Blackhawks center Drake Caggiula (91) controls the puck in front of Stars defenseman Taylor Fedun (42).

Nuccio DiNuzzo/USA Today Sports

Hawks Mailbag: How Will Bottom-6 Forwards Unfold?

There will be a handful of interesting position battles in the preseason.

Jay Zawaski
August 02, 2019 - 10:29 am
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(670 The Score) It’s that time of year again. The NHL Draft is over. Free agency is done, for the most part. Now, it’s the long wait until the preseason begins.

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With that in mind, it’s time for another Blackhawks mailbag. I’ve taken questions from email, Twitter, Facebook and face-to-face conversations. Let’s get started.

Eliot in Avondale: Do you think the acquisition of goaltender Robin Lehner came from a mindset in which general manager Stan Bowman thought the Hawks could've been a playoff team last year had Crawford not been hurt or they had a better backup goalie? Also, do you feel that way at all and should Bowman feel that way?

JZ: Well, the Blackhawks missed the playoffs by six points. I know it’s not as black and white as this, but had Crawford been healthy or had they not leaned on an ageing Cam Ward and an inexperienced Colin Delia, would the Blackhawks have won three more games? I tend to think so. Now with Lehner as Crawford's backup (or vica versa), the Blackhawks are guaranteed a legitimate No. 1 goalie in net every night. Beyond that, if both goalies play up to their potential, they’d have an All-Star-caliber goalie in net every night. I do think Bowman, when the unexpected opportunity to sign Lehner presented itself, realized what an opportunity he had to solidify the position for 82 games-plus. 

Paul S.: How do you see the Blackhawks' bottom-six forwards playing out and which one of that group (particularly from Brendan Perlini, Andrew Shaw, Dominik Kubalik, Drake Caggiula, Dylan Sikura, Alex Nylander, Brandon Saad or Kirby Dach) makes the most sense to move into a top-six role? Also, do any of the remaining unrestricted free agents seem like a good fit for the Blackhawks for a tryout?

JZ: I like this question because it gives me the opportunity to express my excitement for the position battles coming this preseason. The bottom six is going to be interesting. First, I’ll answer the unrestricted free agent question, then I’ll handle each player one-by-one.

As far as unrestricted free agents go, it’s more a question of how and where they would fit on the roster. As we’re about to discuss, the Hawks have a lot of players trying to fill out a few available spots. There are some big names available, such as Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Kevin Shattenkirk and Jake Gardiner. But it’s hard to imagine Thornton playing anywhere but San Jose. Marleau is probably Cup chasing and while the Blackhawks are improved, they’re hardly a favorite to win a championship. Shattenkirk is an interesting name, but again, where does he fit without moving out another contract? As for Gardiner, If the Hawks wanted him, they could've gotten him already.

Now on to the breakdown of the forwards:

Brendan Perlini -- Perlinia is a restricted free agent who still hasn’t signed, and Bowman didn’t seem to have much of an update when he met the media at the Blackhawks Convention last Friday. I reported a while back that the Blackhawks had been shopping Perlini. While I haven’t confirmed that they're still actively shopping him, there remains a logjam. I feel like one more move is coming. I’m not sure what it is, but I’d honestly be a bit surprised if Perlini is a Blackhawk come the season opener. It’s just a gut feeling, but something is weird. Had the Hawks wanted him, they would've signed him already, right?

Andrew Shaw -- Everyone who spoke at the convention last weekend seemed really excited to see Shaw return -- and with good reason. He’s coming off a career season with Montreal, though he did deal with injury. Shaw provides exactly what the Hawks have been missing. I’d imagine him beginning the season as RW2 on a line with Dylan Strome and Alex DeBrincat.

Dominik Kubalik -- The Blackhawks are high on the Kubalik, the Czech winger. He lit up the World Championships this summer, scoring 12 points in 10 games. The Blackhawks have had some good success with international signings lately, such as David Kampf, Dominik Kahun and of course Artemi Panarin. While Kubalik probably won't be on Panarin’s level, expecting him to outpace Kahun’s rookie season is reasonable. Now a Penguin, Kahun scored 13 goals and added 24 assists for 37 points in 82 games with the Hawks last season. Kubalik has more offensive upside than Kahun, but the transition to the North American game is different for everyone. Kubalik will get every opportunity to earn a top-six spot, and I’d expect to see him on the top line with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane often in the preseason.

Drake Caggiula -- Caggiula got a good look on the top line last season and played well enough. I wouldn’t put him down as a favorite to start on the top line, but I’m sure he’ll see some time there at some point. Otherwise, LW3 seems to be a reasonable and realistic spot to project as of this moment.

Dylan Sikura -- Speaking of extended looks, Sikura got a lot of time on the top line at the end of last season and couldn’t put the puck in the back of the net. It was ... odd. You’d think he’d get lucky and have one deflect off his butt at some point. He's a skilled player but needs to add some size to compete night to night. I’d expect Sikura to begin the season in Rockford unless he has an incredible preseason.

Alex Nylander -- I believe the Blackhawks would love for Alex Nylander to come in to camp and win a job. Trading their top defensive prospect, Henri Jokiharju, was unexpected and controversial. On top of that, the Hawks didn’t seem to get the return many would expect for moving a prospect of that level. Bowman needs Nylander to be good. He looked pretty good in prospects camp. Nylander might be his own worst enemy. Hopefully the trade lit a fire a bit. His work ethic has been questioned. He will not be able to coast to a job here, but he is highly skilled and is probably full-time NHL ready. It is safe to assume he’d begin the season on the bottom six.

Brandon Saad -- Saad is the most obvious LW1 on the roster. He’s done it before. He has a track record. He’s fully capable. That said, if the Hawks can have Kubalik, Caggiula or someone else succeed in that spot, it makes the roster deeper to have Saad on a lower line. LW2 is almost certainly DeBrincat’s. Saad as LW3? Most teams would be happy with that.

Kirby Dach -- Dach was a man among boys at prospects camp this summer, but those are just drills and scrimmages. If he shows in preseason games the way he showed in prospects camp, he’ll get a shot to make the team. The benefit of Strome’s emergence at a legit 2C gives the Hawks the opportunity to develop Dach as a 3C. It will take some scoring pressure away and allow them to cherry pick the matchups that will help him find the most success. I was incredibly impressed with what I saw from him on and off the ice. I’d love for him to make the team.

Von B: I was wondering if you thought there was any sort of possibility that Corey Crawford (who becomes and unrestricted free agent after this season) gets signed to a three-year deal or so at a reasonable number with -- and this is important -- no clauses preventing him from being moved? If his injury issues end up somehow sorting themselves out, he could be an ideal piece of bait for the Seattle expansion draft.

JZ: I believe Lehner’s presence will dictate Crawford’s future. If Lehner is anything close to what he was last season, I think he gets the long-term deal. That said, if Crawford was willing to return for a very team-friendly salary, it might be worth a deal. I’m not sure the organization wants to invest much more money into Crawford given his history, but the Seattle angle is an interesting one. I wonder if the Hockeysonics would risk taking on Crawford. The cheaper he comes, the more willing they’d have to be, right?

Adam K: If you were a betting man, who do you think makes the biggest impact on the Hawks this season -- Kubalik, Nylander, Dach or Adam Boqvist?

JZ: The safest bet here is Kubalik, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say Boqvist. He was the best player on the ice during prospects camp and almost made the team out of camp last season. Boqvist’s issue is the logjam at defense. If he’s on the NHL roster, he can’t be in the press box, so who sits? Does coach Jeremy Colliton have the stones to make Brent Seabrook his No. 7 defenseman? This might be the biggest question going into the new season. 

Waving Worm: Dach looks really good. If he makes the team, what does that mean for small skill players like Sikura and other bubble guys?

JZ: If Dach makes the team, I believe the Hawks would look to move a couple of depth forwards. In fact, it wouldn’t shock me to see them move one or two before the preseason. Would a Perlini and Sikura for a young NHL forward in need of a change of scenery make sense? Former No. 4 overall pick and current Edmonton Oilers forward Jesse Puljujärvi is in the same boat as Perlini  in that he's a restricted free agent awaiting a deal. Puljujärvi has been on the Hawks' radar for a long time. To be clear, I’m not reporting that deal is happening or even being discussed, but this is the kind of the deal the Blackhawks might be looking to make. They've done a good job developing a former No. 3 overall pick in Strome, and they’re hoping to do the same with Nylander. Maybe Puljujärvi could complete the hat trick.

Thanks for all the great questions! Be sure to listen to the latest few Madhouse Chicago Hockey Podcasts. James Neveau and I address a lot of these issues.

Jay Zawaski is the executive producer of the Bernstein & McKnight Show on 670 middays from 9 a.m. to noon and a columnist for 670 The Score. He's also the co-host of the Madhouse Chicago Hockey Podcast, which is available on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify or your preferred podcast app. Follow him on Twitter @JayZawaski670.​​​