Nov 6, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks left wing Artemi Panarin (72) checks Dallas Stars defenseman Esa Lindell (23) during the first period at United Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports
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Welcome back for another edition of the Chicago Blackhawks roundtable, with your friends at Blackhawk Up
Last week, we took a look at Chicago Blackhawks surprises and disappointments through the early portion of the season. Ahead of this week’s roundtable, there’s little to be disappointed about.
The Blackhawks have reeled off six straight victories, the latest two coming in a home-and-home sweep of the Dallas Stars that was completed Sunday. Concerns from the season’s first week seem to have evaporated.
It’s not like the Blackhawks can keep up this run forever (or can they?), but every point is important in a Central Division that’s likely to find its footing sooner rather than later.
Speaking of which, our first roundtable question this week happens to be focused on the Central Division. Let’s get into some Q&A with the Blackhawk Up team.
Nov 3, 2016; Dallas, TX, USA; St. Louis Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk (22) defends against Dallas Stars left wing Jamie Benn (14) during the third period at the American Airlines Center. The Stars beat the Blues 6-2. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Question No. 1: Who is the most dangerous Central Division opponent for the Chicago Blackhawks this season, and why?
Although I see Dallas putting up a big fight against the ’Hawks once the Stars start getting healthy, I’m going to have to go with St. Louis. As much as I can’t stand the Blues and hate crediting them for anything, they seem to have the Blackhawks’ number after winning last year’s regular-season meetings 3-2 and knocking off Chicago in the first round of last year’s playoffs.
Although it’s a much different looking team, I believe it’s a mental thing that give the ’Hawks fits vs. the Blues.
After sweeping the Blackhawks in all five regular-season games last year, including a 6-1 Stadium Series blowout, the Minnesota Wild will be looking to continue that success when the two teams square off in four meetings this year.
In a major move to inject more team offense, Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher brought in proven winner Bruce Boudreau as bench boss along with free agents Eric Staal and Chris Stewart. While star defenseman Ryan Suter leads the team with 10 points, 31-year-old Staal has found new life centering the top line, scoring 4 goals and 4 assists over the first 10 games.
Anchored by a deep, experienced blue line and Devan Dubnyk’s Vezina-quality goaltending, the Wild can consistently roll four dangerous lines. Erik Haula and Zach Parise should both be back from injuries for the first tilt against Chicago on January 15.
Even though they’re going through a slump, Nashville is still the biggest threat to the ’Hawks. They are loaded with talent and are searching for that winning formula, similar to the one the ’Hawks just discovered.
Come playoff time, any tam will have a hard time taking four of seven from these guys.
St. Louis Blues. The Blues currently sit right behind the Chicago Blackhawks for second place in the Central Division standings. They are 7-4-2 for 16 points, and the ’Hawks are 9-3-1, with 19 points. The Blues also beat the ’Hawks 5-2 in their first meeting of the season.
St. Louis made it to the Western Conference finals last year, and I would expect them to make another playoff push this season. Coming that close to the Stanley Cup is only going to provide extra motivation for them. They are a very strong and solid team, and they have always posed a huge threat for the Chicago Blackhawks.
The ’Hawks and the Blues have met in the first round of the playoffs twice in the last four years, with each team coming out on top once. Interestingly, the last two years the ’Hawks won the Stanley Cup, 2013 and 2015, they were fortunate enough NOT to match up against the Blues.
With the teams’ close proximity to each other and recent playoff matchups, there is an extra rivalry there. These two teams don’t like each other. I, for one, would rather not see them in the playoffs. Perhaps a win against the Blues this coming Wednesday could get them a little closer to that goal.
Before the season began, I picked Nashville to win the Central Division. I’m not moving from that pick just yet despite a slow start in Honky Tonk, so I’ll also say the Preds are the biggest threat to the Blackhawks this regular season.
We saw a key tenant of how the Preds will try to play moving forward during the two early-season games between these teams. They want their forwards to drive the action but their defensemen to finish it off. This got Nashville one win against Chicago, and it easily could’ve gotten two.
I’d attribute their slow start (3-5-3) to playing just four of their first 11 games at home. But maybe the team is struggling adjusting to Mike Fisher as the new captain. And goaltender Pekka Rinne looking absolutely ordinary early is never a good sign.
Still, the Preds have played just 11 games. I think they’ll get things turned around in a big way and pose a major threat to Chicago down the road.
It was very tempting to list one of the usual culprits here: the St. Louis Blues, the Nashville Predators or the Minnesota Wild. And while, without a doubt, all three of these teams will pose challenges for the ‘Hawks at some point during the season, strictly talking about the here and now, all the aforementioned squads have hid respective rough patches while our boys in red, white and black have hit their first of hopefully many strides this campaign. The only thing that will get in their way is their own need for perfection.
It’s imperative for the ‘Hawks to not get in their own way and define their game for 2016-17. That means not selling the farm if a cow gives sour milk (coach Joel Quenneville, I’m looking in your direction). There will be bad games here and there, but it’s important to let this team play through the obstacles together and let them form their championship chemistry.
Before the season, I would have thought that it was Nashville, but the Predators’ start to the season has left me with some questions early on. The Blues, on the other hand, have come out as expected this season and look to continue to be a threat to Chicago.
Any team with Vladimir Tarasenko is going to be a threat. Wednesday night’s game will be a good barometer to see where this Blackhawks team has come since their opening-night loss.
Nov 6, 2016; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith (2) skates with the puck against the Dallas Stars during the first period at United Center. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports
Question No. 2: How would you arrange the Blackhawks’ defensive pairings using the eight players currently on the roster (assume Trevor van Riemsdyk is healthy)?
TVR and Michal Rozsival have been the odd men out and I expect it to stay that way, but I see them both most likely getting paired with Kempny or Forsling on the bottom five and six pairing, with Hjammer being paired with Seabrook.
With Michal Kempny playing much better, I like the current pairings: Keith-Campbell, Kempny-Seabrook and Forsling-Hjalmarsson. Rozsival (No. 7) and TVR (No. 8) are scratches.
Rozsival has looked solid this year, and should get regular starts paired with either Kempny or Forsling on the left side. ‘Czech-mates’ Kempny and Rozsival have shown impressive synergy and mutual support when playing together.
When TVR gets healthy, pair him with Keith and give Campbell a rest. The number of other possible combinations gives me a headache.
Guy 3-Guy 4
The Blackhawks’ top pair needs to be reunited in the worst way. Stack your best D-men and let that third pairing of whomever get some experience. It’s pretty tough to play great defense and produce points in this league, unless you’re Duncan Keith.
This is a very difficult question. The pairings are going to change over the course of the season, as Q is experimenting with his new guys to find their strengths and weaknesses. He’s also testing his vets to see what he can get out of them.
But if the playoffs started tomorrow, I feel the strongest pairings would be this:
with TVR and Forsling on the outside.
I almost went with Hjammer on first pairing and Seabs on the second, but the above scenario provides more balance. Keith and Seabs have played well together for years, and are currently used often on the powerplay.
A Campbell/Hjalmarsson pairing allows Campbell to play on his natural left side, and Hjammer actually now prefers the right side to the left.
By this point, Kempny will have developed into a stronger option than Forsling. And Rozsival will have been used sparingly throughout the season. This will allow him to be fresh, and provide consistent play similar to what we’ve seen in the three games he’s played so far. Unless TVR has a huge turnaround, Rozy’s experience will be the way to go.
Duncan Keith and Brian Campbell together has been a somewhat sketchy combo of late. They’ve seemingly been on the ice for a fair number of goals against during the Blackhawks’ winning streak. It’s interesting, considering both of these guys are more than capable of moving the puck the other way.
I think these three pairings give the Blackhawks someone who can push the puck/chip in on offense (Keith, Campbell and Brent Seabrook) and someone who can stay at home a little more (Niklas Hjalmarsson, Gustav Forsling, Michal Kempny) in each duo.
There’s no need to explain why Keith-Hjammer works. I think Forsling and Campbell have also worked really well together in the past. Forsling seems extremely comfortable all across the ice despite his limited NHL experience, and he plays off the puck-moving Campbell pretty well.
I was nervous about the idea of Kempny-Seabrook entering the regular season, but Seabrook has been much better this season than last, and Kempny is rapidly picking up the NHL style of play. These three pairings should provide balance up and down the card.
Michal Rozsival has been better than expected, but he’s still an older guy who should be shifted in and out of the lineup. Trevor van Riemsdyk should just be shifted off the roster altogether.
Keith and Seabrook need to be reunited after such a long hiatus to rekindle their proven chemistry and set the defensive standard for the rest of the blue line to model after.
As a stay-at-home defenseman, Hammer needs a proven puck moving D-man in Soupy to complement his game the way Johnny Oduya did.
Forsling has been the best surprise on the blue line for the ‘Hawks this year, and right now he needs the full confidence of the coaching staff behind him to flourish. Putting Kempny in a timeshare with Rozy will force him to sharpen his game and play smarter than he is now by making him realize he has to earn his ice time.
Trevor van Riemsdyk has had more than his fair share of chances to prove he can be an effective blueliner for the Hawks and has failed. He shouldn’t be on the ice in the city of Chicago going forward for any reason.
I’m a big stickler on keeping defensive pairing that can do a little bit of everything. At the top, you put the best offensive and defensive defenders the Blackhawks have with Keith providing the offensive spark and Hjalmarsson backing the team defensively.
The second and third pairings are interchangeable for ice time in my book, but again it’s about offensive and defensive balance. Campbell can move the puck well and provide offensively while van Riemsdyk is more of a defensive presence, while both move well around the ice.
Seabrook is not a strictly defensive presence and can add a powerful shot offensively, but Kempny hasn’t been able to provide much offensively for the Blackhawks yet this season, so pairing him with Seabrook can curb that.
I still think Kempny is the more useful puck mover and shot-suppressor than Forsling, but I think it would be worth rotating Forsling and van Riemsdyk to make sure that both will have ample ice time to replace the minutes lost by Campbell leaving the team after this season.