Viktor Svedberg

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After skipping the World Cup, Duncan Keith to make preseason debut tonight

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At one point it looked like Duncan Keith may miss the start of the regular season. But that’s no longer the case — the Blackhawks’ star defenseman will make his preseason debut tonight at home against Detroit. If all goes well and there are no issues with the knee injury that kept him out of the World Cup, he should be ready for next Wednesday when Chicago plays for real in St. Louis.

The big question now is whether young Gustav Forsling will remain with the NHL club. The 20-year-old defenseman has impressed during the preseason, and he’s outlasted the likes of Viktor Svedberg, Erik Gustafsson, Cameron Schilling, and Ville Pokka.

The Blackhawks’ active roster currently has eight d-men, and they may keep that many to start the season. (That list of eight includes Niklas Hjalmarsson, who will miss the first game due to a suspension.)

If Forsling doesn’t stick with the ‘Hawks, he’s expected to return to Sweden for the year.

Related: The ‘Hawks like what they’ve got in Kempny

Chicago shakes up defense — Pokka cut, Svedberg waived

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The Blackhawks made a pair of significant moves on defense Monday, sending d-man Ville Pokka to the club’s AHL affiliate in Rockford while waiving towering blueliner Viktor Svedberg.

Pokka, 22, comes as something of a surprise. Acquired from the Isles in the Nick Leddy trade, he’s pretty decorated and held in high regard, considering he’s yet to make his NHL debut.

Pokka was named to the AHL All-Rookie team in 2015, finished fifth in the league in d-man scoring last year and secured a spot on Team Finland at the recently completed World Cup of Hockey.

(That said, Pokka didn’t exactly light it up for the Finns.)

Svedberg, 25, is coming off a rookie campaign in Chicago in which he made 27 appearances, scoring four points while averaging 15:45 TOI per night.

Known largely for his size — listed at 6-foot-8, 238 pounds — Svedberg also made his playoff debut last season, appearing in three games in an opening-round loss to St. Louis.

Today’s moves could mean that Swedish prospect Gustav Forsling is closer to the NHL than ever before. From TSN:

[Forsling has] been impressive so far, showing poise and maturity far beyond his years. He was named the top player in Swedish junior hockey last season but even early NHL pre-season games are a huge step up in competition.

By all accounts, he has handled it masterfully, looking poised and calm in all situations. He’s done a good job reading plays both with and without the puck. His gap control has been strong and to say that head coach Joel Quenneville, amongst others, has been mightily impressed is something of an understatement.

All that said, there are still things to sort out on defense. Chicago has eight guys currently in the mix — Forsling, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brian Campbell, Michal Kempny, Michal Rozsival and Trevor van Riemsdyk — and it remains to be seen what the club will do with Svedberg, should he clear waivers.

In other d-man news, Cameron Schilling was also placed on waivers while Erik Gustafsson — who made 41 appearances last year — was sent to Rockford along with Pokka.

Blackhawks’ Rozsival doesn’t know ‘what my role is’ this season

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Blackhawks defenseman Michal Rozsival has overcome a lot in his NHL career, but even he isn’t sure where he fits in Chicago’s plans this season.

After suffering a serious ankle injury in the 2015 playoffs, Rozsival returned to the ice last season where he skated in 51 games with the ‘Hawks.

The 38-year-old dressed for the first four games of his team’s opening round playoff series against St. Louis before being a healthy scratch in the final three games.

During the off-season, he signed a one-year, $600,000 contract to remain with the club.

“After last season I had no indications or expectations that I would be back or not,” Rozsival said, per the Chicago Tribune. “So I’m happy to be back.

“Right now, I still don’t know what my role is. It might be determined by the way I play. The last four years I’ve played 20 games, I’ve played 30 games and I’ve played 50 games. I’m ready for anything and for any kind of role. Obviously, I would love to be playing. I’m always trying to fight for my ice time.”

Getting into the lineup won’t be easy. The ‘Hawks already have standouts Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson and they added free agent Brian Campbell during the summer. Add Trevor van Riemsdyk (he’s on a one-way deal) and European free agent Michal Kempny and it looks like finding minutes for Rozsival won’t be easy.

They also have younger options like Erik Gustafsson and Viktor Svedberg looking to make an impact at the NHL level.

“I think Michal played great hockey last year,” GM Stan Bowman said. “If anything, we probably played him too much. Michal is at the top of his game when we can give him some time to re-cooperate between games. He still has a lot of hockey left in him.”

‘Hawks re-sign Rozsival, Mashinter

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Chicago re-upped with a pair of pending free agents ahead of tomorrow’s frenzy — veteran blueliner Michal Rozsival and big forward Brandon Mashinter have agreed to one-year extension, the club announced.

Per ESPN, Rozsival’s deal is worth $600,000 and Mashinter’s is $575,000.

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Mashinter, 27, recently completed his first season with the Blackhawks, scoring four goals and adding one assist in 41 games. He netted his first career NHL goal on Dec. 13, 2015, vs. VAN and made his Stanley Cup Playoffs debut with the Blackhawks in 2016, appearing in two games.

Rozsival, 37, recently completed his 15th NHL season and his fourth with the Blackhawks. Last season, Rozsival scored one goal and added 12 assists in 51 games played. During his four-year tenure with Chicago, he has totaled 46 points (3G, 43A). A member of the 2013 and 2015 Stanley Cup Championship teams, the defenseman has played in 54 Stanley Cup Playoffs games with Chicago, scoring one goal and notching 10 assists.

The more notable of the two is Rozsival who, at the time of writing, projects to be battling for a bottom pairing spot on Chicago’s blueline next season. He’ll likely be up against the likes of Erik Gustafsson and Viktor Svedberg, both of whom are notably younger. Gustafsson is 24, Svedberg is 25… and Rozsival will turn 38 in September.

This is the reality for Chicago in the salary cap world, however. It’s feasible that Mashinter — all 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds of him — could be in line for an even bigger role next season, now that Andrew Shaw is gone.

Three major challenges facing the Chicago Blackhawks, who won’t be the champs in 2016

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The Chicago Blackhawks lost to an excellent team in the St. Louis Blues. If a few bounces had gone their way, they could’ve beaten that excellent team.

But they lost, and now, for the first time since 2012, they’re out after the first round of the playoffs.

While the future isn’t exactly bleak in Chicago, GM Stan Bowman does face some significant challenges going forward.

Salary-cap strapped

The good news is Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are still young, each just 27 years old. The bad news is they’re really expensive now, each with a cap hit of $10.5 million.

Ask the Pittsburgh Penguins about the challenges of having two superstars take up so much of the payroll. Naturally, it’s the depth that suffers. Currently, the Penguins have a bunch of kids on cheap contracts who are contributing, and that’s been absolutely vital to their success. 

In Chicago, it was the blue line where depth was the big concern this season. The ‘Hawks couldn’t afford to keep Johnny Oduya. Instead, they relied on rookie Trevor van Riemsdyk to log top-four minutes behind Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Niklas Hjalmarsson.

Van Riemsdyk played well, but it was a lot to ask of him, and sometimes he faltered. Two other rookies —  Erik Gustafsson and Viktor Svedberg — never earned the coach’s trust, forcing David Rundblad into the lineup. (The Blues, meanwhile, had this kid by the name of Colton Parayko….)

If van Riemsdyk, Svedberg, and Gustafsson can continue to get better, the ‘Hawks might actually be pretty solid on the back end next season. There’s also still Ville Pokka in the minors, and perhaps they’ll pursue a veteran in free agency.

Up front is where the depth concerns could be greatest in 2016-17. Will the ‘Hawks be able to keep Andrew Shaw? What about Andrew Ladd? The former is a restricted free agent who’s in line for a good-sized raise. The latter is a 30-year-old unrestricted free agent, and Chicago really can’t afford to overpay a player at that point in his career.

GM Stan Bowman has tried in the past to move Bryan Bickell’s $4 million cap hit (through 2016-17), and he’ll no doubt try again this offseason. But no team is going to take that on for free. They’ll want something in return, like one of the Blackhawks’ prospects.

Which brings us to…

The prospect pool

It lacks elite talent — a consequence of not missing the playoffs and making trades for immediate help.

The ‘Hawks do have a handful of youngsters in the system who could one day make an impact at the NHL level, including forwards Mark McNeill, Vince Hinostroza, Tyler Motte, and Nick Schmaltz. On defense, there’s Pokka and Gustav Forsling.

But they didn’t have a first-round pick last year (they traded it to Arizona for Antoine Vermette), and they don’t have one this year (they traded it to Winnipeg for Ladd, along with Marko Dano).

The ‘Hawks know better than anyone that even great rosters need to be constantly refreshed with young talent. A number of key contributors to last year’s championship — guys like Shaw, Teuvo Teravainen, Marcus Kruger, and Brandon Saad — weren’t on the 2010 Stanley Cup-winning team. They were all drafted and developed in the years after, helping replace the likes of Dave Bolland, Kris VersteegTroy Brouwer, and Dustin Byfuglien.

The infusion of young talent is going to be doubly important now, because…

An aging core

This is a sensitive topic, but here’s the reality — Marian Hossa is among the oldest forwards in the league. He’s still a very good player at 37, but his production did decline significantly in the regular season.

Yes, Hossa showed in the playoffs that he can still bring it. He scored three times against the Blues; had a couple of assists, too. The reason that guys like Hossa, Jaromir Jagr, Pavel Datsyuk, and Zdeno Chara can remain effective for so long is that they were so great in their primes. Even after they decline, they’re still really good.

But they do decline. All of them. It cannot be avoided. Nature says so. Their fans can kick and scream all they want. Won’t help.

In a related story, Duncan Keith is 32 and Brent Seabrook is 31. Keith has played 833 games in the NHL, plus 122 more in the playoffs. Seabrook has played 844 games, plus 119 more in the playoffs. There are a lot of miles on those bodies.

To clarify, nobody’s saying those two aren’t good anymore — heck, Keith is only one year removed from one of the greatest playoff performances ever by a defenseman — but they will start to decline. Even if it’s a gradual decline, the NHL is so closely contested, and those two have been so vital to the Blackhawks’ success, that it will be felt.