What to watch as Blackhawks camp gets underway Thursday
The Blackhawks won 26 games and finished with the second-lowest point total in the NHL last season.
Yet, few tears were shed.
To the contrary, there were mostly cheers as GM Kyle Davidson traded veterans for draft picks and/or young, capable talent. A raucous United Center crowd also gave Jonathan Toews a proper send off during the captain's final game on April 13.
And there was bedlam when the Hawks won the draft lottery on May 8, giving them the right to draft Connor Bedard.
A few critics bemoaned the weak return the Hawks received in the Patrick Kane trade, but Davidson was in a tight spot and elected to do right by a franchise icon.
So now what? With playoff contention at least a year away, what constitutes success for Davidson in 2023-24? That's easy: Development up and down the roster.
"We just want to see players improve and take that next step," Davidson said, "and show us that they can be part of this in a significant way moving forward."
It all begins Thursday at Fifth Third Arena with the first training camp practice at 10 a.m. Here are the biggest storylines to follow ahead of the season opener at Pittsburgh on Oct. 10:
No more kid gloves:
Many expect Connor Bedard to dominate from the get-go, but let's temper expectations a bit. Remember, this is still an 18-year-old who has yet to face the world's top defensemen.
Sure, it's possible he comes out like Toronto's Auston Matthews and scores four times in his debut en route to a 40-goal campaign. It's also possible he scores 30 or fewer goals and gets worn down by the grind of an 82-game season.
Either way, it's an exciting time for the Hawks and their fans.
Bedard's vision and passing ability are next-level, but it's his shot that will produce some truly jaw-dropping moments.
"It's an elite shot. He loves to use it," said Davidson, who watched Bedard notch a hat trick in a 5-0 prospects showcase victory over St. Louis last weekend. "I'm sure it was a relief for him to produce a little bit and just get back on the ice and play. (As with) any young player, there's going to be a running effort to prove himself and to justify the interest and the expectation there.
"But we're not going to put any pressure on him. We'll just let him figure that out and let him figure out the NHL level as well."
The other phenom:
In many years, the early story would revolve around Lukas Reichel. The young forward spent most of 2022-23 developing in the minors, although he did score 7 goals in 23 games with the Hawks.
Now it's time to see what the 21-year-old can do over 82 games. Reichel will be expected to carry a heavy load while starting the season as a top-nine center.
"He's a confident, offensive player (who) plays with some significant speed," Davidson said. "So we're looking for him to carry that through and keep providing the offense we saw last year. ...
"But as an NHL center, there's defensive responsibilities that you'll need to execute. (He'll have) peaks and valleys that (we'll) help him work through (with) instruction and education."
Here ... then gone?
Deciding how to bring along 19-year-old defenseman Kevin Korchinski will be among the Hawks' toughest decisions. Because Korchinski is not eligible to play in the AHL, he must either stay in the NHL or return to juniors.
Davidson wants to take the long road with young D-men, but this is a tricky situation because Korchinski likely won't develop much playing with 16-19 year olds.
The Hawks could look at Korchinski for nine games then send him to juniors without burning a year of his contract. It's more likely, however, that Korchinski sticks around until December, plays in World Juniors and the Hawks reevaluate at that point. It's not common, but teams do send players to juniors after the nine-game threshold so they can get more seasoning.
"Nothing's off the table," Davidson said. "We really believe in him. So we're going to make sure that we set the course that is going to put him in the best position long-term to have the best chance to be the player we think he can be."
With Seth Jones and Connor Murphy the only locks for consistent playing time on the blue line, it will be interesting to see who else is worthy of a full-time role. The favorites are Wyatt Kaiser (nine games at the end of last season), Isaak Phillips (16 goals last two years at Rockford), Alex Vlasic (21 total NHL games) and Fillip Roos (17 NHL games). Nolan Allan and Louis Crevier also bear watching.
That's a lot of youth, so expect 31-year-old Jarred Tinordi to see plenty of time early on. Nikita Zaitsev, acquired from Ottawa in February, could be cut.
Don't forget us!
There's been a lot of turnover among the forwards -- and most have a lot to prove.
• Taylor Hall and Andreas Athanasiou want to show they remain top-six talents.
• Tyler Johnson, Nick Foligno and Corey Perry will be huge in mentorship roles and also make sure opponents aren't taking free runs at Bedard and Reichel.
• Philipp Kurashev, Ryan Donato, Jason Dickinson, Colin Blackwell, Boris Katchouk and Taylor Raddysh would love to show they can be part of this rebuild as it continues to gain steam.
• Others will look to improve in college, the minors or juniors. It's a big year for goalie Drew Commesso (likely to start at Rockford) and forwards Gavin Hayes (41 goals in the OHL), Colton Dach (who battled injuries but helped the Seattle Thunderbirds win an OHL championship), Frank Nazar (also injured), speedster Oliver Moore (the No. 19 overall pick in June) and Ryan Greene (a second-round pick in 2022).
"It's all (the) players taking a step at every level they're at," Davidson said. "Obviously the attention will be magnified here in Chicago for some that are making their first foray into NHL hockey.
"But it goes up and down the line because we've got a lot of players at every level that (are) going to be very important (in getting us) where we want to go."