Just like last offseason, this one is no different as the Blackhawks begin with a glut of options up front with centers and wingers. This isn't to say, though, that they are the optimal players at every position and on every line. Changes are inevitable.
Several of the 2021 forwards are now free agents. RFA forwards include Josh Dickinson, Adam Gaudette, Brandon Hagel, David Kampf, Alex Nylander, and Pius Suter. Vincent Hinostroza, Brandon Pirri, John Quenneville, and Zack Smith are the UFA forwards.
Also, there are several factors -- namely the expansion draft, entry draft, free agency, and trades -- coming up next month and into August that are sure to alter the composition of the forward ranks. And let's not forget the pending return of Jonathan Toews.
What about Nylander returning, too, from being out all season? Compared to Toews, he's more certain to be at full health to start training camp. However, will Nylander be at training camp in Chicago or elsewhere if the Hawks decide to part ways with him?
Besides the free agents, of course, are those who are locked in for at least another season: Ryan Carpenter, Brett Connolly, Kirby Dach, Alex DeBrincat, MacKenzie Entwistle, Mike Hardman, Patrick Kane, Dominik Kubalik, Philipp Kurashev, Dylan Strome, and Toews.
Then there are rookie hopefuls like top prospects Henrik Borgstrom and Lukas Reichel. Others like Andrei Altybarmakian, Evan Barratt, Reese Johnson, Josiah Slavin, and Tim Soderlund are best continuing to marinate in Rockford for another season.
As you can tell by eyeballing all of the aforementioned names, there are plenty of in-house options -- too many actually -- to round out the starting lines plus a few reserves even before considering any free agent and trade acquisitions.
Nylander - Toews - Kubalik
DeBrincat - Dach - Kane
Suter - Strome - Hinostroza
Hagel - Gaudette - Connolly
Reichel - Borgstrom - Kurashev
Hardman - Kampf - Entwistle
One of them may be taken by the Kraken in the expansion draft, a free agent or two may not be re-signed, and some may be traded to gain new assets. But what is the determining factor for making these personnel decisions including who to expose to Seattle?
The measurable intensity of work ethic and compete level of last season's young forwards could be a litmus test for what to expect out of all forwards who will populate the 2021-22 roster. Perhaps anyone who can't fit in that mold should get the boot.
Hagel is the gold standard. What sets Hagel atop the heap is what Eddie Olczyk calls a "nose over puck" mentality illustrated by his dogged pursuit of the puck, relentless drive to gain possession, and capacity to make an impact in all zones.
Eliminating the easy choices of not re-signing Dickinson, Pirri, Quenneville, and Smith as well as retaining the gold standard -- aka Hagel -- that leaves several free agents to consider as well as a few veterans and a couple of prospects.
* Gaudette: Despite a small sample size after being traded from the Canucks for Matthew Highmore, Gaudette created some intrigue to see how he would fare in a full season with the Hawks and with improved health from his stomach disorder.
* Hinostroza: Cast off in Miami, Hinostroza resurrected his career after the Panthers traded him for career minor leaguer Brad Morrison. He and Hagel formed a dynamic duo down the stretch so is that worth keeping him home for the long term?
* Kampf: Putting aside his offensive black hole, Kampf is one of the most valuable players on the team as far as defensive forwards. After Toews, there's no one better at taking the tough assignments to lock it down against the other team's best players.
* Nylander: If seeing what it takes to have a starting role by watching the likes of DeBrincat, Hagel, and Kubalik can light a fire under him, then Nylander is a keeper with his offensive skills. But that's the million dollar question.
* Suter: Being amongst the rookie scoring leaders and playing a top 9 role for the Hawks should be sufficient to earn a contract renewal. However, is Suter also good enough to trade for another asset like Dominik Kahun was after a solid rookie year?
* Borgstrom: Spending a season back home in Finland after early struggles in the Panthers organization, Borgstrom may be poised to impress in training camp to nail down a job in Chicago. Yet, a little AHL time could be in order, too.
* Carpenter: Even though his veteran leadership is a plus in the locker room, Carpenter's level of play may no longer be needed if younger players can offer more to the team in all situations not to mention more offensive juice.
* Connolly: Just like Carpenter, Connolly is in the same boat although he's more capable of generating offensively in comparison. If the Kraken were to select a forward from the Hawks exposed list, Connolly may be attractive.
* Reichel: Similar to Borgstrom, Reichel isn't a lock to make the Hawks shortly after inking his ELC but had intensive growth in the German elite league and in international play as a teenager. He's also added weight in order to get stronger.
* Strome: After being a healthy scratch at the end of the season even when the team needed centers, it seems clear to at least Strome that he's in head coach Jeremy Colliton's dog house and may be a trade candidate given he may not fit the team anymore.
* Toews: There is no guarantee that the captain will return to the lineup after being out all of this past season. Whatever is ailing Toews may not be resolved by training camp and possibly not for a while or -- worst case scenario -- not at all.
So in the end, the Hawks would need to shed 5 forwards to get from 19 down to 14. Some of them could be in Rockford while others could be dealt. But remember, general manager Stan Bowman also wants to add experience so that could exacerbate circumstances, too.
While it's sad news to see former Blackhawks prospect Stephen Johns being forced to retire due to head injuries that have created trauma in his life off the ice, it's great to see him find strength to leverage his experience to help others in need.
See you on the boards!