Photo: AP

Four pre-season games down, three to go. Camp started with 60 players, and after Monday’s cuts we are now at 31. Seven goalies started camp, three remain. One of Chicago’s first-round thoroughbreds was surreptitiously yanked from a game roster and sent packing. And an 18-year-old second-round draft pick is making a serious case for getting signed and added to the roster on October 7th.

What started out as a dull camp with very few questions to be answered has turned out to be quite an exciting and eventful time indeed.

Camp is complicated this year due to the absence of the two Patricks: Patrick Sharp due to an appendectomy in early September; and Patrick Kane as he continues to heal from wrist surgery this past summer. Both are question marks for opening night (Kane likely a “go”, Sharp likely a “no”), so even if the young guys don’t land a roster spot, they’re hoping to get in one or two games in relief of one of the ailing Patricks. It also makes prognosticators’ jobs all the harder.

So we’re going to break the boys down into four categories today, ranging from ‘Excellent’ to ‘Not Really Feeling It’, focusing on anyone we didn’t see in a Blackhawks uniform last season, and some others who have stood out — one way or the other.

EXCELLENT:

Brandon Saad — This kid came out of nowhere on the camp radar, notching one goal and an assist in Friday’s game against the Capitals, and looking like a stud alongside Jonathan Toews and Viktor Stalberg. His goal on Tomas Vokoun says it all: he’s a left-handed shot, yet he managed to pick the top-right corner over Vokoun’s blocker on the long side. The kid’s either got luck by the bucket, or he’s got exceptional shot placement. Methinks the latter.

Brandon Pirri — He took the Winnipeg and Pittsburgh games to get warmed up, then had a break-out game on Sunday. Pirri had two goals and an assist, plus Chicago’s only tally in the shootout — and also saw time on the PP and PK units. Rumbles on Monday were suggesting he has passed Marcus Kruger as the Blackhawks’ hope for a 3rd/4th line center (for more on Kruger, see the “Not Really Feeling It” section below). Fluke, or the real thing? The only way to know for sure is, let the kid play.

SOLID:

Jamal Mayers — There’s a spring in this guy’s step, he’s jacked to be in Chicago, and it shows. Mayers got into his first scrap on Friday and showed why we got him: he jumps in to protect the smaller/younger guys, and delivers the smack-down.

Rostislav Olesz — At this point he appears to be Michael Frolik’s slightly larger twin. He’s quick, has good hands, can win battles in the corners, and has good shot placement. Work ethic, attitude and endurance we won’t know about until the season gets going. But I think at this point a “successful” camp for Olesz is not sucking. He’s over that hurdle, and at $3+ million per, thank goodness.

Viktor Stalberg — I saw Viktor at the Training Camp Festival, and I knew if he kept up that pace and confidence, he was in for a good year. So far he has, and it’s paying off. With two goals on four shots and +3 on the night against Washington, he showed that he can be a top-six winger when he wants to be.

COULD BE WORSE:

Sami Lepisto — Signed in the off-season to provide some depth on the blue line, so far Lepisto hasn’t really defined himself. He has great puck control and good mobility, but he pinches deep at the oddest times and with no support down low. Most of these expeditions end up with him losing the puck and scrambling back to cover his man. But it’s early yet.

Steve Montador — His highlight-reel moment so far is tripping over the face-off circle and handing over the game-tying goal against the Caps. Not exactly what one wants to be remembered for. But otherwise he’s been what we were looking for: a responsible, stay-at-home defenseman. It’s pre-season, so he’s allowed that Mulligan.

NOT REALLY FEELING IT:

Daniel Carcillo — His only tangible impact on camp so far is getting an offensive-zone penalty that wound up handing a power play goal to Detroit (*spitting noise*) after 6 seconds. If keeping him on the roster means sentencing the team to cleaning up his fool-idiot mistakes all year long, I say “pass” and kick his ass to the curb.

Marcus Kruger — I’m actually not surprised by this, though I must admit I’m disappointed. Kruger was brought over at the tail end of last year and thrown into the deep end on the Blackhawks roster with 7 games to go in the regular season. A charitable characterization of his performance would be that he looked like a deer in the headlights. Unfortunately, very little has changed.

Alexander Salak — Everyone wants this guy to do well, but the reality of the matter is that his game needs tweaking. He’s got a good-sized frame, but he commits too early and his “butterfly” stance isn’t wide enough. He keeps his knees together too much, he is totally blind in traffic and has poor rebound control. His weakness is up high, glove-side, and teams have already figured that out. A year adjusting his style will help a ton, since he does have great reflexes.

Ray Emery — With Salak not quite ready I was really hoping Emery would step up, but he really hasn’t been that impressive either! His fundamentals look pretty solid, but his four-goals-against losing effort versus Pittsburgh was a calamity of deflections, blown defensive coverage, and poor visibility on Emery’s part. He’s got a full game coming on Friday against Pittsburgh, and I have a feeling that his performance that day will determine his fate. Apparently he has to be signed or released by Saturday. Stay tuned…

So from this armchair quarterback’s seat here on the couch, I’d call it like this. Send Kruger down for at least a half-year of getting used to the North American game. He seems flummoxed. Keep Carcillo around until he gets his first match penalty, then put him on waivers. Based on the backup goaltenders’ performance so far, send Salak down to Rockford, release Emery, and give Marty Turco’s agent a call (I’m not kidding). Send Saad down to his Junior team — we can’t risk his long-term development just because he’s had a hot streak lately. And give Stalberg a shot in Sharpie’s slot on the second line until he returns. See how playing with Hossa and Bolland affects his game.

Plenty more fun and surprises to come, people: the next game is Wednesday to finish our home-and-home with the Red Wings. What’s next for this talented Blackhawks team is still up in the air.

*     *     *     *     *

Former first-round draft pick Kyle Beach was among the players cut from camp on Monday. But that’s not the whole story.

Beach was in the announced lineup for the Detroit (*spitting noise*) game Sunday night, but was scratched less than an hour before puck drop. This might have been a last-minute decision to get another look at Jimmy Hayes (who ended up scoring), or it may be the result of behind-the-scenes problems with Beach. Either way, it doesn’t reflect well on the kid Stan Bowman so eagerly defended at Prospect Camp in 2010.

Beach apparently has several problems, not the least of which is a hot-head streak on the ice. But apparently he also is loathe to take directions from coaches, and feels that Rockford is beneath him. He has turned out to be a one-dimensional player, with the worst plus-minus rating on the IceHogs last year at a whopping -24. Clearly the kid has problems both on the ice and off.

So, what to do with the lad? He is locked in for this year and next with an entry-level contract paying him more than $1.17 million each year, making him a difficult trade candidate (never mind the bad stats and the attitude problem). I don’t know what the buyout options are for an entry-level contract, or if any exist at all. We may just have to keep him in Rockford and hope for the best. The way it looks right now, that may be what the ‘Hawks are planning to do.

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