2010-11 Preseason

Please Tell Me You’re Kidding

Photo: chicagonow.com

Monday it was announced that Chicago Blackhawks’ rookie Jeremy Morin was being re-assigned to the Rockford Ice Hogs of the AHL. I’m still more than a little surprised with this move, and while I have great respect for Blackhawks’ Head Coach Joel Quenneville and understand that he has a reason for everything he does, it would be great to know what the reason is.

Because this looks just plain butt-stupid.

First, let’s dispense with the non-issue: Morin was re-assigned to make cap room. In the words of the immortal Sherman T. Potter, mule muffins. When they officially assign Brian Campbell to the injured reserve list, which they will inevitably do, his replacement’s salary doesn’t count against the cap. The Hawks will designate Nick Leddy as Campbell’s replacement, leaving plenty of cap space to keep Morin in the lineup. So forget that, the issue isn’t relevant.

Which brings us to the *real* reasons they might have assigned him.

Go ahead, let’s hear them.

I’m waiting.

Come on, anybody. Just blurt it out, don’t bother raising your hand.

Yeah, that’s what I thought. NUFFIN. The kid’s got what it takes. He’s fast, he’s composed, he’s got the kind of drive and persistence that you want in a forward, he seems to be adapting to the speed of the big leagues just fine, he needs to learn the system, but that won’t be a problem in two weeks: what, EXACTLY, is the problem here?

And the answer becomes even more convoluted when you look at who might be taking that slot on the second line with Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp. Troy Brouwer has done a fine job up there before, but that means he won’t be taking one of the wings on the third line, where he is *best* suited. So assuming you do put Brouwer up with Kane and Sharp, who takes Brouwer’s spot on the third line wing? Bryan Bickell? Jack Skille? Ryan Potunly? Jake Dowell? Fucking Viktor Stalberg? No on all counts.

The problem here is that with the Morin demotion we have our first line set (Tomas Kopecky, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa), two second-line forwards (Kane, Sharp), two third-line forwards (Dave Bolland, Fernando Pisani), one swing man (Brouwer) and a flotilla of fourth-line detritus and otherwise underwhelming reserves. We have two important open slots and one guy capable of filling them. Either way Coach Q goes with Brouwer, we have a gaping hole that will be filled by an insufficient resource.

And once again I will reiterate that Viktor Stalberg has done precisely nothing to earn himself a roster slot with this team. He’s ill-suited for the third or fourth lines, and he hasn’t got what it takes for the top two. If it were my call, Stalberg would be the one looking at apartment listings in the Rockford area right now.

Barring a trade or free-agent signing that’s already in the pipeline, we’re screwing ourselves by demoting Morin. He’s shown himself capable of handling the task being given to him, and keeping him on the Hawks has zero down-side. There’s no benefit to Morin spending the next six weeks outrunning the drooling goons in the WWF — err, AHL: I hope the Blackhawks’ coaches realize that quickly, and get him back in a Hawks uniform before the curtain comes up on Thursday in Denver.

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Three Stories From Sunday

Photo: committedindians.com

The Chicago Blackhawks put in a period and a half of solid effort Sunday night in their last pre-season outing of the 2010-11 season, with a 4-3 win over the St. Louis Blues. We’ll skip the part about blowing the 4-1 lead, and how the first period was a less-inspiring repeat of the first period against the Penguins from two days ago.  Instead, here are the stories you should pay attention to.

With Brian Campbell out of the lineup 4+ weeks with a knee injury, Coach Quenneville decided to give rookie defenseman Nick Leddy time on the same pairing as the vet he is replacing alongside Niklas Hjalmarsson. Leddy logged 19 minutes of ice time and ended the night a minus-1, and looked jumpy. He was trying to get rid of the puck too fast when it landed on his stick, his usual patience nowhere to be seen. It wasn’t catastrophic, it just wasn’t what we are used to seeing from him.

This is probably just nerves, suddenly being handed shoes he feels ill-equipped to fill. But hopefully as he gets a few more games under his belt he’ll settle into this role, as there truly isn’t anyone else in the remaining blue line corps who can take up that torch as well as Leddy can. The games against Colorado and Detroit will tell the tale. If he hasn’t settled down by this coming Saturday, he’ll likely be in the press box or even in Rockford.

Then there’s Jeremy Morin. He’s been the surprise of the pre-season so far, and has been handed the opportunity of his career playing the left wing with Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane. Sunday against the Blues was a continuation of Friday night’s game with Pittsburgh: Kane and Morin seem to be a good match, and appear to be having more than a little bit of fun.

They’re still learning where each other is on the ice, and Morin still has to get used to the “cycle” that the Blackhawks use so effectively in the attacking zone. But it appears to me that later on this year we could see some eye-popping, highlight-reel goals from these two. I’m looking forward to seeing if this seed that Coach Q has planted will blossom.

And finally, I’m giving goaltender Marty Turco a new nickname: henceforth he is to be known as “Myocardial Marty.” Every time that guy leaves the crease I get heart palpitations. His behind-the-net expeditions make me clench my fists and dig my nails in so hard I’ve popped two blow-up dolls already this season.

There is an up-side to this ramblin’ spirit of his, as for the second time in three outings he whipped a saucer pass up the ice to the opponent’s blue line, right on the tape of his right winger, this time starting a 2.8-second tic-tac-toe set-up for Jonathan Toews to bury it behind Ty Conklin. This effectively gives us a third deep defenseman during our power play, and will give us an extra 10 to 20 seconds in the attacking zone.

But then, there’s the down-side, when Myocardial blows the clear around the boards, gets caught with his pants down behind the goal line, and gives up an empty-netter to the fourth-line weasel on the opposing team. After the game the guy sends him a muffin basket to thank him for the thoughtful gift.

If Blackhawks Assistant Coach Mike Kitchen knows his stuff, right now he is on the phone with the Invisible Fence people, and on opening night Myocardial Marty will be wearing one of those collars that zaps him whenever he strays too far from the mesh.

All right, folks. The Indian Head is now a bulls-eye as far as the rest of the league is concerned, everybody will be gunning for us. We open the season on the road against Colorado this Thursday, puck drops at 9pm Central. The defense of Lord Stanley’s Cup starts in 72 hours. Make sure there’s a sharp edge on the skates and tape up the sticks night and tight.

From here on out, it matters.

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Blues In G

Photo: iOrder.com

The St. Louis Blues made the first, and one of the biggest off-season moves by snitching playoff hero goalie Jaroslav Halak from the Montreal Canadiens. Montreal management was pilloried in the local media, as fans in St. Louis wondered if their team had just acquired a gift from the hockey gods or just another flash in the pan.

But Blues GM Doug Armstrong was not anywhere close to being finished. Before the summer was out, he had acquired Vladimir Sobotka from Boston and prospect Stefan Della Rovere from Washington, drafted Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko, and re-signed a solid core of restricted free agent veterans.

The bad news for Blues fans was that 18-year vet Keith Tkachuk (bless you) decided the time had come for a permanent Saturday morning tee time, and the shadow-of-his-former-self but still lovable Paul Kariya would sit out the year in the hope that lingering post-concussion syndrome symptoms would subside and let him continue his hockey career.

But the new offensive guns should more than make up for the loss in production from those is-he-really-still-playing vets. The story with the blues will be, will spectacular goaltending show up, and will it be enough to make up for a sizable but ineffective blue line corps.

For the Blackhawks, I can just imagine Joel Quenneville’s speech to the guys before the game tonight: “Okay, you young guys, I’m SERIOUS now! I want to see some effort out there! This REALLY REALLY IS your last chance to make the opening night roster, or Stan is going to go out and sign Robert Lang and Kyle Calder and ship the load of you to Toledo!”

Tuesday’s effort was middling at best, though none of us got to see it. The same can be said of tonight’s tilt, as you’ll have to be sneaky to find yourself a live video stream of the game outside of the St. Louis area. If you do, post below as a comment please.

The Blackhawks’ final roster cuts will come tomorrow, but honestly I think that Coach Q has his mind made up already. Guys that only turn it on when threatened with a demotion to the minors don’t belong on this team.

Puck drop 7pm, and we’ll see tomorrow what our 2010-11 Chicago Blackhawks will look like.

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Will I stay or will I go…

Photo: chicagonow.com

The kids have been sent back to Juniors, the never-had-a-prayer’s have been released, and the not-ready-yet’s and may-never-be’s are (with a couple of notable exceptions) out in Rockford. So in the next ten days Blackhawks’ Coach Joel Quenneville has to pare down a roster of 31 players to 23. Eight guys gotta go. And with the exception of goaltending, the decisions about who goes and who stays are anything but cut-and-dried.

Starting with the netminders, I don’t think anyone will lose a minute’s sleep about sending Hannu Toivonen and Alec Richards down to the Ice Hogs. Richards is a throw-away, and Toivonen may blossom into a decent netminder at some point. But his play still needs work if he’s going to survive at the NHL level. So that leaves Marty Turco and Corey Crawford as No. 1 and No. 2 respectively, which is what everyone predicted and the way it should be.

On defense, the top four guys haven’t done anything to lose their roster spots, so Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Brian Campbell and Niklas Hjalmarsson will remain. It was hoped that Jordan Hendry would step it up and show that he’s ready to be an 82-game player, and so far this pre-season he has done exactly that. But for that #6 spot, the peanut gallery all assumed that we would be swapping out John Scott and Nick Boynton, giving us a veteran presence as well as some grit and gristle in front of the net.

But then Nick Leddy showed up in camp, and brought his ‘A’ game. He’s a puck-moving defenseman, in the same mold as Duncan Keith, but he’s not the crease-clearing bulldozer we could have in Boynton or Scott. It wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing to have Leddy spend a year in Rockford, as kids straight from the college ranks usually take at least one season to get used to the grueling NHL schedule. But I’m sure Coach Q has a barrage of “what-if” scenarios going through his head with regards to this kid. He’s great insurance against an injury in the top-four ranks, that’s a given. But what if we kept Boynton, sent Scott down to Rockford, and swapped out Hendry and Leddy instead?

Either way, that means Jassen Cullimore and Brian Connelly, say good-bye to the Windy City. Four down, four to go. Which brings us to the forward ranks.

Oy-yoy YOY!

The Blackhawks have been configuring the forwards with two scoring lines, a defensive line, and a murder and mayhem line. Lines 1a and 1b are reasonably certain to be staffed with veterans: Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Troy Brouwer, and Tomas Kopecky are the safest bets, with Dave Bolland as the next-in-line center if Coach Q decides to move Sharp back out to the wing and push either Brouwer or Kopecky down to a third-line role. But what about that third line?

We had incredible success down the stretch last year with Dave Bolland centering the “shut-down” third line that played against opponents’ top forwards. Some of the top snipers in the league were kept off the scoresheet entirely using this strategy. But while Bolland has proven his worth in this role, who from the ranks of the newcomers could we give him on the wings that would fit the bill?

The obvious choice from the evidence so far in camp is Fernando Pisani, who has been a solid performer with a work ethic that is earning him the notice and praise from the coaching staff. So he’s pretty much a lock for the right wing on that line, but who else?

Troy Brouwer has filled that role before, and he adds size to a line with not-so-big guys to his right. So that would work. But that means moving him off the first or second lines, which means somebody with far less experience is going to be up with the big boys. I’m not sure Coach Q will be willing to take such a big risk.

In order to engage in a thoroughly masturbatory dissolution of Coach Q’s options, here are the remnants of the training camp detritus:

Viktor Stalberg: Most pundits had Stalberg slotted into a top-six spot from the git-go: I continue to say that he has done *nothing* to warrant that kind of position, and it would seem Coach Q agrees with me. The QStache made his displeasure known about that Monday afternoon: He wants to see production from Stalberg, or it’s a one-way ticket to Rockford. Stay tuned.

Igor Makarov: He seems to be a quick and solid two-way player, but hasn’t shown the consistency that’s needed, plus he’s a natural center. That makes him a better fit for a top-six role, but those jobs are filled — or are they? What about moving Sharp to the second line wing where he has had his biggest success, and have Makarov start the year feeding two of the top wingers in hockey? As appetizing as that may sound, Makarov is most likely going to see top-six minutes in Rockford to get some shifts under his belt against North American pros before anything like that happens.

Jeremy Morin: This kid’s a sniper with great hands and a stellar view of the ice, so he’d fit well on the top two lines — when he gets some hair on his balls. He’s being given a serious look, but he carries a hefty price tag, something the salary cap situation may not allow. It’s more likely that he and Makarov provide a one-two punch and rack up 100 goals between them in the AHL. But every time one of the veteran players is asked who is bringing it in camp, Morin is the first guy they mention. Hmm…

Jack Skille: What do you do with this guy? It’s borderline torture to send him down again, but where does he fit with this club? He’s not as fast as Makarov or Morin, he’s not a defensive specialist, and he’s not as big or tough as other players we could have on the fourth line. Unfortunately Mr. Skille hasn’t found his niche, and despite his effort during camp I’m afraid it may be curtains for him, for good.

Jake Dowell: The poor lad can’t close the deal. He gets the puck on his stick, and he either can’t make the pass or score the goal. The effort is there, but the skills just aren’t. It’s Rockford for him.

Kyle Beach: The thoroughbred Stan Bowman was so hot on at Prospect Camp is now being seen as a common draft horse. Recent comments from within the Blackhawks organ-eye-zation suggest he is now the Hawks’ goon-in-waiting. Pathetic role for a first-round pick that was supposed to be the next Brendan Shanahan. So he’s a fourth-liner.

Bryan Bickell: Size, speed, and grit: fourth line.

Ryan Potulny: He has been spectacularly mediocre, and barely showing any desire to win a roster spot. I am surprised he wasn’t waived. But with his veteran experience as the fourth-line pivot, he could give Beach and Bickell some feeds as they come off the boards towards the net.

Ben Smith: Okay, I’m going to ask this question, and it’s not supposed to be a joke, I’m actually serious. What the BLOODY HELL is this guy still doing here?!? Is he boinking somebody’s daughter? Does he have pictures of Stan Bowman doing a victory lap with some front-office intern? Is he the guy who picks up the pucks at the end of practice? Je ne comprends pas.

So with that in mind, and barring any injuries prior to the start of camp, here’s how I see it all shaking out. Coach Q has been showing the Kopecky/Toews/Hossa line some time both in games and practices, so I think we can bank on that being the top line to begin the year. He seems to like the Kane/Sharp combination, and I believe that Sharp will stay at center for the immediate future. So the only question becomes whether he keeps veteran Troy Brouwer up with them, or moves one of the kids into a top-six role.

Quenneville is asking himself, is anybody in the freshman ranks capable of the kind of solid, two-way play that is required of a third-line player? My answer to that is a resounding “no”. So if I were making the calls, Brouwer moves to the third line. Who goes up? Well, the way this kid Morin has been on the tips of both players’ and coaches’ tongues these days, I have a strong feeling that — to begin the year, at least — he wins himself a spot playing with two of the hottest forwards in hockey. If that happens, be on the lookout for a 19-year-old pimply-faced kid walking around town with a woody the size of Bolingbrook.

Bolland stays put as the third-line center, with Pisani and Brouwer on his flanks; and we round out the forward ranks with Potulny centering Beach and Bickell. Smith, Stalberg, Makarov, and Dowell get on the Greyhound. Skille will stay with the club as the “thirteenth forward,” but don’t expect that to last. Stalberg will be busting his butt to get back to the bigs, and of course there’s always the injury bug to throw a wrench in the works.

This is a good problem to have: too many guns, very few goons. That’s the way NHL hockey is going, and the Blackhawks are well stocked. As the superstar contracts expire, a new crop of talent will be eager to leave the sludge and boredom of Rockford in their wake and start lighting it up on Madison Street.

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No TV, No Crosby…

Jack Skille (20) is playing like he's on a mission to make the big club (Chicago Tribune)

For the first time this pre-season, we’ll all be relegated to our smart phones (or in my dad’s case, his U.S. Cellular handout flip phone) checking on updates. The Blackhawks will get their first glimpse of the new Console Energy Center in Pittsburgh when they take the ice against the Penguins at 6 p.m. CST. Judging by the look of the lineups, we shouldn’t be missing too much with this game not being televised.

Sidney Crosby will once again dodge the Blackhawks as he ices down his vagina this evening, but  Evgeni Malkin will man up and play (though probably pretty sparingly). The ‘Hawks are also going pretty thin, with  Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith and both  Marty Turco and  Corey Crawford taking a night off.

The best news of the day came when  Jeff Taffe was sent down to Rockford so I don’t have to watch that shithead stumble all over the ice for the time being. With 19-year-old  Jeremy Morin looking pretty damn good for a roster spot and  Jack Skille playing exactly like he needed to in order to stick with the big club,  Taffe and Evan Brophey are easy-to-live-with casualties.

As McClure of SCH pointed out, it would be nice to see more out of  Makarov Cocktail and  Viktor Stalberg in this one, especially since the coaching staff is giving them every opportunity to show what they can do with the studs on this team.

Short and sweet for tonight. I’ll be keeping up on my Droid. GO ICEHOGS ‘HAWKS!!

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Lightning To Strike in Winnipeg

Photo: Nick Moir

Much was made of the off-season moves by the Tampa Bay Lightning, as they first brought in Steve Yzerman as GM, who then brought in AHL and Major Junior coaching enigma Guy Boucher as Head Coach. Many trades ensued and free agents were signed, and the result is that the Lightning team that will take the ice against the Blackhawks in Winnipeg may be a little (*ahem*) shocking.

First, to the personnel. Consistent, if past-their-prime forwards Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis return to join young powerhouse Steven Stamkos. Those three players accounted for just over half of the goals scored by the Lightning last year, so more scoring punch was definitely needed. So Simon Gagne was acquired from the Flyers, and Coach Boucher must now fill out the ranks with the least of many evils from the youth and middling veteran talent that remains in camp. Two long-time veterans from the KHL were acquired in the form of Johan Harju and Niklas Persson, but only time will tell if that experiment delivers the jolt it was intended to.

On defense, youngster Victor Hedman is now joined by four relatively steady, but by no means spectacular veterans: Pavel Kubina, Matthieu Roy, Brett Clark, and Randy Jones. Defense was Tampa Bay’s biggest problem last year, allowing 260 goals against, fourth-worst in the league. However it is puzzling to try to figure out what Yzerman’s strategy is, not bringing in a marquee defensive pair to anchor the team. One problem at a time, I guess.

Which brings us to goaltending. To replace the departed Antero Nittymaki, Yzerman has acquired yawn-inducing Dan Ellis, who spent last year with Nashville amassing a barely-winning record and a .909 save percentage over 31 games. Not exactly the kind of guy who can energize a team or its fans. In fact, the biggest headline Ellis has made in his NHL career actually came about because of a comment he made on his Twitter account.

But there appears to me some method to Yzerman’s madness. Believe it or not, it appears that what the first-year GM is hoping to do this season is win using the member of the organ-eye-zation least likely to score a goal, block a shot, or make a save: his coach.

Guy Boucher holds a post-graduate degree in Sports Psychology, and has implemented a radical offensive system not seen before in the NHL with any consistency, called a 1-3-1 forecheck. The first man into the zone pushes the puck to the outside, while the strong-side defenseman and remaining two forwards press to that side three-across, leaving one defenseman to cover counter-attacks.

Boucher has run the system with significant success. In his first year behind the bench with the Hamilton Bulldogs he racked up 52 wins, good for the second-best record in the AHL. The 1-3-1 has been the exclusive focus of the Bolts’ training camp efforts. The specific details are either a big secret, or so complicated that nobody is willing to talk about them and risk looking like an idiot. Even the Tampa Bay press is mostly cloudy on the subject.

Boucher and the Bolts will premiere this new strategy Tuesday night against Dallas. What success they have with it remains to be seen, and it should be noted that the three big offensive threats mentioned earlier will be resting against the Stars to be fresh for when they meet the Hawks in Winnipeg on Wednesday.

So they’re throwing the big guns at us right out of the gate, and word late Tuesday is that Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, and Duncan Keith, will all be in the lineup for the Blackhawks. Add to that some fully-loaded up-and-comers in Igor Makarov, Viktor Stalberg, and Jeremy Morin, plus Nick Leddy on defense. And Coach Q, not being one to keep the public waiting, is giving us a taste of Marty Turco in his first outing as a Blackhawk. He will split the game with moderately talented and definitely unpronounceable Hannu Toivonen.

So the fans in Winnipeg should be in for a doozy. Or, depending on whether Boucher’s 1-3-1 can work at the NHL level (and if the Lightning players have had enough practice to execute it properly), we may see a game of shinny erupt and a 15-2 Blackhawks victory.

Either way, it will be one Blackhawks fans won’t want to miss. And thankfully, with Comcast Sports Net covering this and two other home games, they don’t have to!

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Makarov Cocktail explodes onto scene

Igor Makarov has received such high praise through the Prospects Tournament and beginning of camp, you’d think some people have actually forgotten about the off-season purge — if only for a minute.

Tonight, we’ll see how Makarov fares against some established pros and others fighting for roster spots.

I can only think to nickname the Russian-born forward Makarov Cocktail (Get it? Like Molotov Cocktail?) the way he’s exploded onto the scene with the big boys after being destined for Rockford when camp broke. Because of all the hype, Cocktail is giving me more of a reason to plan my night around a Blackhawks preseason game.

There’s no reason the kid can’t make the roster with what he’s shown so far according to QStache, who’s been singing his praises. Though I haven’t seen him in person, the talk I’m gathering from his speed and quick trigger sounds like a  Kris Versteeg-type guy, which means there will be a lot to be desired in other aspects of the game. But if Cocktail can put the puck in the net over the course of the preseason like he’s been doing so far in camp, he’ll get his shot with the big club.

But let’s not pencil in Makarov just yet. Given Makarov’s raw skill set, players like  Bryan Bickell and  Viktor Stalberg rank ahead of Cocktail in the competition for a top-6 spot. If Cocktail doesn’t crack the top-6 when the preseason concludes, look for him to be sent to Rockford to develop his scoring touch a bit more while working harder on the defensive end. There’s a possibility Cocktail gets a shot on the third line if  Patrick Sharp centers the second line, leaving  Dave Bolland centering the third. Makarov will need a solid passer who can find him at the right moments to score, and Cocktail may only be trusted with either Sharp or Bolland — and of course  Jonathan Toews, but the top line is out of the question.

Cocktail gets another chance to impress QStache tonight when the ‘Hawks take on Tampa Bay tonight in Winnipeg. Look for Tim Currell’s preview later this afternoon.

Other stuff…

Anyone have a few million bucks lying around?  Lame-duck goalie  Cristobal Huet has listed his River North condo for $3 million. Later, dude.

Tim Sassone puts in his two cents for Bickell.

Just so everyone doesn’t go around hanging themselves after a loss, Fifth Feather has your Idiot’s Guide to the Pre-Season.

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