OK, so who's it going to be? Nick Schmaltz
? Tyler Motte
? Ryan Hartman
? Vincent Hinostroza
? Tanner Kero
Who's going to seize the opportunity with the Chicago Blackhawks this season? Who's going to grab the job openings at forward on a team that has won the Stanley Cup three times since 2010? Who's going to play in a lineup that includes Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa?
"The one thing I've told all those players was, 'I'm not sure which of you guys is going to make the team, but we're hoping you make the decision easy for us,'" Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman said. "I think the one thing that's different this year is they don't have a lot of veteran guys ahead of them, so they're essentially fighting amongst themselves. We've got a group of six to eight young players. A number of them are going to make it."
Who makes it could have a huge effect on how far the Blackhawks make it.
Bowman has faced the same challenge since the Blackhawks won the Cup in 2010: keeping his core intact and surrounding it with a strong supporting cast, while staying under the salary cap. It hasn't been easy. He parted with half the roster in 2010 and has had to tinker every year since to varying degrees. But he has had success finding players through the draft, the trade market and free agency.
After losing in the Western Conference First Round in 2011 and 2012, the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2013, went to overtime of Game 7 of the Western Conference Final in 2014 and won the Stanley Cup again in 2015. Then they lost in the first round last season and parted with forwards Andrew Ladd, Andrew Shaw, Teuvo Teravainen and Dale Weise.
Bowman has had to pay the price for players like Kane and Toews, who have the highest NHL salary-cap charges at $10.5 million each. Defenseman Brent Seabrook's salary-cap charge is $6.875 million. Goaltender Corey Crawford's is $6 million. Defenseman Duncan Keith's is $5.538 million. Hossa's is $5.275 million. There is only so much cap space to go around.
"You talk about the core players and players that are up for new contracts and raises and things like that," Kane said. "Those players deserve those raises and earned them. At the same time, you look at our core group, you can say it's still there. It's still intact. Whether it's kind of filtering players in and out to help advance the lineup as much as possible, that's just part of the business."
Kane pointed out how the Blackhawks lost players, won with new players and then lost those new players.
"Now you're looking for other players to step up," Kane said.
Last offseason, Bowman scored by signing Artemi Panarin as a free agent. Panarin had 30 goals and 47 assists on a line with Kane and Artem Anisimov, winning the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year and helping Kane win the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL scoring champion and the Hart Trophy as most valuable player. Panarin carried an $812,500 cap charge. He has one more season at that number before becoming a restricted free agent.
This offseason, Bowman made more low-cost moves that could turn out to be savvy. He solidified his defense by signing Brian Campbell to a one-year contract worth up to $2.25 million and Michal Kempny to a one-year, $700,000 contract. Campbell, a member of the 2010 Stanley Cup team, fits perfectly in the top four as a smart, skilled puck-mover. Kempny, who played in the Kontinental Hockey League last season, is slated for the third pair with a quiet, solid style. Bowman also signed gritty veteran forward Jordin Tootoo to a one-year, $750,000 contract.
Jobs remain open up front and the cap remains tight, however. Schmaltz, the 20th pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, and Motte, a fourth-round pick in 2013, showed offensive ability at the University of North Dakota and University of Michigan, respectively. Each left school early. Hartman, the 30th pick in 2013, had 15 goals and 20 assists in 61 games for Rockford of the American Hockey League last season. Hinostroza, a sixth-round pick in 2012, led Rockford in scoring with 51 points in 66 games. Kero tied for second on Rockford with 20 goals in 60 games. Hartman, Hinostroza and Kero each has played a handful of games for Chicago.
Can Schmaltz and Motte make the leap straight to the NHL and continue to produce? Can Hartman play the kind of prickly game Shaw did? Can Hinostroza be effective in the NHL at 5-foot-9? What can Kero do?
"The exciting thing for us is to really give some opportunities, real opportunities, for these young players to be able to find a spot on the team," Bowman said. "A lot of these guys have been in our system for several years, and in the past, it's been tough. We've had fewer openings.
"So I think right now our mindset is to go with the group that we have under contract right now, and it's a constantly changing picture. We'll assess it as it goes along. If we don't feel that it's the right thing, we can always look to do something later. I think I want to give these guys a chance to show they belong."
It's up to them.
"I think there's going to be a lot of competition to see who is that guy," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "That's how close it is in certain situations. That'll sort itself out."