Chicago Blackhawks Season Preview: Wings

This is the second part of our preseason series looking at the Blackhawks’ roster heading into training camp in 2010. In the first part, we focused on the centers on the roster. Now, in the second edition, we’ll focus on the skaters that will work with those centers: the wings.

We’re not going to continue beating the “roster turnover” drum here, because that’s an overplayed and overstated piece of the Hawks summer. By now most Hawks fans are just as sick of hearing about the guys that are gone as they are about spending $150 on a jersey with the name of one of the departed on it.

However, for the sake of remembering the wings that the Hawks will have to replace this year, here they are:

  • Kris Versteeg
  • Dustin Byfuglien
  • Andrew Ladd
  • Ben Eager
  • Adam Burish

We already discussed the impact of losing John Madden and Colin Fraser at center, both of whom should be more than adequately replaced by a healthy Dave Bolland and Ryan Potulny. However, at wing there is a unique group leaving the roster that leaves some question regarding how, and who, will take their place.

Let’s circle back to the critical (and inappropriate) assumption that the Blackhawks roster was left empty by the summer exodus.

It was not.

Of the 12 forwards that will dress for Opening Night, at least eight of them were on the NHL roster in Chicago at some point last year. Adding the reality that the Hawks will begin the season with Bolland and Marian Hossa both fully healthy this year is already an upgrade to this time 12 months ago. Here are the wings that will return to the team this year:

  • Patrick Kane – 82 GP, 88 pts (30 G, 58 A), +16
  • Marian Hossa – 57 GP, 51 pts (24 G, 27 A), +24
  • Troy Brouwer – 78 GP, 40 pts (22 G, 18 A), +9
  • Tomas Kopecky – 74 GP, 21 pts (10 G, 11 A), E
  • Bryan Bickell – 16 GP, 4 pts (3 G, 1 A), +4

If Hossa performs at a level around his career averages, he’ll be pushing Kane for the team lead in points in April next year. Brouwer and Kopecky are both coming off career-best seasons, and hope to improve again in the final years of both of their respective contracts.

Fortunately, the Blackhawks planned ahead for the day when the list of departed players would have to leave.

Bickell not only saw quality regular season time on the third and fourth lines in a checking role, but also played as a primary power forward with Jonathan Toews and Kane in the first round of the playoffs (even while Byfuglien was on the roster). Where he will skate this year is open to some debate, but the three-year commitment he received from the Hawks this summer indicates that the organization believes in him and hopes he can use his 6’4, 223 pound frame to make life miserable for opponents.

Another safe assumption is that Viktor Stalberg, who was acquired from Toronto in the deal sending Versteeg north, will make the NHL roster. He’s an elite skater and showed flashes of solid scoring ability last year with the Leafs, posting nine goals in only 40 games. At 6’3 and 210 pounds, Stalberg is five inches and 30 pounds bigger than Versteeg, but could bring a similar game to the ice this year. And, at just 24 years old, the roster got older by only a matter of months by replacing Versteeg with Stalberg; the only difference (and a big one) is Versteeg’s NHL experience.

Versteeg will be the toughest of the departing Blackhawks to replace. Despite being a Calder Trophy finalist just a year ago, most fans were torn about how to feel regarding the would-be rapper. The things he could do with the puck in open ice led to him being called “Patrick Kane Light” on many occasions, but his tendencies to make bad plays at critical times led to a lot of spilled beer and foul language as well.

However, as the regular season concluded and the playoffs began, Versteeg began to assume a more prominent role on special teams. He saw a lot of time on the second penalty killing line with Bolland in the playoffs, and played well in that role. Similarly, because of his ability to put the puck in the net he was a central figure on the secondary power play unit, and was effective there as well. By the end of the postseason, Versteeg was one of the few forwards on the Blackhawks roster that was contributing to every aspect of the game.

So while Bickell can be seen as a replacement option for Byfuglien’s size, and Stalberg’s frame is closer to Ladd despite his skating leading to Versteeg comparisons, the question for many fans is how will the Hawks fill out their lines, and complete their power play and penalty kill units to be as effective as they were last year.

Here is how the lines could look when the season opens:

  • Hossa-Toews-Stalberg
  • Kane-Sharp-Brouwer
  • Pisani-Bolland-Kopecky
  • Bickell-Potulny-_______

Something that undoubtedly sticks out from these projected lines is the separation of Kane and Toews. This shouldn’t be a shock to most Blackhawks fans, though; at the beginning of the 2009-10 season, Quenneville tried to break up his two young superstars. It didn’t work, though, as the injuries keeping Hossa off the ice and Bolland not skating at 100 percent made for unbalanced lines and awkward play; the Hawks hadn’t fully committed to Sharp at center at that point, either.

However, as the playoffs progressed, Quenneville came back to his plan to break the two up (with Byfuglien moving as well), and this time it was a success. Toews skated with Hossa and Kopecky, while Kane skated with Sharp and either Byfuglien or Brouwer later in the playoffs and the two were able to play effectively and score well independent of each other.

Putting Stalberg’s skating ability and good hands on a line with Hossa and Toews is the best opportunity for him (or anyone who can stand up on ice) to succeed. Similarly, Kane and Brouwer worked well together with Toews last year, and could do equally well with Sharp between them this year.

The checking line and fourth line is where there could be some movement, and you’ll notice one empty spot on the lines that’s still to be determined.

When the Blackhawks added Fernando Pisani, they brought in one of the more respected penalty killers in the league. Adding him to Potulny, who ranked tenth among all NHL forwards in blocked shots last year, the Blackhawks suddenly have great depth and Joel Quenneville will have options to work with this year.

What’s important about having guys like Pisani and Potulny on the roster is that they will fill the ice time left by Madden leaving the penalty kill, allowing Quenneville to use someone other than Toews and Hossa if (heaven forbid!) they need a break. In the postseason last year, the average ice time for Toews, Hossa and Bolland escalated because of the prominent roles all three played in killing penalties and the offensive power play; Pisani and Potulny will give Quenneville two options in whom he can have confidence.

Quenneville will have to decide if he want Pisani’s experience with Bolland on the checking line, a very good possibility, or if he wants to go bigger with Bickell and/or Kopecky. There’s a very good chance that the bottom two lines will be fluid throughout the season, and that matchup will dictate who’s skating where.

In June, it looked more and more like there would be a wild, fascinating competition for a handful of kids to break into the NHL this year. Many, including CommittedIndians, assumed players like Jake Dowell, Jack Skille, Kyle Beach, and even someone like Hugh Jessiman or Rob Klinkhammer had a shot at making the cut. However, with the additions of quality veterans like Pisani and Potulny, the available roster spots just aren’t there any more.

If we were handicapping the final spot on the 12-forward lines on Opening Night, the smart money would be on Skille.

Still only 23, Skille has been an enigma in the Hawks organization since being selected seventh overall in the 2005 Draft. He’s posted decent numbers, but has failed to translate effectively into the NHL; he’s also had trouble breaking through the concrete ceiling of free agent acquisitions like Martin Havlat, Hossa and Kopecky and players added via trade like Ladd.

Because of his draft position, and the Hawks’ salary cap issues, Skille had trouble getting a legitimate chance in the NHL last year because of his cap number. However, with a new one-year deal in place with a lower cap number, this will probably be Skille’s first (and potentially last) shot at making the Blackhawks. At 6’1 and 215 pounds, Skille has the size to factor into the rotation well, and he’s been able to score consistently in his AHL career. Perhaps in 2010-11 fans will finally see why the Hawks picked him over Anze Kopitar, TJ Oshie and Niclas Berfors… just a few of the names to be called after Skille in 2005’s first round.

The Blackhawks have enough cap space to accommodate bench depth, so Dowell, Jeff Taffe, Igor Makarov or even perhaps Jessiman could find a way onto the bench because of their cap numbers. Just a few weeks ago the competition was thought to be for third and fourth line spots; now it appears to be for bench depth.

The trickle down from the belief that Skille will make the roster is that another top pick, Beach, isn’t in the NHL. In my opinion, Beach should go to Rockford and be glad he’s going there.

Beach has had a tough summer, struggling to score at the Hawks prospect camp in July and now struggling in the Maple Leafs Rookie Tournament. He’s played with a physical edge that GM Stan Bowman has encouraged, but he hasn’t shown the scoring ability that made him such a threat coming out of juniors.

Given the number of top prospects the Blackhawks have signed this summer, Beach should welcome the opportunity to build chemistry with some of the young talent for a season. Being able to play with Jeremy Morin, perhaps Makarov, Brandon Pirri, Brandon Bollig, Evan Brophey and other top prospects will help the Blackhawks develop talent together, bringing up players together in the future to give the team a seamless transition when other veterans leave the team down the road.

Overall, the Blackhawks lost a number of forwards but they have adequately replaced their losses and could actually have a better forward group in place to begin this season than 12 months ago.

4 thoughts on “Chicago Blackhawks Season Preview: Wings

  1. Said it before and I’m saying it again..
    Toews between Kane and Brouwer – it’s worked before; it can work again.
    Bolland centers Hossa and Kopecky – a defensive-offensive unit resembling the Bolland/Havlat/Ladd line 2 years ago. Kopecky seems to play well with his buddy Hossa.
    Sharp with Stalberg and Skille – size and speed to burn for a 3rd scoring line, if the line doesn’t work it will be due to defensive issues.
    Pisani, Bickell, Dowell, Potulny, and I’m thinking Makarov get 4th line and some special teams work, and some needed line changes when things aren’t quite clicking. I’m wondering if Jeff Taffe could get some time in a slot somewhere. I’d think him ahead of Beach at this point, based on Beach’s rookie camp. Hope I am wrong about him but I question his level of poise at the NHL level.

  2. Did you just make up stuff about Beach? He led his league in goals last year and I believe he just scored a hat trick in the rookie tournament. His problem is dumb penalties, not scoring prowess!

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