The Blackhawks’ trip to Berlin and Prague produced plenty of jet lag, but there was a reward at the end of the runway.
They kick off a seven-game homestand Thursday with the home opener against the Sharks and don’t hit the road again for nearly three weeks.
Here are five questions the Hawks hope to answer before the end of their longest homestand of the season:
1. When should Kirby Dach get in the lineup?
A concussion suffered during last month’s prospect tournament cost the first-round draft pick two weeks of training camp, but Dach has been practicing with the team for over a week now. The Hawks seem committed to getting Dach into some games before deciding whether or not to return him to the Saskatoon Blades for another year of junior hockey.
When general manager Stan Bowman spoke to reporters Thursday, he indicated Dach was cleared to play, but they didn’t believe he was ready. Having Dach’s NHL debut take place during a high-profile game in Prague never seemed likely.
“Just because you’re clear but you haven’t practiced for two weeks, you’re not sharp enough to play in a game,” Bowman said. “That’s really where it’s at right now.”
The Hawks now have nearly a week of rest followed by two weeks of home games to see where Dach stands. Other than missing out on valuable experience whether it’s with the Hawks or Saskatoon, there’s no reason to rush him.
2. Does the Alex Nylander-Jonathan Toews-Patrick Kane line work?
It seems almost certain that Alex Nylander is going to be on Jonathan Toews’ wing as long as he’s on the roster. The Hawks have a strong interest in seeing him succeed, and he’s not nearly as likely to find success elsewhere.
Kane, on the other hand, is going to produce no matter where he plays. He set up Nylander’s first-period goal against the Flyers, but the line didn’t produce many chances. They were on the ice for just six shot attempts while the Flyers had 17.
By comparison, the Alex DeBrincat-Dylan Strome-Andrew Shaw created 12 shot attempts and allowed just seven while playing nearly two more minutes of even-strength time.
Granted, the top line usually will face a stronger checking line, but if Nylander-Toews-Kane is going to remain together things can’t be that lopsided.
3. Will the bottom six forwards contribute offensively?
A big priority for the Hawks this offseason was to spread the offense around after relying too much on the top line and the power play last season.
The results from the first game? All the scoring came from the top line and the power play.
It was just one game, of course, and there were positive signs. The third line of Dominik Kubalik, David Kampf and Brandon Saad didn’t make it to the scoresheet, but they were noticeable in a positive way, putting up 11 of the Hawks’ 31 shots on goal.
The biggest concern for the line is Kampf’s ability to win faceoffs and drive possession. He won just four of 13 faceoffs against the Flyers. If Dach impresses enough to stick with the team, Kampf would be the likely odd man out.
4. What will the goalie rotation look like?
With Corey Crawford on the last year of his deal and Robin Lehner on a one-year contract, this is set up to be a season-long goalie competition with only one of them earning a new deal after the season.
Crawford started the opener and was fine but wasn’t at his best. Jeremy Colliton isn’t likely to reveal his goalie for the home opener until Thursday’s morning skate.
If it’s Crawford and has a shutout, does he then get the next game? If Lehner starts and is dominant, does the net stay his until he goes cold?
There aren’t any back-to-backs during the homestand, so both goalies should be fresh and available each game. The way Colliton uses his “1A and 1B” goalies should be one of the most fascinating things to watch all season.
5. How much ice time should the defensemen get?
Duncan Keith’s legendary devotion to fitness should allow him to play out the final four seasons of his contract, which is scheduled to end a few months before he turns 40.
He has led the Hawks in ice time each of his 15 seasons, including last season, when his 23 minutes, 1 second per game was the lowest of his career. It’ll be a surprise if he again leads the Hawks in ice time, but who will pick up his minutes?
Erik Gustafsson played nearly 26 minutes against the Flyers, but he’s not likely to average anywhere near that amount despite getting a lot of power-play time. As important as Calvin de Haan is expected to be defensively, he was just fifth among Hurricanes defenseman last season with a career-low 18:31 of ice time.
He’s very effective when he’s out there, but he doesn’t gobble up minutes like Keith has during his career. Brent Seabrook and Olli Maatta seem like a good pairing, but they’re likely targeted for around 18 minutes per game.
The slow changing of the guard on defense is a major storyline especially with Gustafsson being an unrestricted free agent after the season.