-year forward.
The third line offers a little of everything, with Connolly here to provide veteran leadership at the outset. This is a good spot for Dach, too, as he continues to develop. He'll provide solid net-front presence to pound home rebounds as well as to screen shots coming from the elusive Hagel or from the D-men at the point.
The fourth line should be centered by the 6-foot-4, 212-pound Khaira, who signed a two-year deal when free agency opened. Carpenter has been a staple on this line for two years, but he will face stiff competition because Strome, Kurashev and perhaps Connolly could be in this role as well. Borgstrom will have a chance to prove himself as well, but it's highly debatable whether or not he can handle a bottom six checking role.
Strome seems to have fallen out of favor and could be traded if the Hawks can find a taker. Nylander's another interesting case. Now healthy, the 23-year-old needs to prove his hockey IQ has caught up to his talent level. If that's the case, he could win a spot on the third line. Lackadaisical play or poor ice awareness will likely ticket him for the bench.
• Wyatt Kalynuk and Seth Jones
• Jake McCabe and Connor Murphy
• Calvin de Haan and Ian Mitchell
With apologies to Duncan Keith, the Hawks' blue line should be much improved thanks to the additions of Jones and McCabe. That assumes Jones shakes off a couple of down seasons and McCabe -- who injured the ACL, MCL and meniscus in his right knee in February -- stays healthy.
I like the versatile Kalynuk on the top pair with Jones. The 24-year-old proved to be an excellent passer -- especially exiting the defensive zone -- and he has some offensive pop. There will be hiccups against the best skaters, but Jones should minimize the damage most of the time.
The third pairing is where things get interesting. De Haan was rumored to be on the trade block, but it may be difficult to move an underperforming veteran who carries a $4.4 million cap hit and is also injury prone. Keeping him makes sense because he can mentor younger guys like Mitchell, Nicolas Beaudin, Alec Regula and even Caleb Jones and Riley Stillman.
The last pairing should change a lot over the first month or two, with most of the players getting a chance. Beaudin and Regula could earn the role by December, especially if de Haan is traded or injured.