Five storylines to follow at Blackhawks training camp


Here are five storylines to follow at Blackhawks training camp, which begins Friday at MB Ice Arena:

1. What's the deal with Corey Crawford?

The Blackhawks' season starts and ends with No. 50. If he's in net, they'll be in the playoff mix. If he's not, they may be in the lottery conversation again.

Crawford is on the training camp roster, but we won't know until Friday whether he'll actually be available to participate in on-ice activities with the other six goaltenders attending. Word is he skated last week for the first time since February and looked good. 

If he's not ready, when will he be? And are the Blackhawks confident with Anton Forsberg and Cam Ward as the 1-2 punch for an extended period of time?

If he is ready, will Crawford be able to get up to speed by Opening Night? And what happens with Forsberg, who would have to clear waivers if he were to be sent to the AHL's Rockford IceHogs?

So many questions that are dependent on the status of Crawford.

2. Henri Jokiharju's chances at making the team

With Gustav Forsling expected to be sidelined until November because of a wrist injury, there might be room for Jokiharju to crack a spot on the blue line. But it certainly won't be handed to him.

Erik Gustafsson, Duncan Keith, Brandon Manning, Connor Murphy, Jan Rutta and Brent Seabrook are all under contract and are pretty much locks to be the first six defensemen on the roster. Brandon Davidson is being brought into camp on a professional tryout basis and could ink a one-year deal if the Blackhawks like what they see, which could make him the seventh.

Jokiharju is really going to have to make an impression to solidify a spot on defense because the Blackhawks wouldn't put him on the roster as a rotating seventh defenseman. That's not how they operate when it comes to the development of their young defensemen. Look no further than Forsling last season.

It's still unclear, however, whether Jokiharju is eligible to play in the AHL at age 19 if he doesn't make the big club. The Blackhawks are arguing that he should be because he was technically on a loan to Portland from his Finnish team.

"The situation with Henri is one where we will cross that bridge when we come to it," Pete Rutili, who represents Acme World Sports, told NBC Sports Chicago. "He’s focused on making the big club obviously. He was real good in Traverse City and ready for camp. We’ll see how camp goes and go from there."

3. Brandon Saad's quest to bounce back

When the Blackhawks traded Artemi Panarin to Columbus to bring back Saad, nobody expected Saad to match Panarin's offensive production. They're two different players.

But they certainly expected Saad to compile more than 35 points in an 82-game season, especially after he scored a personal best 31 goals in Year 1 with the Blue Jackets and tied a career-high with 53 points in Year 2.

At the end of last season we broke down Saad's struggles and explained why he's due to bounce back in a big way. 

"Obviously this isn't the year that we wanted," Saad said in April. "But it's not like I'm lacking confidence going into next year. I think I'm very capable of being a leader on this team and helping us get back into the playoffs."

Joel Quenneville hinted at the Blackhawks Convention in July at the possibility of putting Saad on a line with Patrick Kane to perhaps jumpstart his offensive production from the outset. Whether it's finding a different partner or going to different areas of the ice or simply getting better puck luck, it's going to be something to monitor.

4. About the defense...

Just about every member of the Blackhawks defensive group had a down year last season. Keith scored only two goals and had a career-low 1.1 shooting percentage. Seabrook registered 26 points, his fewest across an 82-game season since 2008-09 and averaged 20:12 of ice time per game, his lowest since his rookie campaign in 2005-06 (20:02). It took Murphy a while to get accustomed to the system.

That can't happen again this season. It's unlikely Keith will go through the scoring drought that he did two years in a row, but at the same time he's 35 years old now, so there needs to be a distribution of minutes. 

Seabrook appears to have dropped weight this offseason and could regain some of that old form, and you have to believe Murphy will be better in Year 2 after going into training camp much more comfortable. The Blackhawks in many ways are banking on all of these things to correct itself.

5. Which youngster will emerge as potential breakout candidate?

We could have dedicated another bullet point on where the depth scoring will come from, but we'll lump it into this category because it's likely going to come from here.

Last year it was Alex DeBrincat who had a strong showing at camp and made it difficult on management and the coaching staff to leave him off the 23-man roster. The year before that it was Nick Schmaltz.

Who's next? Dylan Sikura shined at the Traverse City prospect tournament last weekend and was solid in his brief five-game stint with the Blackhawks last season. So did Victor Ejdsell, who continues to raise eyebrows.

Both of them are prime candidates to contribute in a large way, but the sample size is so small that it's hard to rely on it without getting in the way of their development. They each have top-nine potential and the Blackhawks really need each of them to take a big step forward and be a pleasant surprise.

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