Announced today, the Chicago Blackhawks have assigned five more youngsters to AHL affiliate Rockford, cutting the current active roster down to 26 players. Players sent to Rockford are as follows: Igor Makarov, Brian Connelly, Brandon Pirri, Ben Smith, and off-season (quasi)fan-favorite Kyle Beach.
The only mild surprise in this group is Makarov, who generated some internet buzz from a stand-out performance at the rookie tournament, as well as some noticeably energetic play this preseason. Still, he was out-shined by some other of the 'Hawks up-and-comers including 19-year-old Jeremy Morin, who still remains on the 'Hawks active roster.
With the goaltending (Turco and Crawford) and defensive (third pairing comprised of some combination of Hendry/Scott/Boynton) personnel all but carved in stone, the spotlight is now focused squarely upon the remaining forward spots, which are anybody's guess at this point.
Just from glimpses we've had of the pre-season, here is a lineup we MIGHT see come next Thursday at 10 p.m. Eastern Time. These are, of course, subject to scrutiny and argument.
As noted, there are some sizable question marks with this lineup, the largest of which being Viktor Stalberg. Stalberg has the size, speed, and raw talent to one day be an NHL top-six forward. It is debatable, however, if that day will come next week, over even this season. He seems ill-fit for a checking role on one of the bottom two lines as shown above, yet short of a stand-out performance last night in St. Louis, does not seem ready for a top-six role. This conundrum has fans and prognosticators alike now wondering if the big Swede might be Rockford-bound when the season begins.
Jack Skille is another uncertainty. While he has shown some energy and effort in the preseason, it is still questionable if he can maintain this level of play throughout the season, and not revert to the one-dimensional style that has garnered criticism. Now, the 'Hawks must also consider his recent arm injury which has left him day-to-day according to Coach Q.
The two odd-men-out of the above scenario are the aforementioned Morin and AHL vet Jake Dowell. The two provide very different playing styles - Morin, a smooth-skating scorer (47 goals last season with the OHL's Kitchener Rangers) - Dowell a gritty and defensive-minded forward with a propensity for fisticuffs.
Morin is an intriguing player who has shown great puck handling and hockey sense thus far, and even the ability to lay a hit or two in the corners when necessary. While I had originally had the Auburn, NY, native pegged for a 2010-11 season with the Icehogs, Skille's injury and Stalberg's failure to emerge have got me wondering if Morin doesn't land one of those "nine-game tryout" deals at the beginning of the season. If he looks to be in over his head, the 'Hawks can always send him to Rockford to develop, thus maintaining the extra year on his entry-level deal. If he excels and makes the 'Hawks a better team, then there is no reason that he shouldn't be given his shot now.
And just an interesting note - ESPN's Jesse Rogers has tweeted that Morin will be skating with Sharp and Kane in tonight's match-up with the Penguins at the UC.
When looking at the 'Hawks current roster makeup, Dowell might be a better fit to fill out the bottom of the roster - provided that the team establishes some secondary scoring threats. He is a physical forward that works well within last year's fourth-line mold, and will add some toughness to a roster that , well, seems to lack toughness.
It will certainly be interesting to see how this all pans out. If someone were to put a gun to my head and make me write a prediction, it would be as follows:
* Stalberg, despite a poor camp/pre-season, makes the team. He has 40 games of NHL experience and great potential. By year's end, I can see him making the top-six.
* Skille makes the team. He has played well enough to deserve it, and I don't see the 'Hawks putting him on waivers to send him back to Rockford, or cutting him outright. The only way he isn't in the lineup opening day is if his injury prevents it.
* Morin only makes the team if Skille is unable to play at the season's beginning. If this is the case, he gets an abbreviated look, and ultimately gets sent back to Rockford before he plays 10 games, thus keeping him a Blackhawk for an extra year under his entry-level contract.
* Dowell makes the roster as an extra forward, working in and out of the lineup throughout the year.
Enjoy the rest of the pre-season.