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It’s finally that time of year when the ice is the freshest, the optimism is highest, and somehow the locker room is a smelly as ever. It’s the opening of Chicago Blackhawks training camp.
Since May 8, 2023, Blackhawks fans have been waiting for their opportunity to see Connor Bedard in action with the organization. There was a sampler platter served up during the Tom Kurvers Rookie Showcase camp and games last weekend in Minnesota, but the real deal is finally here. Bedard, along with the rest of the Blackhawks hit the ice at the Fifth Third Arena on Thursday morning to open training camp, the second under the guidance of head coach Luke Richardson and general manager Kyle Davidson.
Tons of eyes will be on Bedard, the 2023 first-overall pick, when camp opens on Thursday and rightfully so. He’s the biggest set of shoulders on the ice that the future of the organization rests on. It’s not just him, but he’s the focal point. Bedard will be joined by a number of young players looking to carve their space into the Blackhawks organization like Lukas Reichel, Kevin Korchinski, Wyatt Kaiser, and Alex Vlasic to name a few. They’ll be led by a veteran core of players returning to the Blackhawks this season like Tyler Johnson, Seth Jones, and Connor Murphy, as well as long-time NHLers but new to Chicago’s locker room in Taylor Hall, Corey Perry, and Nick Foligno.
Expectations for the Blackhawks this year are still low and should still be tempered by fans. Even with Connor Bedard in the mix, this is still likely a team that will miss the playoffs and have good odds in the 2024 Draft Lottery. But at the very least, the 2023-24 season should feel much different than last year. The idea of “tanking” is not a prevalent as it was last year and the anticipated doom and gloom of the eventual departures of legends like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews don’t loom over the organization. It will feel different. At the very least, it should be more entertaining because more matters for the club this year.
With that in mind, here are the biggest storylines the CHGO Blackhawks crew are looking forward to as training camp begins.
Enter the Connor Bedard era
Mario – There’s no denying it: Connor Bedard will be special. Yes, we should have expectations low so as to not be disappointed if he isn’t the Hart Trophy winner as a rookie and doesn’t put up 100+ points. But, the low expectations for Bedard, in my mind, are at least hitting 70-75 points and scoring 30+ goals. Even with the talent, or lack thereof, around him this season, given what we’ve seen of him as a player in the WHL with the Regina Pats and playing for Team Canada in the various junior tournaments in recent years, his ability to shoot the puck and create his own space alone gives him the ability and expectations to score at the NHL level. Bedard’s floor is higher than most of the players in the league’s ceilings are. He’s that good and I have zero doubts he’ll eventually be even better than that.
Jay – It’s become fashionable over the last, oh, say 25 years to immediately dismiss “the next big thing.” There are still people tying themselves in knots about LeBron James, who, at worst, ended up being the third-best player in NBA history after all of the warranted hype. I’m not saying Connor Bedard is going to be a top three player of all-time, but there might be a point in his career where’s he’s a top three player in the league, and guess what…you can and should be excited about that. Saturday’s Rookie Showcase game was just a glimpse into what’s to come with Bedard. Yes, he was playing against a handful of guys who may never sniff the NHL, but with the way he scored, it doesn’t really make a difference. Since before the Blackhawks won the draft lottery, we’ve heard about Bedard’s legendary shot. It was on display against the defenseless Baby Blues on Saturday, and I can’t wait to see it unleashed on NHL goalies. Remember, it’s okay to be optimistic. It’s okay to be hopeful. It’s okay to enjoy things. The Blackhawks have landed their next superstar. Sit back and enjoy while you can. If the dynasty of the 2010’s taught us anything, it’s that good things end before you even know they’re over.
Greg – All the pain last season was to put the Blackhawks in the best position to win the draft lottery and get Bedard in the organization. Now, we finally get the reward from one of the toughest seasons in franchise history. The young phenom teased us with a hat trick at the Tom Kurvers Prospect Showcase. While many were quick to point out that the three goals were against other prospects, but that release is going to embarrass a lot of NHL goaltenders for the next decade plus.
Half of me wants to curb my expectations, while the other half wants to predict that Teemu Selanne’s rookie goal record is in serious jeopardy. I don’t think the pressure is going to get to this kid. Sure, there will be some growing pains and he will need to make some adjustments, but I am not worried about that. Bedard has a work ethic and a desire to be the best player possible that few players in the league possess. He is going to keep evolving and working at improving his game. At the end of the year, I think he will have 36 goals and 81 points and will start his hardware collection with the Calder Trophy.
Lukas Reichel Starting the Season at Center
Jay – I was somewhat surprised to hear how definitive Kyle Davidson was when asked if he envisioned Lukas Reichel as a center or as a winger.
“We envision him in the middle,” Davidson said. No hemming. No, “We’ll see what happens.” Reichel will get the chance to start his first full-time NHL season at center, where he played almost exclusively in Rockford.
We’ve been asked, “If they planned on him playing center, why didn’t he play there as the season ended last year?” It’s a fair question and one I’ve asked myself. If I’m thinking from the Blackhawks perspective, it might not have been ideal to throw a kid from the AHL to full-time NHL center duty right away. This way, he gets to work all offseason on face-offs and the defensive part of his game, so he can step in day one, ready to play a center’s game.
Immediately, the focus will be on how Reichel does from the face-off circle. Yes, it’s an important element of playing center, but it’s not the only thing that comes with the job. Pay closer attention to his work without the puck and in the neutral and defensive zones. The Hawks can live with a face-off percentage below 50% if he’s doing everything else correctly.
Lineup wise, Reichel’s move to center gives the Hawks much flexibility. I took a stab at the Blackhawks offensive lines, and here’s what I came up with.
That lineup is better and deeper than anything we saw last season. Every player on the ice is an NHL talent, and while the 2022-23 Blackhawks had Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Max Domi up front, there were too many AHL forwards on the bottom six. This year’s team might not be top-heavy, but it’s certainly deeper.
New Leadership Dynamics
Greg – One of the biggest things to come out of Davidson’s press conference on Tuesday was that the Blackhawks will not name a captain for the 2023-24 season. Just because there won’t be a guy wearing the ‘C’ on his sweater doesn’t mean this team won’t have a leader. In fact, they will have a huge leadership group in the locker room. Despite only one postseason appearance since 2017, this team has over 550 games of Stanely Cup Playoff experience.
There are plenty of veterans to help lead the influx of young talent coming into the NHL over the course of the season. Guys like Connor Murphy, Seth Jones, and Tyler Johnson are carryovers from last season. They were the first guys Davidson and Luke Richardson looked to when they wanted to lay the foundation for a winning culture. Throw in the additions of Taylor Hall, Corey Perry, Ryan Donato, and Nick Foligno and you have quite the impressive leadership corps, despite not having an actual captain. This group has collectively seen it all, including winning the Stanley Cup. They will be the calming force when things get intense, as well as being the guys who need to light the fire when they aren’t intense enough.
What Will Be Kevin Korchinski’s Timeline?
Mario – According to general manager Kyle Davidson on Tuesday, “everything is on the table” regarding how the Blackhawks will handle young defenseman Kevin Korchinski. He’s just 19 years old, so playing in the AHL with the Rockford IceHogs is not an option. So it’ll either be spending time in the NHL or going back to play in the WHL with the Seattle Thunderbirds. What I like about how Davidson and the organization is going to handle Korchinski is that it is going to be based on his play. If he plays well and shows that he deserves to play in the NHL, that’s where he’ll be. If not, he will go back to Seattle and take some more time to marinate in Juniors before making a full-time jump to the NHL in Chicago.
What Chicago wants to do is avoid the mistakes made with former young defensemen in Ian Mitchell, Henri Jokiharju, Adam Boqvist, etc. and not overload a young defenseman just because they have high expectations or because they were a high draft pick. The Blackhawks have nothing but time on their hands for Korchinski to become fully NHL-ready. He doesn’t have to win a Norris as a rookie and he can continue to mature his game, on and off the ice, with time in Juniors if that’s the route the team sees fit for him.
So Few Defensive Spots, So Many Options
Jay – I can’t wait to see how the Blackhawks’ defense shakes out this season. One of the spots seems like Kevin Korchinski’s to lose…partly because he’s looked really good so far, and partly because Rockford is not an option for the 19-year-old blue-liner.
Seth Jones (RD) and Connor Murphy (RD) are guaranteed spots. Jarred Tinordi (LD) seems to have a spot locked down, as well. That leaves three spots for some combination of Nikita Zaitsev (RD), Alex Vlasic (LD), Wyatt Kaiser (LD), Isaak Phillips (LD) and Filip Roos (LD).
Kaiser played exceedingly well at Rookie Camp and at the Tom Kurvers Rookie Showcase. The Blackhawks even put the ‘C’ on his jersey for Saturday’s exhibition. It should also be noted that the only players the Hawks decided to “rest” for the second Kurvers game were Bedard and Kaiser.
Meanwhile, Vlasic has played well in his NHL time over the last two seasons. Frankly, if he doesn’t make the team, I’ll be surprised. That means you have Korchinski, Kaiser, and Vlasic on the left side. Does that mean Tinordi sits for Zaitsev? Doubtful. Does that mean a rookie defenseman has to start his career on his off side? I’m not sure what sense that makes either. This is the conundrum Luke Richardson is faced with. I can’t wait to see it play out.
Expectations Between the Pipes
Greg – The Blackhawks enter their second season with Petr Mrazek as their top goaltender. Whether he remains in that spot throughout the whole season is another conversation. The veteran netminder gave us a bit of everything last season. He had a string of games where he looked great and some where he was the exact opposite of great.
And then there were the injuries. There are always injuries.
Staying on the ice has been Mrazek’s biggest challenge during his career and you are always worried that the next injury is just around the corner. Arvid Söderblom will be the backup to start the season, but the opportunity will be there to earn more starts. I see these two being handled much like Mrazek and Alex Stalock were last season when they were both healthy. Whoever is playing better will get the nod.
Söderblom has looked great in his two AHL seasons, but that has not carried over to consistent success at the NHL level. He will need to improve on his 3.45 goals-against average (GAA) and .894 save percentage (SV%) if he wants to pry more starts away from Mrazek.
Drew Commesso’s arrow is pointing up as he begins his first professional season. The Rockford net will be his and he will get the bulk of the starts with the IceHogs. However, don’t rule out Commesso making his NHL debut at some point this season. With Mrazek’s injury history, it is likely only a matter of time before a goaltender must be recalled from the AHL. The first nod may go to Jaxson Stauber, who started six games last season, but of Commesso is playing well, he may get a look too.
Year Two of Luke Richardson
Mario – When taking over the head coaching job last season, Luke Richardson was getting his first taste of being a full-time head coach in the NHL after a long playing career and several tenures as a minor league head coach and NHL assistant. There was almost universal praise for Richardson as he took the job from those who had played with him over the years and played under him at his various AHL and NHL stops. He came into a less-than-desirable situation in Chicago with a Blackhawks tram set up to lose games. But he made that difficult on Kyle Davidson’s unspoken “tank” plan as Richardson had one of the worst rosters in the NHL competing nightly and being in competitive games they usually had no business in. While that didn’t translate to wins on the record books, it was clear his coaching style and message was well-received by the locker room. He focused on keeping the X’s and O’s simple and letting the team’s work ethic and instincts take over.
Now heading into his second year behind the bench with a “generational talent” in Connor Bedard, a roster without Chicago legends in Toews and Kane, and expectations still low, how does Richardson improve on his first year with seemingly nowhere to go but up? I’m interested to see if the schematics within the team change or become a bit more dynamic with a different roster makeup and another year of his system in place. I’m also very interested to see if the players who were here last season (i.e. Connor Murphy, Seth Jones, Tyler Johnson) continue to buy-into his message and style in another season that will likely finish with significantly more losses than wins once again. Can he get this roster to compete the same way he had them last season?
Who Might Be Surprise Prospects in Camp?
Jay – The Hawks really have a log jam at forward, as I pointed out above. If my predicted lines come true, that means Colin Blackwell, MacKenzie Entwistle, Boris Katchouk and Reese Johnson, all of whom played major roles with the Hawks last season, are not on the opening night roster. It would take a huge performance for a Rockford forward to leapfrog those guys to earn a roster spot. That said, I could see Colton Dach quickly moving to the top of the Hawks call-up list. There’s a maturity to his game that, in my mind, elevates him over the Ryder Rolstons and Jayen Luypens of the world.
If the Hawks get in injury trouble, Dach could bypass one of the aforementioned forwards who spent time in the NHL last season.
Battle in the Bottom-Six
Greg – Davidson added a lot of veterans in the offseason, which is not great news for some of the guys who had cemented roster spots last season. With the likes of Perry, Donato, and Foligno in the mix there will be a couple of regular forwards we saw last year on the outside looking in. Mainly, Colin Blackwell, Boris Katchouk, Mackenzie Entwistle, and Reese Johnson are going to have to duke it out for only two spots.
Blackwell’s speed and experience on the penalty-kill may give him the advantage. If we get the Katchouk from March and April to start training camp, it will be hard to keep him out of the lineup. Things are not looking great for Johnson and Entwistle, but they will have training camp and the preseason to make their cases. Of course, whoever doesn’t make the squad on day one will likely see action as inevitable injury replacements are needed. It will be very interesting to see how this group looks on day one now that they have jobs to play for.
Embracing Nick Foligno and Corey Perry
Mario – He’s our pudwhack now. Was I as surprised as the rest of you when Corey Perry was announced as a signing by the Blackhawks? Yes. But, at the same time, you can absolutely see why he was brought into the organization. You have a player who is a former MVP-caliber NHLer, a Stanley Cup winner, and now playing on the back-nine of his career, has made a space for himself as both a leader in whatever locker room he is in and a peen to play against on the ice. Perry has 1,257 NHL games played, not counting postseason, and is bringing that experience and leadership into a locker room that is going to be younger and more inexperienced than last season. He’ll be able to be a guide to those younger players, without taking up too much air within the room, and be able to play a pest and protective role on the ice. Perry is a player that 31 other teams hate to play against and 31 other fanbases love to cheer against. He has his history against the Blackhawks, but I have a feeling a lot of that will subside very quickly within the United Center this season.
As for Nick Foligno, I have yet to come across someone with a bad thing to say about him as a player and person. Much like Perry, Foligno is a leader and veteran who is coming into this younger Blackhawks locker room and providing a mentorship role without being THE GUY in the room. Both he and Perry are no longer going to be looked at as point on-ice producers like they used to be in their careers, but don’t be surprised if they both factor in a couple of pinball points by being guys who will go to the front of the net and get bounces and rebounds to go their way. Both are players who will stick up for teammates, go to the rough areas of the ice, and be players who can create some space for their linemates. Along with Perry, I’ll be shocked if Foligno isn’t a player who Blackhawks fans, even in a short-term basis, don’t fall in love with.
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