NHL.com is providing in-depth roster, prospect and fantasy analysis for each of its 30 teams throughout August. Today, the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Chicago Blackhawks have flipped their primary area of strength from front to back.
Rather than preserving an advantage in quality, proven forward depth, usually their calling card, the Blackhawks chose the opposite approach this offseason to stay under the $73 million NHL salary cap.
After trading Patrick Sharp and Brandon Saad last summer, the Blackhawks have traded Andrew Shaw, Teuvo Teravainen and Bryan Bickell this offseason. The lone forward addition was fourth-line right wing Jordin Tootoo, and the most significant acquisitions were free agent defensemen Brian Campbell and Michal Kempny, a 25-year-old rookie from the Kontinental Hockey League.
The message is clear: Chicago's system needs to produce some NHL-caliber forwards this season.
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"A lot of these guys have been with our system for several years, and in the past, it's been tough [for them]," general manager Stan Bowman said at the Blackhawks' annual fan convention in July. "We've had fewer [NHL] openings. So, I think right now our mindset is to go with the group that we have under contract right now. I think I want to give these guys a chance to show us they belong."
It's a group that includes rookies Vincent Hinostroza, Tanner Kero, Kyle Baun and Mark McNeill, who each made his NHL debut last season, along with rookie Ryan Hartman, the 30th pick in the 2013 NHL Draft. Also included are highly touted rookies Tyler Motte and Nick Schmaltz, who each excelled in college last season. The most pressing question is whether the Blackhawks have enough talent among that group to replace what they have lost.
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Five of the 12 forwards remain from the lineup in Game 6 of the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, when the Blackhawks clinched their most recent championship, against the Tampa Bay Lightning at United Center.
"It looks like we have some really young talent that can come in, step in right away and hopefully fill some of those players' shoes and be able to produce right away," said right wing Patrick Kane, who last season won the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player, the Art Ross Trophy as the League's leading scorer and the Ted Lindsay Award as most outstanding player voted by the NHL Players' Association. "I think that's something that's going to be big for us.
"We had some players that were obviously on our depth lines that could produce scoring last year, and obviously when you see players like [Shaw] and [Teravainen], and even [Bickell], go somewhere else, then someone else has a chance to step in and fill that void."
Two Russians helped to do that last season. Left wing Artemi Panarin was signed as a free agent from the KHL on May 1, 2015, and center Artem Anisimov was acquired June 30, 2015, from the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Saad trade. Each played on the second line with Kane to form one of the most potent combinations in the League, but it wasn't enough.
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The Blackhawks lacked a true replacement for Saad on the top line and had a shortage of quality depth in the bottom two lines, so they added three veteran forwards prior to the NHL Trade Deadline. The most significant one was Andrew Ladd, re-acquired in a trade with the Winnipeg Jets on Feb. 25 for young forward Marko Dano, a first-round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft and a conditional pick in the 2018 draft.
However, Chicago lost to the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference First Round of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and Ladd signed with the New York Islanders as a free agent on July 1. Now, it's up to the replenished defense to hold down the fort while a host of inexperienced forwards try to make a successful transition to the League.
Prior to signing Campbell and Kempny, and bringing back veteran Michal Rozsival on a one-year contract reportedly worth $600,000, the Blackhawks already had Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brent Seabrook, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Erik Gustafsson and Viktor Svedberg under contract. Campbell and Kempny should provide better balance and experience on the back end, and goalie Corey Crawford has become one of the NHL's best.
"You put all that together and our defense is looking very strong," Bowman said. "It's a strong point of our team right now."
It's a new approach as well. The Blackhawks have depended on young players to handle some key roles before, but not for this many spots all at once.
"This year, we can't forecast the number of players, but some of these guys can take that next step where they become established players," coach Joel Quenneville said. "I still think there's going to be a lot of [internal] competition. It'll sort itself out."