One of the best parts about the opening days of NHL training camp is the semi-overreaction to line combinations and defensemen pairings, as if they're permanent and going to look that way for Opening Night.
Sometimes, we — the media included (guilty!) — can read too much into them. Some coaches like to tinker throughout camp. Others like to use camp for lines to develop long-term chemistry, and they do in fact stay pretty similar.
Usually though, at the very least, the lines and pairings out of the gates are a pretty good indicator of where everyone currently stands on the depth chart.
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For example, MacKenzie Entwistle, Reese Johnson and Boris Katchouk skating on a line together and wearing white jerseys probably means their spot isn't guaranteed in the lineup and they're fighting for an everyday position.
One player who I probably wasn't expecting to have a potential inside track to make the Chicago Blackhawks' 23-man roster is Wyatt Kaiser. He started camp on the top pairing with Seth Jones and hasn't done anything to make you feel he doesn't legitimately belong there. He has most definitely been one of the camp standouts.
"I always try to be confident with my style," Kaiser said. "I've been working hard this summer. I don't know if I'm comfortable where it's at, but comfortable, yeah. I'll just try to build as the season goes on."
Kaiser was easily Chicago's second-best player at the 2023 Tom Kurvers Prospect Showcase in Minnesota, right behind Connor Bedard, who scored a hat trick. Both of them only played one game, in part because the Blackhawks saw all they needed to see.
"I think he just came in with so much confidence into that rookie tournament," Blackhawks head coach Luke Richardson said. "I think he might have been the best player there. I know Connor played one game and he only played one game.
"Kaiser, for sure, I thought really stood out. He was really strong. He was stronger coming out of college, but I think he’s even stronger. ... He’s really dialed in."
Kaiser made the jump from college to the NHL late last season and appeared in nine games with the Blackhawks, tallying three assists. He showed flashes and left a strong first impression.
Going into camp this season, I figured he would be on the outside looking in and eventually start the season in Rockford so he can continue to hone his all-around game at the pro level. We'll have to wait until the preseason games start, but it feels like right now one of the six defensemen spots in the lineup is Kaiser's job to lose.
"He’s obviously a great skater," Seth Jones said. "He’s closed in the defensive zone pretty well. He’s not the biggest guy but he can use his body to his advantage and his feet get him out of trouble a lot. He’s obviously a good player.
"He’s confident. He’s always had that confidence about him with the puck and I think that’s one of the main things for a kid coming into this league is acting like you belong and not being in awe of the moment or the players out there. He always finds a way to hold his own."
Kaiser's biggest strength might be his skating ability. He's aggressive and isn't afraid to use it to his advantage.
A close second — or maybe even first — is his confidence. I asked him on Monday where it comes from, whether he's always had it or worked at it over time.
"The work off the ice, away from the cameras," Kaiser said. "You're working on your skating in the summer and there's nobody watching. You're working out and being confident in your strengths, your shot, all that. The hours you put in build your confidence so that when you get out there and you're under a little bit of pressure, you feel like, 'Alright, I got it.' You're not just hoping it works."
If Kaiser carries over his strong training camp to the preseason games and looks like he belongs, the Blackhawks just might have a difficult decision on their hands when they're trying to trim down the roster, especially with Kevin Korchinski likely starting the season with the Blackhawks, and Filip Roos, Isaak Phillips and Alex Vlasic, among others, all trying to graduate to the NHL level full-time. It's a good problem to have.