The Chicago Blackhawks will eventually be playing meaningful games to close the 2019-20 season. After the NHL announced the league’s return to play format, centered around a 24-team “playoff” with the top 12 teams from each conference, the Blackhawks find themselves as the 12-seed in the Western Conference and squaring up a play-in round tilt against the 5-seed Edmonton Oilers.
While the play-in round may or may not be referred to as “the playoffs,” the customary ‘Black Aces’ recalls which normally precede teams making the postseason will still be in play. The group of players called up from the AHL or prospect system, as well as injured players working to get back into the NHL, is known as the ‘Black Aces.’
For the Blackhawks, the roster already had a few players coming up from the Rockford IceHogs late in the season to get some NHL ice-time. With injury recovery to consider, the ‘Black Aces’ may just be along for the ride with the Blackhawks as they take on the Oilers.
For a refresher, here is what the Blackhawks roster looked like for their final regular season game back on March 11:
Starting Lineup vs San Jose Sharks on March 11
- Dominik Kubalik
- Alex DeBrincat
- Dylan Strome
- Jonathan Toews
- Brandon Saad
- Ryan Carpenter
- Matthew Highmore
- Brandon Hagel
- David Kampf
- Kirby Dach
- Patrick Kane
- Alexander Nylander
- Duncan Keith
- Connor Murphy
- Olli Maata
- Lucas Carlsson
- Slater Koekkoek
- Nicolas Beaudin
- Corey Crawford
- Malcolm Subban
- Scratches (* Injured Reserve)
- Zack Smith
- Adam Boqvist
- Nick Seeler
- Drake Caggiula
- Brent Seabrook *
- Calvin de Haan *
- Andrew Shaw *
Players such as Brandon Hagel, Lucas Carlsson, and Nicolas Beaudin found their way to the NHL this season with Chicago after making considerable strides in the AHL with the IceHogs. But, their time with the club likely will not translate into much, if any, ice-time during the play-in round or beyond barring any injury.
Considering Drake Caggiula is recovered from his hand injury from March 9 against the St. Louis Blues and Adam Boqvist is cleared from being placed in concussion protocol after the same game against the Blues on March 9, those two players will likely rejoin the Blackhawks’ regular lineup.
One of the major comebacks for the Blackhawks lineup would be the return of defenseman Calvin de Haan. After undergoing shoulder surgery in late December, de Haan was given a four-to-five month timetable for a full recovery. While the NHL doesn’t have a firm timetable for when the league will get back into action, they announced that they do not believe that team training camps prior to the play-in round will begin before mid-July.
A mid-July training camp start gives de Haan ample time to be fully ready to return to the Blackhawks, a team that will need all the help they can get heading into a best-of-five series against the Oilers led by Leon Draisaitl, the league-leader in points for the 2019-20 season, and arguably the league’s most talented player in Connor McDavid.
As for the other two players on the Blackhawks injured-reserve list, Brent Seabrook and Andrew Shaw, the outlook for their return to the lineup isn’t as clear. For Shaw, he was placed in concussion protocol in late-November and wasn’t given a timetable for return in the 2019-20 season. In February, it was announced that he would for sure not be returning before the end of the year and was hopeful to be ready to play in the 2020-21 season.
The case for Seabrook to be ready by the time the Blackhawks and Oilers drop the puck is tricky. In December, he was shut down for the rest of the 2019-20 season and underwent shoulder surgery. It was also revealed that he would need surgery on both hips, having the procedures done in February. After getting the surgeries, Seabrook was given a five-to-six month timetable for recovery, which would land him right about late-July/early-August to likely be cleared for action.
Post-injury recovery is always tricky and given that Seabrook isn’t under the constant supervision and care of the Blackhawks medical staff during his recovery, it’s hard to gauge exactly where he may be in his process for returning to the ice. One also has to ask the question: How much does a post-double hip surgery Brent Seabrook bring to Chicago? For the time being, we’ll consider Seabrook still sidelined.
With all that said, the Blackhawks lineup with most players back to full health is pretty much cut and dry heading into their play-in round against the Oilers. With maybe one or two spots up for grabs, it’s hard to imagine any of the prospects or IceHogs call-ups to push for real ice-time with a spot in the REAL Stanley Cup Playoffs on the line. That doesn’t mean we can’t talk about it though.
‘Black Ace’ Considerations
The Rockford IceHogs saw their 2019-20 season cut short as well due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The AHL canceled the rest of the 2019-20 regular season and the 2020 Calder Cup Playoffs on May 11, ending the IceHogs’ postseason hopes, as they were tied for the final Central Division playoff spot with the Chicago Wolves when the season ended.
Although the ending was not what anyone could have expected, the IceHogs saw a number of young players take important strides through the 2019-20 campaign. In his end of season conference call, IceHogs head coach Derek King gave praise to a number of rookies from the IceHogs this season, “You’ll get a chance to see guys who were up there when the season was put on hold like Brandon Hagel (and) Lucas Carlsson,” King said. “You have Dylan Sikura that could still go up and MacKenzie Entwistle, too, that played big roles for us this year. Defensively, you can look at a guy like Dennis Gilbert. There’s plenty of bodies available for (Chicago), but who they might take, I’m not sure.”
With the assumed returns of Adam Boqvist, Calvin de Haan, and Drake Caggiula, the Blackhawks are already looking at a 25-man roster heading into the play-in round. With rosters opened up to a maximum of 30 players, there’s not a ton of room for all of the budding young players from the prospect system to fit. Here’s who should be in top consideration for Chicago’s ‘Black Aces.’
Hagel made the jump from juniors to the professional game late in the 2018-19 season with the IceHogs, playing in a handful of games before making his full season debut this year. In his first year with the IceHogs, Hagel led the team with 19 goals and ranked third in scoring with 31 points. He also led all IceHogs rookies in points and ranked in the top-15 in the AHL for points and goals for all rookies.
Hagel earned a couple of call-ups to the Blackhawks this season but only played in one game in the NHL this year, playing 11:48 minutes against the Sharks in what ended up being the final game of the 2019-20 regular season. He recorded four shots on goal in his only game with the Blackhawks. Hagel has a combination of speed and bite to his game that the Blackhawks like in him. Adding his scoring touch he showcased with the IceHogs as a rookie, Hagel could benefit from being around a playoff-type atmosphere as he tries to factor into Chicago’s near-future plans.
When healthy for the IceHogs this season, Philipp Kurashev finished third in scoring for rookies with 19 points in 36 games and was one of eight players to finish the year with Rockford scoring above a half-point per game pace (0.53). His highlight of the season came in a 12-game span from November 29 to December 27, where he tallied 11 points, including a three-point night against the Toronto Marlies on December 15.
Kurashev didn’t get a chance to play with the Blackhawks this season, but he figures to be pushing for NHL ice-time soon. Kurashev received high-praise from IceHogs head coach Derek King on his year-end conference call, and rightfully so. King noted that he feels like a healthy Kurashev can be an NHL player in one or two years. “He acts like a pro, he plays like a pro, handles himself like one,” King said. “He has a chance to be a special player.”
One of the more “veteran” of the ‘Black Ace’ options for the Blackhawks, Sikura has skated in 47 career NHL games with Chicago, tallying 14 points. This season with the IceHogs, Sikura skated in 45 games and recorded 33 points, ranking second in points and finishing the season with the team’s highest point per game pace (0.73).
Sikura skated in nine games this season with the Blackhawks from early-December to mid-January, notching three points and scoring his first NHL goal against the Detroit Red Wings on January 5. He averaged 9:54 minutes of ice-time per game this season.
Another option for the Blackhawks with some previous NHL experience, John Quenneville was a leader for the IceHogs this season, when healthy. In 36 AHL games this season, Quenneville scored 13 goals and 22 points, ranking third on the team in goals and finishing second on the team with a 0.61 points per game pace.
Quenneville has 42 NHL games under his belt, playing in nine games with the Blackhawks in his first year with the organization after being acquired from the New Jersey Devils. He averaged 11:03 minutes of ice-time with Chicago this season but didn’t record any points.
Another IceHogs rookie to make a significant impact in his first professional season, MacKenzie Entwistle doesn’t hold as much flash in his game as Hagel or Kurashev but is just as effective offensively as he is defensively. Entwistle finished the season with 11 goals and 26 points, good for fourth on the team in scoring and second in goals and points for all Rockford rookies behind Hagel.
Possessing a two-way style of play that translates well to the NHL level, Entwistle has time to grow from his productive rookie year into a fully well-rounded player. Consistently utilized in key moments and on special teams for the IceHogs, Entwistle could be another rookie who is on the cusp of making his way to the NHL with the Blackhawks and could benefit from being around players like Jonathan Toews, Ryan Carpenter, and Brandon Saad in a playoff-like setting.
Will he or won’t he…be eligible to play this season? The question that still has no definitive answer for the Blackhawks yet is whether or not newly signed Ian Mitchell will be available to play in the play-in series against Edmonton. Mitchell signed his entry-level contract with the Blackhawks on April 13, while the league was already on hold. The deal wouldn’t kick-in until either the 2019-20 season resumed or until the beginning of the 2020-21 season. But with the league resuming with the 24-team playoff format, players like Mitchell who signed contracts while the league has been paused are still unsure if they’ll be available to play.
If Mitchell is allowed to play, he’ll surely be brought to Chicago to get on the ice, even if just to practice. He figures to be in the mix defensively for the Blackhawks as soon as next season and being around the team in a playoff atmosphere can serve as a jumping-off point for his professional career. Mitchell played in 116 games at the University of Denver, tallying 89 points in his NCAA career. He was named to the NCHC All-Rookie team as a freshman, second team NCHC All-Star as a sophomore, and a first team NCHC All-Star this season as a junior. Mitchell also played with Team Canada at this past December’s Spengler Cup, winning the tournament.
Carlsson led the IceHogs in points as a defenseman for the second-straight year this season with 26 points in 48 AHL games. He led IceHogs defensemen last season with 33 points in 69 games as a rookie. Carlsson was rewarded at the end of the regular season with the Blackhawks, skating in six games for Chicago and tallying his first NHL assist against the Anaheim Ducks on March 3.
An offensive threat from the blue-line, Carlsson averaged 14:08 minutes of ice-time with the Blackhawks in his six games. With players like Adam Boqvist, Ian Mitchell, and Nicolas Beaudin all in the fold defensively for the Blackhawks, Carlsson may find it difficult to carve his way into the regular NHL-fold with Chicago. For now, he’d figure to hold his roster spot into the play-in round.
Speaking of Beaudin, he was another rookie to make his NHL debut with the Blackhawks this season. Playing in the final regular season game of the 2019-20 season, Beaudin skated for 17:01 minutes for Chicago in a 6-2 win over the Sharks. Beaudin registered two shots on net in his only NHL start.
After a slow start out of the gate as a rookie for the IceHogs, Beaudin found his stride later in the year and became the second-leading point producer from the blue-line for Rockford. He skated in 59 AHL games and tallied 15 points. Although selected 19 picks after Adam Boqvist in the 2018 NHL Draft, Beaudin’s trajectory after just one full season looks a bit different than Boqvist’s as he will more than likely play next season back with the IceHogs full-time. He might end up being an odd-man-out when the cuts for ‘Black Aces’ are made, depending on the status of Ian Mitchell.
Looking for something different than a puck-moving defenseman who is under six-foot tall? Enter Dennis Gilbert. Not an analytics darling, Gilbert has made incremental impacts for the Blackhawks physically from the blue-line over the past two seasons. He has skated in 22 NHL games for Chicago, averaging 15:42 minutes per game with a goal and two assists all coming this past season. Since making the jump to the professional level last season, Gilbert has appeared in 93 AHL games with the IceHogs, recording 21 points and amassing a reputation of physical play.
Gilbert made vast improvements to his skating and offensive confidence late last season with Rockford and it translated to getting more opportunities with Chicago this year. With the Blackhawks investing time in defensemen like Mitchell, Boqvist, and Carlsson, the six-foot-two, 220-pound Gilbert would be a contrast in style and could provide Chicago with a much-need physical edge in a playoff setting.
The Blackhawks already have Corey Crawford and Malcolm Subban in net at the NHL level, but carrying a third goaltender in these playoff-type settings isn’t a bad idea. Collin Delia is the clear choice. With Kevin Lankinen recovering from shoulder surgery, Delia and Matt Tomkins are the remaining goaltenders from the IceHogs, and Delia is the one with NHL experience and realistic aspirations. He made his NHL debut with the Blackhawks in the 2017-18 season and has appeared in 18 games with a 7-5-2 record, 3.65 GAA and a .906 save percentage for Chicago.
Delia has 76 games under his belt with the IceHogs in his career, leading Rockford in net for the past three seasons. With Crawford and Subban set to be free agents in the upcoming offseason, Delia, along with Tomkins and Lankinen are the only goaltenders with NHL contracts with the Blackhawks currently. With Chicago trading Robin Lehner, more than likely not re-signing Subban, and more than likely planning to re-sign Crawford, Delia’s path to the NHL next season is in his reach. Playing alongside a two-time Stanley Cup winner like Crawford during the play-in round, and potentially beyond, could do wonders for Delia’s development.
To reiterate, it seems unlikely that any of the players brought in by the Blackhawks as their ‘Black Aces’ would get into any games during the play-in series against the Oilers or beyond if Chicago were to advance, barring injury of course. But having those players around a postseason environment and playing alongside their NHL cohorts, helping prepare for meaningful games, can go far when attempting to set up a positive culture for a Blackhawks organization that needs some direction, something to point to as a success.
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