There is a handful of forwards fighting for just a few available spots on the Blackhawks’ opening night roster.
The Chicago Blackhawks opened training camp this afternoon at Fifth Third Bank Arena on W. Jackson Blvd. The ‘Hawks training camp roster has been finalized, with 55 players invited throughout the organization. While most of the Blackhawks’ opening night roster is already figured out, Jeremy Colliton still has some tough decisions to make in the coming weeks. How will Corey Crawford and Robin Lehner split time in goal this year? Will Kirby Dach be sent back to juniors for his third full season with Saskatoon? Will Adam Boqvist make the team if Calvin de Haan isn’t ready for opening night?
Those narratives will make up the main storylines during training camp, but one of the underlying questions is which forwards will grab the final bottom-six roster spots? Let’s take a look at the forward group and decide which players are locks, and which players are in the hunt.
The locks of the forward group are Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Alex DeBrincat, Dylan Strome, Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw, Brendan Perlini, Dominik Kubalik, Zack Smith, Ryan Carpenter, Drake Caggiula, and David Kampf. Realistically, those 12 players have already made the Blackhawks’ opening night roster (barring an injury). That leaves two spots available for a handful of players to fight over (not literally, I hope).
The players that are in the hunt are Alex Nylander, Dylan Sikura, Anton Wedin, Aleksi Saarela, John Quenneville, and Kirby Dach. Out of these six forwards, which two have the best chance of making the team? Let’s take a look.
The Blackhawks acquired Nylander, a former first-round pick in 2016, back in July when Stan Bowman surprisingly shipped Henri Jokiharju out of town. Nylander failed to make a lasting impression during his tenure with the Buffalo Sabres, which made the trade that much more astonishing. Blackhawks General Manager Stan Bowman loves rolling the dice on former first-round picks, but this one feels like more of a gamble than ever. Nylander struggled offensively in all three of his seasons with the Rochester Americans of the AHL. His best statistical season came last year when he tallied 31 points (12G, 19A) in 49 games. Not terrific for a 21-year-old in his third AHL campaign.
As seen during Blackhawks’ development camp though, Nylander has a TON of raw talent. He was arguably the most impressive player with the puck at camp, as the Swedish forward bodied fellow prospects with ease. Nylander was expected to be one of the more dominant players due to his professional experience, but his performance was impressive regardless. If Nylander makes the team out of training camp, he’ll likely be playing in a top-nine role with some offensively capable players. Due to his offensive skillset and untapped potential, Nylander has a strong chance to make the team. After all, it would be tough to see the former eighth-overall pick begin the year in Rockford for his fourth AHL season. The pressure is on for Alex Nylander to have an impressive showing during the Blackhawks’ preseason and training camp.
24-year-old Dylan Sikura is running out of time to show the Blackhawks why he should be a full-time NHLer. The 2014 sixth-round pick has been considered one of the Blackhawks’ top prospects since his junior season for Northeastern in 2016. Things haven’t exactly gone as planned for Sikura though, as he has yet to record his first NHL goal in 38 career games. He’s had his chances to find the back of the net but for some reason hasn’t been able to put one home. Sikura received some time with Jonathan Toews on the top line last year, and statistically, they were one of the most effective lines of the season.
Sikura spent the majority of last season playing for the Rockford IceHogs of the AHL. In 46 games for the IceHogs, Sikura recorded 35 points (17G, 18A) and was the team’s best offensive player. He doesn’t have much else to prove at that level, so it’s time for the Aurora, Ontario native to make the NHL jump. Sikura IS still waiver exempt, so he could be one of the guys to begin the year in Rockford. The feeling is that Dylan Sikura will need to have a strong preseason and training camp to make the Blackhawks’ opening night roster.
26-year-old Anton Wedin is one of the more interesting names on this list, as he has a ton of professional experience. Wedin has spent the last seven seasons playing for Timra IK, who has bounced between the SHL and the Swedish Allsvenskan league. Jeremy Colliton saw Wedin play on numerous occasions while coaching in Sweden from 2015-17.
The 5-foot-11, 194-pound winger is coming off of the best statistical season of his professional career, with 14 goals and 13 assists in 32 games. The SHL is a lot more low-scoring than the NHL, so those are some impressive numbers. The left-handed Wedin signed a one-year contract worth $925,000 back in May, so he’ll get at least one look at the NHL level. Wedin is the most experienced player of this group, so if he performs well over the next few weeks, Colliton could reward him with a roster spot. Also, unlike some of the younger players, it wouldn’t hurt if Anton Wedin was scratched more times than not in the early going.
Finnish forward Aleksi Saarela is coming off a fantastic AHL season in which he tallied 30 goals. The 22-year-old played a significant role in helping the Charlotte Checkers win the Calder Cup. Saarela has been offensively dominant each of the last two seasons in the AHL and doesn’t have much else to prove there. In 147 AHL games, the 5-foot-10, 200-pound forward has recorded 107 points. It’s time for Aleksi Saarela to make the jump to the NHL.
The 2015 third-round pick was acquired by the Blackhawks this summer as part of the lopsided Calvin de Haan trade. Just to recap that trade, the Blackhawks sent Gustav Forsling and Anton Forsberg to Carolina for Calvin de Haan and Aleksi Saarela. It couldn’t be any more of a victory for the ‘Hawks.
Just a couple weeks ago though, Saarela came out and publicly stated that the Hurricanes’ have some major organizational problems. Saarela stated that the club is reluctant to call-up players from the minors and that no one knows who is in charge. So now it appears more obvious why the Blackhawks were able to fleece the Hurricanes. Saarela likely asked for a trade out of Carolina, and he was rewarded by being sent to Chicago. It will be interesting to see where he begins the 2019-20 season.
2014 first-round pick John Quenneville was acquired by the Blackhawks in June as part of a one-for-one swap for John Hayden. John is the first cousin, once-removed of legendary Blackhawks Head Coach Joel Quenneville.
Much like Dylan Sikura, the 23-year-old Quenneville has played a bunch of games at the NHL without a lot of offensive success. In 33 NHL games, Quenneville has picked up just five points. Also, like Sikura though, Quenneville has been dominant at the AHL level. Over the past three seasons, the left-handed forward has recorded 119 points in 138 games. There’s not much else for John Quenneville to prove in the AHL. It’s time for the 6-foot-1, 194-pound forward to prove that he’s not a bust.
Quenneville is no longer waiver-exempt, so he could get a longer look than some other prospects. While it wouldn’t be ideal, it wouldn’t hurt for Quenneville to be regularly scratched as much as it would for players like Nylander or Sikura. If John Quenneville has a strong preseason and training camp, he could slot in as the Blackhawks’ 13th or 14th forward.
2019 third-overall pick Kirby Dach has put on quite a display this summer. He was dominant at Blackhawks development camp, and he followed that up with a terrific showing in the Traverse City prospect tournament. The 6-foot-4, 200-pound 18-year-old has spent the last two and a half seasons with the Saskatoon Blades of the WHL. Last season was Dach’s best offensively, with 73 points (25G, 48A) in 62 games. Dach also performed well for Team Canada at the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, with two goals and five assists in five games.
All eyes will be on Kirby Dach in the preseason and training camp, and if he continues to impress, it will be hard to send him back to juniors. Dach has done everything right this summer, and that could lead to him receiving at least a nine-game stint with the Blackhawks. If Dach does happen to make the team though, he’s going to be playing in a significant role. The Blackhawks wouldn’t have him up as a fourth-liner playing little minutes. This would likely bump a current roster player down a spot, which is hard to imagine at the moment. Anything can happen over the next couple of weeks though, so Blackhawks fans will have to wait and see. Dach sat out the first day of Blackhawks training camp as he is currently in concussion protocol.
This intense competition between multiple forwards should bring out the best in everyone involved. No matter which two forwards win the final spots, they aren’t going to be there permanently. There is going to be a lot of mixing and matching in the bottom-six this season.
The current favorites to win the forward spots are probably Alex Nylander and Dylan Sikura. It would be tough for the Blackhawks to send Nylander to Rockford to start the season after trading one of their best defensive prospects for him. Nylander has already spent three seasons in the AHL, and starting there for the fourth year in a row could hurt him mentally. He has the talent, but the mental aspect of his game is weak. The Blackhawks don’t want to do anything to make that any worse.
As for Dylan Sikura, he has nothing left to prove in the AHL. He had good underlying statistics while he was with the Blackhawks last season, but the puck in the net is what matters the most. Sikura has failed to do that so far in his short NHL career. Just like Nylander, the Blackhawks would likely want Sikura in a top-nine role, playing with offensive-minded players. Sikura has a decent chance to make the opening night roster, but he has to leave the coaching staff impressed this training camp. If he fails to do so, it may be another season in Rockford for Sikura.
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