By Jay Zawaski--
(CBS) The Blackhawks are off to a strong start, with a Western Conference-leading 37 points entering Friday night's home contest against the Rangers, who are second in the East. Let's get to a mailbag.
Was thinking about this today: Would the Hawks have been free of Bryan Bickell's contract with what has unfortunately occurred? Meaning Teuvo Teravainen would still be on team? -- Ken B
JZ: This refers to Bickell's diagnosis of multiple sclerosis that has sidelined him indefinitely. The answer is perhaps. It all depends on how the Hawks would have handled the injured reserve situation. If he was placed on long-term IR, he'd be totally off the books.
With all the new, young faces on the Blackhawks this season, which of the kids has impressed you the most and why? -- Steve S
JZ: They've all played pretty well, including Nick Schmaltz, who was recently sent to Rockford. Vincent Hinostroza has shown speed, agility and a recent penchant for some physical play. Ryan Hartman has done well in his "Andrew Shaw replacement" role. He's brought the expected physicality along with a bit of a scoring touch. He's also shown the versatility to jump from line to line and has adapted his game well in those situations.
Tyler Motte has been the most consistent of the forwards, but I'm not sure what his ceiling is. Will he get much better than he is already? Maybe. On the Madhouse Chicago Hockey Podcast, my partner James Neveau compared Motte to Michal Frolik. This isn't a bad comparison.
On the defensive end, Gustav Forsling has had moments of brilliance and some other moments of, well, disaster. The good news is that coach Joel Quenneville has shown the patience needed to develop a young defenseman. I think of all the rookies, Forsling will be the best pro. I believe he'll be an All-Star player.
But to (finally) answer Steve's question, I'm going to go with Michal Kempny, whose game is incredibly unspectacular but so steady. A lot of credit has been given to Brian Campbell for the Hawks' defensive improvement, but Kempny's steady hand has been just as important. He's stepped in with few struggles, even with the transition to the NHL's smaller ice surface. Kempny has brought immediate stability to the Hawks' blue line.
How in the world are the Blackhawks going to afford Artemi Panarin after this season? -- Kevin K
JZ: This is a great question. If you asked me a week ago, I would've told you to prepare for a core member of the team (Corey Crawford or Brent Seabrook) to be moved. After a few recent conversations and news that the cap could go up as much as $2 million next season, I'm inclined to think Marcus Kruger will the odd man out. There's no questioning his value to the team, but his $3,083,333 cap hit makes him a top candidate to move. Yes, it was generous for the Hawks to reward Kruger's patience and flexibility, but in signing this deal, Kruger may well have signed himself away from the Hawks in the long term. With Kruger gone, the cap up and a few more tweaks to the roster, the Hawks should be able to squeeze Panarin in under the cap.
Is Corey Crawford Hall of Fame worthy? -- Mark V
JZ: Even though I've been Chicago's No. 1 Crawford apologist, I can't call him a Hall of Famer at this point. Yes, he's been one of the best NHL goalies over the last 4-5 years, but there are a couple things to consider.
First, he lacks an individual award. Yes, he has a pair of Jennings Trophies, but that's more of a team award in the eyes of voters. For Crawford to garner real Hall of Fame consideration, he'll need to win at least one Vezina Trophy and perhaps another Stanley Cup.
Second, Crawford has had a tough time shaking the reputation he has for "soft goals" based on Game 4 of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final. That was the game in which Crawford surrendered five glove-side goals. Well guess what? He won that game. Tuukka Rask, who surrendered six goals that night, hasn't had the same cloud over his head that Crawford has since that night. Last season and the beginning of this season have gone a long way in improving Crawford's national respect, but it will take more to get him into the Hall of Fame.
After his great start to this season, has Marian Hossa solidified his place in the Hall of Fame? -- Tony R
JZ: This one is a no-brainer. Hossa is an incredible hockey player with three Stanley Cups, has played in 201 playoff games and has been one of the best players of this generation. It's impossible for me to imagine someone actually observing Hossa's career and saying "no," but I've been surprised before.
Like Crawford, Hossa lacks the individual awards that typically get borderline players over the hump. He shouldn't need them. He's as close to a perfect hockey player as I've seen in my 25-plus years watching hockey.
Jay Zawaski is the executive producer of the Spiegel and Goff Show on 670 The Score and the Blackhawks columnist for CBSChicago.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast with James Neveau of NBCChicago.com that you can listen and subscribe to here. Follow him on Twitter @JayZawaski670.
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