Breaking down heated Blackhawks battle for final forward spot

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The Blackhawks made more cuts on Wednesday, assigning forwards Victor Ejdsell, Alexandre Fortin and Matthew Highmore to the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League to trim their roster to 28 players. The Opening Day product is getting close.

But there is still a heated battle going on among the forwards, with 14 of them left:

— Artem Anisimov
— Alex DeBrincat
— John Hayden
— Luke Johnson
— Dominik Kahun
— David Kampf
— Patrick Kane
— Marcus Kruger
— Chris Kunitz
— Andreas Martinsen
— Brandon Saad
— Nick Schmaltz
— Dylan Sikura
— Jonathan Toews

Coach Joel Quenneville said after practice he expects to make three more cuts: one forward, one defenseman and one goaltender. With Gustav Forsling and Connor Murphy expected to start the season on injured reserve, along with the uncertainty surrounding Corey Crawford, that would get them under the 23-man limit.

You can probably piece together who the seven defensemen and three goaltenders will be. Up front, not so much. There are three or four guys essentially fighting for one spot.

Let's break down Wednesday's line rushes. The first two lines stayed the same: DeBrincat-Toews-Kahun and Schmaltz-Anisimov-Kane.

The bottom-six had two versions each. The third line rolled Kunitz-Kampf-Saad and Kunitz-Johnson-Saad while the fourth line was Kruger-Johnson-Martinsen and Kampf-Kruger-Martinsen. Hayden and Sikura appeared to have been the odd men out, although Sikura did take a few spins with DeBrincat and Toews during 5-on-5 drills.

That's a little surprising because going into training camp you would have guessed Hayden and Sikura were as close to locks as they could be among the young crop. The former has had a strong camp, especially recently. The latter has faded a bit after a great start, but still adds an offensive element the Blackhawks need in their top-nine.

"There's a bunch of guys fighting for those spots," Sikura said. "It doesn't really matter how the lineup looks like right now, the next couple games are huge for those guys and show what you have."

Two others competing with Hayden and Sikura for the 13th forward position: Johnson and Kampf, both of whom were solid for Rockford during its playoff run last spring and have grabbed the attention of Quenneville this fall.

"I thought Johnson has had an excellent camp," Quenneville said. "I thought he's been really consistent. Kamper has been really good as well. Those two guys are the guys that really added something with the consistency of their game, the pace of their game. Both can play wing, both can play center, both can take draws, both can kill penalties, both look quick. You can talk about every single guy but those two guys to me have had the camp that they've earned the chance to either start here or be here."

Reading between the lines, it appears it's Johnson's and Kampf's job to lose right now. While there are still two more preseason games remaining, Thursday's contest against Ottawa could be a final chance for some to prove they belong before Saturday's final dress rehearsal for the final roster. That means somebody is going to be cut that may not deserve to be, but because of numbers has to be.

"I think these last few particularly, those three guys [Ejdsell, Fortin and Highmore], yesterday the two defensemen [Dahlstrom and Tuulola] that went down, it was one of those like, 'Hey, we all expect you to be part of the team and organization and not just depth,'" Quenneville said. "'We think that you keep progressing here you're going to get a chance to play here regularly as part of it.' Go down there, be respectful of the American [Hockey] League, it's a good hockey league, and put yourself in position to be the guy. Don't feel sorry for yourself because you're not starting here. Don't say that this guy or that guy is ahead of you on the depth chart of the curve. Do something about it by playing your best and trying to get back on top."

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