As the Blackhawks won two tough Western Conference games over the weekend, it was easy to forget they were skating without two of their elite playmakers. Marian Hossa and Patrick Kane were both out of the lineup, and reports on Tuesday are that they will continue to be out of action until after Christmas.
Viktor Stalberg, who has been out since being boarded in last Wednesday’s game against the Avalanche, has reportedly been cleared to return tomorrow night.
What could become an intriguing situation is the roster dynamics when Hossa and Kane are back with the team.
Ryan Johnson, who was just signed late last week, has been very good as a fourth line center. His presence in the lineup is intended to keep Patrick Sharp at wing, which has worked out extremely well while Kane and Hossa have been missing. The line of Sharp with Troy Brouwer and Jonathan Toews has been exceptional in the last few games.
So who loses out when Stalberg, Hossa and Kane return?
If Johnson stays as the fourth line center, it appears the Blackhawks are set down the middle moving forward. Toews, Dave Bolland, Jake Dowell and Johnson all played well this weekend, and there is no reason to believe the Hawks would move a center.
At wing, a number of players would appear to be safe. Obviously Sharp and Brouwer won’t be going anywhere, and adding Kane and Hossa to the mix leaves just four active spots available at the wing and six players fighting for ice time.
Bryan Bickell has been on a roll lately, and now has nine goals and nine assists. He is fashioning himself in a similar mold to Brouwer as a quietly effective power forward. He should stick in the lineup.
Stan Bowman may need to help coach Joel Quenneville with this decision.
Based on production, the choice to move (read: dump) John Scott would figure to be an easy one. In 26 games, he has one assist and 38 penalty minutes. But Bowman gave him a two-year deal this summer, and teams rarely shop for a boxer on skates.
Next in line to move may be Jack Skille. He’s had trouble getting (and staying) off the fourth line this year, and has only four goals on 92 shots. While his effort has been worthy of recognition, it’s been his inability to finish could cost him a spot.
There will undoubtedly be a battle for the final forward spot between Skille and Stalberg. Each has displayed great speed up and down the ice, though, which gives both trade value. However, both have struggled to stay out of Quenneville’s doghouse at times this year and both will be a restricted free agent next summer.
One point of consideration that may favor Stalberg is that he was a central piece in the trade for Kris Versteeg this summer, while Skille was drafted five years ago and has failed to stick in the NHL. General Managers have been known to make moves with their personal hubris in mind, and when the money’s the same it may come down to Bowman having acquired Stalberg while Skille was drafted by someone else.
There is, of course, one other forward that could be playing his way out of Chicago.
As we’ve discussed on a number of occasions, Tomas Kopecky is in the final year of a contract and is having his best season in the NHL. Unlike Brouwer, Stalberg, Skille and Dowell, Kopecky will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, and is playing well above his $1.2M cap number.
Reality is simple: Kopecky’s value will never be higher, and the minute the season ends the Blackhawks no longer have the ability to trade him.
While Bowman may need to kiss the ring and make sure dealing Kopecky is OK with his homeboy, Hossa, it should be a no-brainer. The Blackhawks have younger, cheaper players that are the future of the organization and, if the Hawks really wanted to bring Kopecky back after this year, they would be able to on July 1.
Odds are that Jassen Cullimore passed through waivers to make a demotion possible off the blue line, but the problem there is that he has been better than Nick Boynton and Jordan Hendry. Hendry, who has only played in 16 games, could find himself on the way out of town as well.