For once, Blackhawks general manager Kyle Davidson’s session with reporters was more chill than grill.
In contrast to a year ago, he didn’t have to juggle questions about Jonathan Toews’ and Patrick Kane’s futures (including whether either would retire), or which free agents were really trade bait, or whether the Hawks would try to tank the season to gain the best odds at winning the lottery and landing Connor Bedard.
As it turned out, Kane became the trade bait (dealt to the New York Rangers), Toews’ career with the Hawks came to a conclusion with the appropriate fanfare and the Hawks’ failure to tank worked out in their favor — they won the draft lottery anyway, despite the third-best odds.
On Tuesday, two days ahead of the start of training camp, Davidson’s most “difficult” questions centered on whether Lukas Reichel can play center in the NHL, and whether several top prospects are ready to play, period.
“There’s a lot more feel of excitement for the games this year, whereas last year there were a lot of questions around what could happen and might happen to the roster and a lot of discussion around what we did around the roster,” Davidson told reporters Tuesday at Fifth Third Arena. “This year is much more focused on the players that are here and not the surrounding storylines. …
“It feels a little more settled this year, to be honest, walking into training camp, which in itself is nice. To be one year further into the rebuild, you start to give players more responsibility and opportunity, and that brings excitement,” he said.
Davidson dedicated his opening comments to the late Chairman Rocky Wirtz, who died in July.
“He gave me an opportunity to start in pro hockey and gave me the opportunity of a lifetime to be the general manager of the Chicago Blackhawks,” Davidson said. “(He was) very supportive of the methodical approach that we were taking to our rebuild, and he was really excited about the youth we had coming into our system.”
Davidson addressed several other topics during his news conference:
1. My captain? No captain.
Davidson said the Hawks won’t elect a captain this season.
It’s partly in deference to Jonathan Toews, “The Captain” for 15 seasons, with whom the Hawks parted ways after last season.
“The only plan (for captain) right now is to sort of just let it breathe for a year,” Davidson said. “We came off such a successful tenure with Jonathan that a little bit of it is just out of respect for Jonathan, to not fill that spot right away.”
He added, “From a leadership and a former leadership perspective we’re not going to have a captain this year. We’ll have a group of assistants, which we will determine and announce later in training camp.”
The Hawks could be keeping the space open for a veteran assistant captain to make a case — or even reserve it for a next-generation player such as Connor Bedard or Lukas Reichel if one of them shows he’s ready.
Kane had been one of three assistant captains last season before he was traded.
Connor Murphy has worn the “A” on his jersey for the last three seasons and Seth Jones was named an assistant captain last season.
If the Hawks want fresh blood, they could pick from veterans Tyler Johnson, Nick Foligno and Taylor Hall, among others.
Davidson said the locker room will figure out who the next leaders will be.
“We’ll let the chips fall where they may,” Davidson said. “Over the next year, we’ll see who emerges, see who the best option is and decide next year if it’s appropriate to name someone (captain),” Davidson said. “We’ll take that as it comes.”
2. Is Lukas Reichel ready for a full-time season?
Reichel will play center, which carries a lot of responsibility.
“He’s a confident offensive player, plays with some significant speed,” Davidson said. “We’re looking for him to carry that through and keep providing the offense we saw last year, both here with the Blackhawks and down in Rockford.
“But as an NHL center, there’s defensive responsibilities that you’ll need to execute.”
Reichel recorded seven goals and eight assists in 23 games last season and shot 16.7%, second-best on the team.
He had a small sample size of faceoffs, just 15, but won just 38.5% of them. He also had 14 giveaways, according to moneypuck.com, almost one per game.
“Any young player, (there are going to be) peaks and valleys that (we’ll) help him work through instruction. I know over the summer he was working on faceoffs. Different animal though when you get into the NHL; some players are specialists in that area.
“There’ll be some growth areas for him down the middle, but we wouldn’t try it out if we didn’t think he could succeed there.”
3. Connor Bedard’s play will show how much he can handle.
You could tell Davidson’s determined to not be too effusive too soon when it comes to this year’s No. 1 overall draft pick.
That’s hard to do when Bedard puts up a hat trick in his first action against NHL prospects during the Tom Kurvers Showcase in Minnesota.
“He’s played one game, but fantastic performance,” Davidson said. “Led the team in shots and goals. You saw that offensive hockey sense, that shot, that scoring ability that he was touted with heading into his draft.
“So really excited for him to get going and assimilated into the group.”
Davidson wouldn’t pin down how much Bedard will play in camp and the preseason.
“We’ll let him and his play do the talking,” he said.
4. Make way for the future?
The Hawks won’t rule out adding a veteran on a professional tryout, but it’s clearly not a priority.
Their focus is squarely on several Rockford IceHogs and junior players who are, as Davidson described it, “knocking on the door.”
Davidson named several defensemen who’ve had solid years in college, juniors or the AHL who’ll make their bids in camp for roster spots: Alex Vlasic, Wyatt Kaiser, Isaak Phillips and Filip Roos.
“We’re expecting them to fight it out amongst each other for some NHL spots, where last year we weren’t necessarily expecting that from them,” he said.
But the most interesting case is defenseman Kevin Korchinski.
He’s a strong candidate to make the roster, but Canadian Hockey League rules require that he be sent back to the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League instead of Rockford if he struggles and the Hawks determine he needs more seasoning.
And Davidson’s completely fine with it.
“Nothing’s off the table,” he said. “We’re just going to do what we feel is best for him. We’re looking long-term with Kevin.”
The Hawks are looking for signs of progress offensively and defensively.
“You want to make sure that he’s able physically and mentally to handle defending NHL forwards,” Davidson said.
Korchinski has shown offensive talents that made him the No. 7overall pick in 2022, but “maybe are a little too high-risk at times, that you want to see dialed back,” Davidson said.
5. Does Davidson have a better sense of when the Hawks will contend?
“To be honest, I don’t,” Davidson said. “That’s not me just being cagey on it. I don’t. Because we still have a lot of prospects that are outside the NHL.”
The Hawks hope they have some future All-Stars and key contributors in the fold, but many of them haven’t even played an NHL game yet.
“You never know how it’s going (to go),” Davidson said about their learning curve. “Sometimes it’s very quick, sometimes it takes a little while. As I said, we need to build a team. …
“We want to make sure we’re not putting artificial timelines that are delayed or sped up or based on whether prospects do or don’t work out.”