The Blackhawks open training camp Friday at the United Center, and play their first preseason game Tuesday in Columbus. A second straight first-round playoff exit and the Hawks’ perennial salary-cap issues prompted a significant roster overhaul by Stan Bowman, leading to one of the more intriguing camps in recent years. Here is a look at what to watch for at camp:
Blue line, red alert
Duncan Keith remains one of the best defensemen in the NHL. But after him, the Hawks — who dealt away Niklas Hjalmarsson and Trevor van Riemsdyk, and who decided against re-signing Brian Campbell and Johnny Oduya — have plenty of question marks on the blue line. Can newcomer Connor Murphy be a top-pairing defenseman? Can Brent Seabrook, with seven years left on his contract, still be an elite defenseman as he approaches his mid-30s? Can Michal Kempny and Gustav Forsling become reliable everyday players in their second NHL seasons? Can veteran Cody Franson, in camp on a tryout, be the answer on the right side of the third pairing? And what do the Hawks have in Michal Rozsival (still reportedly feeling the effects of a concussion suffered in the spring), Jan Rutta (imported from the Czech Republic) and Jordan Oesterle (who couldn’t stick with the Oilers)? It could take all year to find out the answers, and the Hawks might not like all of them.
Early reports have Patrick Sharp looking at or close to 100 percent since hip surgery ended his second season in Dallas. The 35-year-old Sharp likely will get the first crack at replacing Artemi Panarin on Patrick Kane’s line. Sharp’s shot never left, so if his speed is back to pre-surgery levels and he avoids further concussion issues, he could be a 20-goal guy and one of the best bargains in the league. Or he could give the Hawks’ bottom-six some desperately needed scoring punch. But how much does he have left?
The Hawks’ top eight or nine is pretty well set, assuming top prospect Alex DeBrincat starts the season in Rockford, as expected. But who will join Tanner Kero on the fourth line, which has been a key in all three of the Hawks’ Stanley Cup runs since 2010? Will veterans Lance Bouma, Tommy Wingels and Jordin Tootoo — all on one-way contracts — be able to hold off younger players such as John Hayden, Vinnie Hinostroza and Kyle Baun? Or will the kids force the Hawks’ hand?
Marcus Kruger is in Carolina, Marian Hossa is in semi-retirement, Niklas Hjalmarsson is in Arizona, Johnny Oduya is in Ottawa, Dennis Rasmussen is in Anaheim, and Andrew Desjardins is in New York on a PTO. So who will join Jonathan Toews, Tanner Kero, Keith and Seabrook in the penalty-kill rotation? The Hawks had a top-10 PK unit in 2010, 2013, and 2015. When the PK is down, so are the Hawks. As for the power play, will Sharp step in for Artemi Panarin in the left circle, or will he return to his familiar place on the point?