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31 in 31

Inside look at Chicago Blackhawks

Forward Saad returns in busy offseason; inexperience on defense is concern

by Brian Hedger / NHL.com Correspondent

NHL.com is providing in-depth roster, prospect and fantasy analysis for each of its 31 teams throughout August. Today, the Chicago Blackhawks.

The theme for the Chicago Blackhawks this offseason is change after they were swept by the Nashville Predators in the Western Conference First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season.

Chicago made two blockbuster trades June 23, hours before the start of the 2017 NHL Draft following the season in which they were 50-23-9 and led the conference with 109 points but failed to win a playoff game.

Defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, a three-time Stanley Cup winner with the Blackhawks, was traded to the Arizona Coyotes for defenseman Connor Murphy and center Laurent Dauphin. Chicago later traded left wing Artemi Panarin, forward Tyler Motte and a sixth-round pick in the 2017 draft to the Columbus Blue Jackets for former Blackhawks forward Brandon Saad, goalie Anton Forsberg and a fifth-round pick in the 2018 draft. 

 

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Cost was a factor; Murphy (five) and Saad (four) each has more years left on his contract than Hjalmarsson (two) and Panarin (two). Murphy (24) is six years younger than Hjalmarsson (30), which also factored into the trade.

"[Murphy is] a young guy," Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman said. "He's played in [258 NHL games]. I think he's just about to enter the prime of his career. I think he's ready now to take that next step." 

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The concern is that a defense that was overmatched by the Predators in the postseason has become even more inexperienced. Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Michal Rozsival are the only returning defensemen who've won the Stanley Cup, and Rozsival, 38, isn't likely to play much. Chicago also lost defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk who played 58 games last season but was selected by the Vegas Golden Knights in the NHL Expansion Draft.

At least three defense spots will be filled by players with a year or two of NHL experience, including Gustav Forsling and Michal Kempny. 

Up front, the Blackhawks are counting on Saad reconnecting with center Jonathan Toews to form a potent top line with Richard Panik at right wing. Saad played in Chicago for four seasons, helping the Blackhawks win the Cup in 2013 and 2015, before he was traded to Columbus on June 30, 2015. 

"I think we're a little bit similar in the way we play, with our style," Saad said of himself and Toews. "[He] can play off the rush, but he can protect the puck very well down low. That's something I think we did fairly well together, with puck possession [and] wearing teams down before making them pay."

The Blackhawks lost veteran right wing Marian Hossa, who announced June 21 he would miss the season with a progressive skin disorder that could end his career.

Looking to fill the void, Bowman signed free agent forwards Patrick Sharp, Tommy Wingels and Lance Bouma on July 1. Sharp played 10 seasons with Chicago (2005-15) and won the Cup three times. He had hip surgery March 28 that ended his season with the Dallas Stars. 

"Physically, I feel great," he said. "It's been four months since the surgery to the hip, so I'm right on schedule. The season that I had last year, I don't think I've ever been as motivated to get back to the level I think I can play at." 

Video: Patrick Sharp discusses his return to the Blackhawks

Chicago also traded backup goalie Scott Darling to the Carolina Hurricanes on April 28 for a third-round pick in the 2017 draft, and signed two players from the Extraliga in the Czech Republic, defenseman Jan Rutta and forward David Kampf. 

A group of prospects will compete for roster spots in training camp, including forwards Alex DeBrincat and John Hayden.

Chicago also made changes off the ice. Assistant Mike Kitchen and Ted Dent, who coached their American Hockey League affiliate in Rockford, were fired in April. Ulf Samuelsson and Don Granato were hired as Blackhawks assistants, and Jeremy Colliton was hired to coach Rockford. 

"We have some new faces, and that's one thing I try to keep reminding people," Bowman said. "We're trying to create some new chemistry."

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