The preseason is over.
In theory, when this part of the schedule arrives, the dust is settled and the team is ready to jump into the regular season. In theory, the new faces are acquainted with the resident veterans, and there talk can begin to center around specific lines and special teams adjustments.
But, as has been the story for the Blackhawks all summer, theory and reality are miles apart.
The only part of the Hawks’ roster that made it through the summer nearly intact was the defensive group; Brent Sopel was the only player that would not return from the championship roster. But when Brian Campbell went down with a sprained MCL in one of the last preseason games against Pittsburgh last week, that unit is now an evolving story. Nick Leddy, 19, will be asked to replace the All Star Campbell on the Hawks’ second defensive pair.
It was supposed to be the defensive group that was giving fans hope after the preseason, but the group of forwards the Blackhawks brought to camp this year looks as big as last year’s group, but faster.
Marian Hossa led the team with five point (four goals, one assist) in the preseason and looks to be stronger than he was before the Olympics last year, despite reportedly suffering a minor knee injury during the playoffs in the spring. Seeing his name at the top of the team leader board for scoring shouldn’t surprise anyone, despite the numbers Patrick Kane posted last year.
What could surprise people are some of the names that closely follow Hossa among the Hawks’ preseason leaders. The Hawks assist leader in the preseason was Brent Seabrook with four; if he steps up his offense in the absence of Campbell, this could be a breakout statistical season for Seabrook. The only problem with Seabrook having a big season is the reminder that he needs a new contract at some point in the next 10 months.
A couple other surprises that should excite Hawks fans are names that were among those tied with four points in the preseason. Veteran addition Fernando Pisani has skated on a number of different lines with both veterans and prospects throughout the preseason, and has looked very good in every role he’s accepted. He has been an exceptional special teams player throughout his career, but his four points in the preseason showed flashes of more ability than his career production would lead one to assume was there. He figures to be an outstanding piece of the third or fourth lines this year, and will undoubtedly factor heavily into the special teams rotations.
The biggest shock of camp was another teenager, Jeremy Morin. He posted four points as well (one goal, three assists), and has skated in a number of roles for the team. He scored one of the team’s eight power play goals in the preseason, and saw a lot of action late in the preseason on a line with Kane and Patrick Sharp. It is going to be very hard for coach Joel Quenneville to have Morin skating anywhere but Chicago to start the season.
From the veterans that return from the championship team, there were some signs of change in those known commodities as well. Jonathan Toews is admittedly looking for his shot more now, and finished the preseason as one of only six Hawks to post double-digit shots. He scored two goals and added two assists in the preseason, and could have an enormous season after winning the Conn Smythe in June.
Tomas Kopecky also posted four points (two goals, two assists) and continues to look like a different player while skating opposite Hossa. While playing with a special, borderline freak-of-nature talent like Hossa would make anyone look better, there is a tangible difference in the energy and ice awareness from Kopecky when he’s on a line with Hossa; he was the Hawks 13th or 14th-best forward at times last year, but exploded after the Olympics to post career-bests across the board last year once he joined Hossa on the ice. Now he’s looking at the possibility of being part of the Hawks’ top line to begin the season.
Between the pipes, Marty Turco finished the preseason playing fairly well. He still hasn’t skated behind the “A Team” for the Hawks yet because of Campbell’s injury, but should settle in as the regular season begins and Quenneville establishes the rotation. What has been most impressive from Turco is what should have been expected when he signed: his passing. Turco has, in three separate games already, accelerated a fast break by getting the puck to the opposite blue line. Adding his puck handling ability to one of the fastest teams in the league could prove to be a lethal combination.
There is a lot from the preseason to be excited about for Blackhawks fans. While the prospect of two teenagers making the Opening Night roster might not make sense logically, reality reminds us that the team’s leading scorer is only 21 and the reigning Conn Smythe winner is just 22 when the puck drops on Thursday night.