Hawks storylines (No. 8): Aging players

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
11:06
AM CT
Powers By Scott Powers
ESPNChicago.com
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ESPNChicago.com's Scott Powers counts down the days to the opening of Blackhawks training camp on Sept. 19 with a look at 20 storylines facing the team this season.

Age appeared to catch up with Michal Handzus and Michal Rozsival last season.

Rozsival
Hossa
Both had played roles in the Chicago Blackhawks' run to the Stanley Cup during the 2013 playoffs, and neither could return to that form in the 2014 playoffs. Handzus was demoted to the fourth line, and Rozsival was a healthy scratch for two playoff games last season.

The Blackhawks have six players in their 30s heading into the 2014-15 season.

Rozsival likely will be one player the Blackhawks watch closely again this season. He turned 36 on Sept. 3 and has been part of a defenseman rotation the past two seasons. He played in 27 of 48 regular season games in 2013 and in 42 of 82 games last season.

Marian Hossa, who will turn 36 in January, is the next oldest Blackhawk. He returned from a back injury suffered in the 2013 Stanley Cup finals to play in 72 regular season games last season. He proved last season to again be one of the NHL's top two-way forwards. He has suffered a variety of injuries since turning 30, so the Blackhawks always will have to be concerned at some level about him, but last season was a good sign for the near future.

Brad Richards, 34, has been slowed down in recent years, but showed last season he still has something left in the tank. He likely won't be at a 90-point level again, but he is still capable of contributing offensively at even strength and on the power play. He had 20 goals and 51 points and proved durable, playing in a total of 107 games, including the playoffs.

Johnny Oduya, who will turn 33 in October, is again expected to be paired with Niklas Hjalmarsson and they likely again will receive the toughest defensive assignments.

Patrick Sharp, who will be 33 in December, hasn't allowed his game to be hampered by age. He scored 34 goals and recorded a career-high 78 points last season. He had the most points among all of the league's players 30 or older. He also finished first in the Blackhawks' fitness testing during training camp last season.

Duncan Keith, who turned 31 in July, is also still playing at a high level. He was voted the Norris Trophy winner after continuing to lead the Blackhawks defenseman in points and ice time.

Hawks storylines (No. 9): Consistent Bickell

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
6:49
PM CT
Powers By Scott Powers
ESPNChicago.com
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ESPNChicago.com's Scott Powers counts down the days to the opening of Blackhawks training camp on Sept. 19 with a look at 20 storylines facing the team this season.

Chicago Blackhawks forward Bryan Bickell is hopeful a big summer leads to a big regular season for him.

Bickell
Bickell understood going into the offseason he's expected to begin producing in the regular season as he has in the playoffs the past few seasons.

"I think this is a big summer for me to get in shape and to be more of a regular-season guy, not just a playoff guy," Bickell said after last season.

Bickell has been ordinary in the regular season, scoring a total of 20 goals in the past two seasons. As for the playoffs, he's been a star. He has 16 playoff goals the last two seasons.

Bickell has admitted he plays harder and more aggressively in the playoffs. He's also said it's difficult to duplicate that style in the regular season without being constantly banged up.

The Blackhawks would like him to at least meet them somewhere in the middle. They want more from him considering he's being paid $4 million each of the next three seasons.

"I think every team in the league would love to have that power forward that brings that element to their game, and [where] their production's in the 20-goal numbers and brings a physicality and a presence and has speed and can be disruptive in a lot of ways," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said in the playoffs. "Those players are hard to find, and I think everybody's wish list would be that guy. So, you know, we're happy to have him now, but certainly we'd love that consistency, and I think that's where we're working to get as we go along."

If Bickell can establish that consistency, the Blackhawks' third line could have some real offensive potential. Andrew Shaw or Teuvo Teravainen could center that line, and Shaw, Jeremy Morin or Kris Versteeg could end up as the right winger.

Hawks storylines (No. 10 ): Third D-pairing

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
3:30
PM CT
Powers By Scott Powers
ESPNChicago.com
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Nick Leddy is expected to be a fixture as the Chicago Blackhawks’ No. 5 defenseman again. What’s up in the air is which players will fill the No. 6, No. 7 and even possibly No. 8 defenseman roles for the Blackhawks this season.

Unless Leddy is traded, which his agent recently said he doesn’t expect, Leddy could be paired with a different defenseman on any given night as he did last season. He found himself partnered with Michal Rozsival, Sheldon Brookbank, Mike Kostka and David Rundblad last season.

[+] EnlargeMichal Rozsival
Mike DiNovo/USA TODAY SportsMichal Rozsival's play declined last season and he was a healthy scratch for two playoff games.
The possibilities right now for Leddy are to be paired with Rozsival and Rundblad. Brookbank wasn’t re-signed in the offseason and Kostka was picked up on waivers in March.

Rozsival was solid throughout the Blackhawks’ playoff run in 2013, but his play declined last season and was made a healthy scratch for two games in the playoffs. He just turned 36 and his age has slowed him down in the recent years. He played in 27-of-48 regular-season games in 2013 and in 42-of-82 games last season. If he remains on the roster, the Blackhawks would likely rotate him again.

Rundblad was acquired by the Blackhawks near the trade deadline for a second-round pick last season. Although Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman said just before acquiring Rundblad that having eight defensemen on the roster was too challenging, the Blackhawks were again given eight defensemen when Rundblad joined the team.

Rundblad, 23, appeared in five regular-season games last season, but he’s expected to be given a greater chance this season. Bowman coveted Rundblad for some time and did give up a high pick for him.

“I think he’s an example of a young player who’s ready for an opportunity,” Bowman said in June. “He’s in that age bracket where he’s 23, 24 years old. I think he just needs an opportunity for us. He’s got a ton of talent. He’s got a little more familiarity with our system now. It’s tough when he came in at the trade deadline, he didn’t get a lot of games, but everything is new in terms of how we play, what the coaches are looking for. Now he comes into training camp he’s way ahead of where he was back in March, so I would expect that to be a benefit for him. He understands the style of our team, what our coaches like and what they want him to do and I think he’s going to have a comfort level, so it’s good for a player like that to come in and have a chance.”

The Blackhawks also have four defensemen who could make the NHL jump from the AHL this season if needed. Adam Clendening, 21, has been one of the AHL’s most offensive defensemen the past two seasons. Klas Dahlbeck, 23, is a stay-at-home defenseman who has improved his offensive game. He practiced with the Blackhawks throughout the playoffs last season. Stephen Johns, 22, joined the organization last season after playing four years at Notre Dame. He’s a physical defenseman. Kyle Cumiskey, 27, spent the last two seasons in Sweden after playing in 132 NHL games earlier in his career.

Hawks storylines (No. 11): Shaw's role

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
11:57
AM CT
Powers By Scott Powers
ESPNChicago.com
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ESPNChicago.com's Scott Powers counts down the days to the opening of Blackhawks training camp on Sept. 19 with a look at 20 storylines facing the team this season.

The Chicago Blackhawks' offseason signing of Brad Richards likely ended Andrew Shaw's second-line opportunity. But coming off Shaw's successful stint with Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad on the second line in the playoffs last season and now nearing 200-plus NHL games in a variety of roles, especially as the third-line center, the question is how do the Blackhawks best use Shaw?

Shaw
Shaw, who is more athletic than many think, battles for pucks, causes a disturbance around the net, is defensively responsible, adapts to playing with different players and certainly doesn't need to get his when on the ice. He's a team player and is versatile enough to play on the wing or at center.

On the flip side, Shaw has struggled at faceoffs, his puck-handling and ability to carry the puck cleanly into the offensive zone aren't always smooth, his offensive game is limited to mostly around the net and he still can end up on the wrong side careless penalties.

Shaw has had chances to play a top-6 role before, but they have never lasted too long and the outcomes have varied. Shaw opened eyes in the playoffs last season when he, Kane and Saad were the Blackhawks' most successful line against the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference finals. In the final three games of the series, Shaw, Kane and Saad combined for 19 points. What Shaw especially did well with Kane and Saad was get to pucks, keep possessions alive and allow them room to maneuver.

Shaw was hopeful after the season he would get a chance to work with Kane and Saad again, but Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville has already said he expects Richards to begin as the second-line center. Richards' offensive game (867 points in 982 NHL games) and faceoff ability (around 50 percent) give him the edge over Shaw.

Shaw is likely back to the third line to begin the season. Quenneville has utilized Shaw mostly as his third-line center in the past. The line often wins the possession game (Shaw has had a 55.2 Corsi percentage over the past three seasons) and it scores more than it allows. Quenneville has always touted Shaw's defensive game, but Shaw got a chance at more offensive starts last season. He started 67.9 percent in the offensive zone last season compared to 52.7 percent the season before.

Another possibility would be moving Shaw to the wing and putting prospect Teuvo Teravainen at center. Wherever he ends up, Shaw, who turned 23 in July, is expected to play a key role again for the Blackhawks.

Hawks storylines (No. 12): Versteeg's return

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
2:29
PM CT
Powers By Scott Powers
ESPNChicago.com
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ESPNChicago.com's Scott Powers counts down the days to the opening of Blackhawks training camp on Sept. 19 with a look at 20 storylines facing the team this season.

Kris Versteeg might have been the only Chicago Blackhawk to play on every line last season.

Versteeg
That can be viewed in two different ways. It could be seen as a positive because he showed versatility and was able to adapt to different roles. It can also be seen as a negative, bouncing around because he wasn't consistent enough for Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville's liking.

The Blackhawks and Versteeg expect him to return this season being more of the former than the latter.

"We're looking for more," Quenneville said of Versteeg after the season. "I think Steeger knows and [I] would expect him to be at a different level next year. I think this summer of being able to train and put a real concentrated effort to get up to the speed that we want him at, as far as his conditioning level and his pace, where we want him to play his game at, is what we're looking for. And that will be the challenge for him this summer. But certainly we expect more going forward."

Versteeg admitted last season he returned too quickly from a knee injury he suffered during the 2013 season and didn't give himself enough time to strengthen it. His plan for this offseason was to focus on getting it where he wanted it to be.

Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman is still hopeful Versteeg can be the player they thought they were acquiring last season. Bowman touted the trade for Versteeg as the team's major in-season move, but it didn't pan out. Versteeg had some positive stretches and even started the playoffs on the top line, but he fell out of Quenneville's grace by the end of it and was a healthy scratch three times in the playoffs.

Versteeg can still be a factor for the Blackhawks, and his cap hit of $2.2 million is reasonable no matter where he plays. Training camp will be vital for Versteeg to prove he's regained some of his speed. It could come down to him and Jeremy Morin for a spot on the third line.

Hawks storylines (No. 13): Central power

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
10:47
AM CT
Powers By Scott Powers
ESPNChicago.com
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ESPNChicago.com's Scott Powers counts down the days to the opening of Blackhawks training camp on Sept. 19 with a look at 20 storylines facing the team this season.

And you thought the Central Division was competitive last season ...

The Chicago Blackhawks should have their work again cut out for them within their division. Four teams finished with a division record better than .500 last season, and the Blackhawks weren't one of them. The Blackhawks finished third in the Central based off points, but they had a 13-13-3 divisional record.

Here's a glance at the Central for the upcoming season:

Colorado Avalanche (52-22-8 overall last season, 19-6-3 Central)
The Avalanche won't surprise anyone this season. They got everyone's attention by excelling under first-year coach Patrick Roy and winning the Central last season. Their success was short-lived as the Wild knocked them out in the first round. The Avalanche weren't a terribly successful possession team last season, but were able to get by without it. They will have plenty of players with scoring ability again as they return Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan O'Reilly and Nathan MacKinnon. They lost Paul Stastny to free agency and added Jarome Iginla. The Avalanche have a lot of defensive depth. Goaltender Semyon Varlamov was often the difference last season. It could be difficult for him to duplicate such a career season.

St. Louis Blues (52-23-7 overall, 21-6-2 Central)
The Blues were ousted in the first round for the second consecutive season. To help fix that problem, the Blues went out and signed the 28-year-old Stastny, who had 25 goals and 35 assists in 71 games for the Avalanche last season. The Blues return plenty of other offensive weapons in David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Alexander Steen, Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko. Alex Pietrangelo again leads the defensemen. The Blues hand the net over to Brian Elliott, who has a .911 save percentage in 235 career NHL games. He has never started more than 36 games in a season for the Blues.

Minnesota Wild (43-27-12 overall, 14-12-3 Central)
The Wild proved themselves to be a legit playoff team by first eliminating the Avalanche and then pushing the Blackhawks to six games. The Blackhawks pulled out the series by winning the final two games with 2-1 scores. The Wild return Zach Parise, Jason Pominville and Mikko Koivu and added Thomas Vanek in the offseason. They also have some youth and skill in forwards Mikael Grandlund, Charlie Coyle, Erik Haula and Nino Niederretier. Ryan Suter will again be the face of the defense. The Wild's goaltending situation is still the wild card.

Dallas Stars (40-31-11 overall, 13-11-5 Central)
The Stars were the fifth team from the Central to earn a playoff spot last season, and they pushed the Anaheim Ducks to six games in the first round. Tyler Seguin, 22, and Jamie Benn, 25, combined for 71 goals and 92 assists last season and will likely lead the way again this season. The Stars added forwards Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky in the offseason to give them some more depth. There are still some questions about their defensemen, but the Stars should be better this season.

Nashville Predators (38-32-12 overall, 12-13-4 Central)
The Predators made a push for a playoff spot last season, but fell short and replaced coach Barry Trotz with Peter Laviolette. Defenseman Shea Weber led the Predators in points, and the offense is likely a concern again this season. The Predators have a number of players under 25 who could give them an added push. Seth Jones is still 19 and should take a step this season. Forward Filip Forsberg, 20, is another player to keep an eye on.

Winnipeg Jets (37-35-10 overall, 9-15-5 Central)
The Jets got knocked around in the difficult Central last season, but they were pretty good elsewhere, going 28-20-5 outside the division. Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little combined for 51 goals and 82 assists last season. Also returning Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Evander Kane and Toby Enstrom gives the Jets a chance again. The Jets allowed 2.82 goals per game last season, and their defense and goaltending could be weaknesses again.

Popular "24/7" series will find a new home

September, 11, 2014
Sep 11
6:19
PM CT
Burnside By Scott Burnside
ESPNChicago.com
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While HBO and the NHL will no longer collaborate on the popular and critically acclaimed reality series "24/7: Road To The Winter Classic," it doesn't mean the series that takes viewers behind the walls of two NHL teams over a period of weeks is going away, sources tell ESPN.com.

The NHL will reveal on Sept. 23 a new U.S. broadcast partner for a similar reality series that will chronicle the preparations by the Chicago Blackhawks and the Washington Capitals leading up to the Jan. 1 Winter Classic, set for Nationals Park in Washington, NHL chief operating officer John Collins told ESPN.com Thursday. There will also be a Canadian broadcaster, league officials said.

Collins, who helped usher in an era of more openness from the normally staid NHL community with the introduction of the first Winter Classic in Buffalo, New York, in 2008, and then the subsequent "24/7" series, said the new series will feature similar access to both teams leading up to the Winter Classic and will include the unfettered dialogue and commercial-free format that made the first three installments so successful.

Although there was speculation that efforts by the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs to restrict access leading up to last season's record-breaking Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan, might have been a factor in HBO moving on, that was apparently not the case, at least according to HBO representatives.

"Everybody at HBO enjoyed working with the NHL and its teams on 24/7 the past four years," HBO spokesman Raymond Stallone told ESPN.com in an email Thursday. "It was an exciting endeavor and we're very proud of the never-before-seen presentation of the world of hockey that 24/7 was able to capture.

"There was never an expectation that HBO would chronicle the lead-up to the Winter Classic every year.

"We wish the NHL the very best and the door will always remain open," Stallone added.

It's believed budgetary issues were among some of the factors that led the two sides to part ways on the project.

The series garnered 15 Emmy nominations and three Emmy wins during a three-year run with its NHL programming.

"HBO took us to places we never thought we could go," Collins said.

The series was so popular and helped the NHL attract nontraditional fans over the life of three installments that the league was determined to find another option for keeping it alive.

The new series is again expected to feature four episodes with uncensored behind-the-scenes access to both teams. Although the NHL wasn't prepared to reveal its new broadcast partner until later in September, when the 2015 Winter Classic jerseys will be unveiled in Washington, Collins did say it was important that the format be similar.

Once you open the door on the rawness and emotion of the teams as they prepare for an important game like the Winter Classic, it's hard to take that away from viewers, which is why it was important to have a partner that could air that kind of content, Collins said.

There will also be options for fans to view the series on different technological platforms, Collins said.

It's also possible the NHL will be looking at other behind-the-scenes productions this season beyond the Winter Classic event.

It's expected former HBO president Ross Greenburg will produce the new as-yet-unnamed series.

Greenburg was also involved with the "NHL Revealed" series of documentaries last season that included other outdoor games that made up the Stadium Series and the Sochi Olympics.

Greenburg was the moving force behind the initial "24/7" leading up to the 2011 Winter Classic at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. He left HBO in the summer of 2011 and is now an independent producer.

Hawks storylines (No. 14): Prospect watch

September, 11, 2014
Sep 11
2:29
PM CT
Powers By Scott Powers
ESPNChicago.com
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ESPNChicago.com's Scott Powers counts down the days to the opening of Blackhawks training camp on Sept. 19 with a look at 20 storylines facing the team this season.

The Chicago Blackhawks will turn to some more prospects this season. Here's a look at some of those players who could be factors:

Jeremy Morin, forward


Morin, 23, doesn't exactly feel like a prospect any longer, but the reality is he's only played in 39 career NHL regular season games over the past three seasons. He's expected to finally get a full-time look this season. Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman and coach Joel Quenneville has said Morin will be given a larger role this season. Where Morin fits in with the Blackhawks' lineup may be more apparent after Bowman makes a trade or two to get under the salary cap. Morin has a high offensive upside and showed some of that last season with five goals and six assists in 24 games with the Blackhawks.

Teuvo Teravainen, forward

[+] EnlargeTeuvo Teravainen
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesTop prospect Teuvo Teravainen got a taste of the NHL last season, playing three games for the Blackhawks.
Teravainen, 20, is considered the Blackhawks' top prospect. He got a taste of the AHL and NHL last season after finishing his season in Finland. He didn't have much left in the tank by the end of the season following a full year of traveling for his European club team, international competitions for Finland and for the Blackhawks in the preseason and the end of the regular season. He's spent most of the summer in Chicago training and bulking up. Quenneville raved about Teravainen's final performance at prospect camp in July. Teravainen will be a slight longshot to make the NHL roster out of training camp based on the current roster, but he has the ability, especially with his passing and vision, to make it a difficult decision for the Blackhawks.

Stephen Johns, defenseman


Johns, 22, is one of a number of defenseman prospects who could be on the verge of the NHL. Johns spent four years at Notre Dame and held more than his own in his short time with the Rockford IceHogs last season. He is a big body and could soon be the most physical player the Blackhawks have in their organization. He has a chance to push for an NHL spot at training camp depending on what is done with the roster.

Adam Clendening, defenseman


Clendening, 21, has the offensive game to be in the NHL right now. He was among the AHL's top defensemen with 12 goals and 47 assists in 74 games last season. His defensive game is making strides. The Blackhawks don't want to rush him until they're confident in his overall game. He should get some time in the NHL this season.

Klas Dahlbeck, defenseman


Dahlbeck, 23, impressed the Blackhawks with his improved offensive game last season. He's still a stay-at-home defenseman, but he's made himself into more of an overall player. He practiced with the Blackhawks throughout the playoffs last season. Like Johns and Clendening, Dahlbeck could find himself in the NHL this season.

Joakim Nordstrom, forward


Nordstrom, 22, was the prospect who surprised everyone last season by making the NHL roster out of training camp. He was back and forth throughout the season, but ended up playing in 23 total NHL games, including seven playoff games. The Blackhawks like his defensive game at the NHL level. He also proved to be a consistent offensive player at the AHL level. He could fill a fourth-line role again this season.

Brandon Mashinter, forward


Mashinter, 25, could find his way onto the Blackhawks roster being the enforcer type Quenneville often likes to have on his team. Mashinter came to the Blackhawks in a trade with the New York Rangers last season. He had 14 goals, 14 assists and was a minus-8 in 47 games with the IceHogs. Pierre-Cedric Labrie, 28, and Cody Bass, 27, were signed in the offseason and could also fit that role.

Mark McNeill, forward


McNeill, 21, would be among the next group of forwards ready to make that jump to the NHL. He went through some inconsistencies during his first full professional season, but a number of Blackhawks personnel liked how he responded late in the season. He's a strong player and has adjusted well after moving to the wing from center. If the Blackhawks are in need of a physical forward, he could fill that void at some point this season.

Alex Broadhurst, forward


Broadhurst, 21, may still be a year or two away, but he showed a lot of potential last season and was even recalled by the Blackhawks for a day. He finished third in points behind Morin and Clendening on the IceHogs with 16 goals and 29 assists.

Others to watch:

Kyle Cumiskey, defenseman; Dennis Rasmussen, forward; Garret Ross, forward: Phillip Danault, forward; Ryan Hartman, forward, Trevor van Riemsdyk, defenseman; Scott Darling, goaltender.

Hawks storylines (No. 15): Numbers game

September, 11, 2014
Sep 11
10:10
AM CT
Powers By Scott Powers
ESPNChicago.com
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ESPNChicago.com's Scott Powers counts down the days to the opening of Blackhawks training camp on Sept. 19 with a look at 20 storylines facing the team this season.

Here are some numbers to keep in mind as the season unfolds for the Blackhawks (all statistics were found on stats.hockeyanalysis.com or behindthenet.ca):

Kane's production with teammates


Nearly every center who found his way onto the Blackhawks roster last season got a chance to skate with Patrick Kane. Some had more success than others. Andrew Shaw clicked with Kane, and Kane had seven goals, seven assists and a 59.7 Corsi percentage during 197:05 of 5-on-5 ice time with Shaw. On the other hand, Kane struggled with Michal Handzus with one goal, seven assists and a 50.9 Corsi percentage while on the ice 310:16 with the veteran center. Kane's line to start this season is expected to include Brandon Saad and Brad Richards. Kane had seven goals, nine assists and a 56.3 Corsi percentage with Saad.

Puck possession


The Blackhawks have been a dominant puck-possession team over the past five seasons. They have ranked in the league's top-6 in Corsi percentage in 5-on-5 situations throughout that span. They were second with a 55.5 percentage last season, their highest percentage since being at 56.5 percent during the 2009-10 season.

Morin's potential

Jeremy Morin played in just 24 games last season, so his sample size isn't that large. But in that short span, he was statistically impressive. Morin led the Blackhawks with an average of 12.22 shots per 60 minutes, 1.421 goals per 60 minutes and 3.13 points per 60 minutes. If Morin gets some consistent ice time and a larger role this season, which is something Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman and coach Joel Quenneville have mentioned, he may just be headed toward a breakout offensive season.

Defensive responsibility


One of the main reasons defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are often able to utilize their offensive abilities is because defensemen Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson are given more of the defensive load. Oduya and Hjalmarsson started less in the offensive zone than any of the Blackhawks' defensemen last year. Oduya started 48.6 percent in the offensive zone and Hjalmarsson was at 48.3 percent. To compare, Keith started 56.4 percent in the offensive zone and Seabrook was at 56.3, and defensemen Nick Leddy, Michal Rozsival and Sheldon Brookbank all started more than 60 percent of the time in the offensive zone.

Goals against


The Blackhawks held opponents to just 1.77 goals per 60 minutes in 5-on-5 situations during the 2013 season, best in the league. But aside from that season the Blackhawks have been an average defense team in recent years. They ranked 26th in the NHL with a 2.52 goals-against average in 2010-11 season, 26th with a 2.49 goals-against average in the 2011-12 season and were 15th with a 2.23 goals-against average last season.

Toews & Sharp

Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp made each other better players last season. They had a 59.7 Corsi percentage in their 777.32 of ice time together. When apart, Toews dropped to a 57.5 Corsi percentage and Sharp dropped to 52.9. There's a good chance Sharp, Toews and Marian Hossa could be together on the top line again this season.

Fourth-line usage

Brandon Bollig, Marcus Kruger and Ben Smith, the trio which was often the Blackhawks' fourth line last season, all ranked among the bottom seven players in the league in offensive zone start percentage. Bollig started in the offensive zone 11.4 percent, Kruger 13.4 percent and Smith 16.9. It will be interesting to see whether Quenneville uses his fourth line in such a defensive manner again. Kruger was on the fourth line the season before and saw more offensive zone starts. He was at 30.4 percent during the 2013 season.

Player poll: Who is top franchise player? 

September, 11, 2014
Sep 11
11:03
AM CT
Custance By Craig Custance
ESPN Insider
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Sidney CrosbyGregory Shamus/NHLI/Getty ImagesSidney Crosby was the overwhelming favorite among players in the top franchise player voting.
Back in July, we conducted a poll of executives, coaches and a couple players to see which players they would build a franchise around if they were starting a team from scratch. It was an attempt to rank the league's franchise players, and it led to some fascinating results and debate.

Jonathan Toews edged Sidney Crosby for the top spot, with the Stanley Cup playoff performance of Drew Doughty still fresh in the mind of voters, who put him third on the list.

This week in New York, many of the franchise players who were named by executives gathered for the player media tour, the unofficial kickoff to the NHL season. It was an opportunity to give the players a chance to answer the same question. The same rules applied: Players were asked to list three players they'd want if they were starting a franchise from the ground up.

A few players wanted to add their own ground rules. Tyler Seguin felt compelled to pick teammates, so he added a rule that you couldn't pick your own teammates. Some guys followed the rule, others didn't.

Claude Giroux introduced the idea of picking himself, to which we had no objection. Henrik Lundqvist, however, saw a conflict of interest there.

"Am I the GM?" Lundqvist asked. "Then I'm not picking myself."

He quickly identified Sidney Crosby, then paused for a moment. "This is tough."

And with that, here are the results, giving three points to a first-place vote, two for a second and one for a third:

Sidney Crosby (19 points): Crosby finished a close second to Jonathan Toews when executives voted, but he ran away with it among the players.

Hawks storylines (No. 16): Fourth line

September, 10, 2014
Sep 10
11:43
AM CT
Powers By Scott Powers
ESPNChicago.com
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ESPNChicago.com's Scott Powers counts down the days to the opening of Blackhawks training camp on Sept. 19 with a look at 20 storylines facing the team this season.

The Chicago Blackhawks won games last season partly due to their fourth line during the regular season. And they lost games partly due to their fourth line in the playoffs.

[+] EnlargeBen Smith, Marian Gaborik, Anze Kopitar
AP Photo/Chris CarlsonWho will join Ben Smith, pictured, and Marcus Kruger on the Blackhawks' fourth line?
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville discovered early last season he could rely on a fourth line of Brandon Bollig, Marcus Kruger and Ben Smith. The line started predominantly in the defensive zone, often faced opponents' top lines and mostly stood its ground. The three players combined for a plus-8 in the regular season and each had a Corsi greater than 50 percent.

Quenneville tinkered with the line in the playoffs due to an injury to Andrew Shaw, and the coach lost faith in Michal Handzus and Kris Versteeg as the playoffs wore on. Kruger and Smith moved up the ladder, and Bollig was given new linemates.

The newly-formed fourth line wasn't able to duplicate the old line's succeess. Eventually, Quenneville sliced the line's ice time and the Blackhawks became more of a three-line team. That cut into the Blackhawks' depth.

Quenneville's task this season will be assembling a fourth line he can trust again.

The Blackhawks return two key pieces from last season's fourth line in Kruger and Smith, who signed a two-year extension in the offseason. The third piece will be someone new as the Blackhawks dealt Brandon Bollig to the Calgary Flames in June.

Who fills that left wing spot on the fourth line will be one of the bigger questions during the upcoming training camp.

If Quenneville opts for an enforcer type, which he has often gone with, Brandon Mashinter could be his choice. Mashinter, who is 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, was acquired from the New York Rangers last season and had 14 goals, 14 assists and was a minus-8 in 47 games for the AHL's Rockford IceHogs.

Jeremy Morin is another possibility, but Quenneville said during the offseason he expected Morin, one of the Baclkhawks' most gifted offensive prospects, to have a larger role this season.

Kris Versteeg saw time on the fourth line in the playoffs last season, but he played mostly on the top three lines throughout the regular season. How he is used could depend on whether he can return to form after a summer rehabbing his knee.

Peter Regin, who re-signed in the offseason, also played on the fourth line last season and proved to be reliable defensively when given ice time. Joakim Nordstrom also played on the fourth line when he was recalled last season, playing in 16 games.

Hawks storylines (No. 17): Backup goalie

September, 9, 2014
Sep 9
3:33
PM CT
Powers By Scott Powers
ESPNChicago.com
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ESPNChicago.com's Scott Powers counts down the days to the opening of Blackhawks training camp on Sept. 19 with a look at 20 storylines facing the team this season.

The Chicago Blackhawks head into another season with the luxury of not having to worry about their No. 1 goaltender.

[+] EnlargeAntti Raanta
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesAntti Raanta thrived during a 10-game stretch as the No. 1 goalie when Corey Crawford went down with an injury in December.
Corey Crawford has that spot locked down, especially with his six-year, $36 million deal going into effect this season. Crawford will be the first to admit he needs to be more consistent this season, but the Blackhawks also need the same from their backup goaltenders to have a successful regular season.

Antti Raanta and Nikolai Khabibulin didn't consistently provide the Blackhawks with stability when they stepped into the net for Crawford last season. Raanta and Khabibulin combined for an .887 save percentage (607 saves on 684 shots) in their 26 games last season.

Raanta, who agreed to a two-year contract extension in the offseason, is expected to start this season as the No. 2 goalie again. Some of his struggles weren't a complete surprise last season. He was rushed to the NHL quicker than the Blackhawks had hoped because of an injury suffered by Khabibulin. The original plan was to give Raanta time in the AHL to adjust to the North American game after playing his entire career in Europe.

Raanta, 25, actually held his own when Crawford went down with an injury in December. Raanta was the team's No. 1 goaltender for 10 games and allowed two or less goals in eight of those games and had a save percentage of .917 or higher in six games.

Raanta struggled in the No. 2 role when Crawford returned from his injury. Raanta played in nine games from Jan. 12 to the end of the season and had an .870 save percentage during that span.

"There were good games, a couple not so good games," Raanta said after the season. "It was like steady all the time, lots of good things happen. But the second half of the season there was too much ups and downs in the games and in the practice, so I think that was the main reason why I didn't get so much playing time in the last games. Of course, first year here and first year overseas out of the home country and like that, so there was lots of learning experiment."

The Blackhawks bolstered their goaltending depth by signing Michael Leighton recently. Leighton, 33, has a 35-41-14 record with a 2.97 goals-against average and .901 save percentage in 105 career NHL games. He played last season in the KHL, where he was 20-15 with a 1.74 goals-against average and .934 save percentage. He provides the Blackhawks with another goaltender with NHL experience if Crawford or Raanta are injured.

The Blackhawks also signed Scott Darling in the offseason. Darling, 25, showed potential in the AHL last season. He was 13-6-2 with a 2.00 goals-against average and a .933 save percentage for the Milwaukee Admirals. He ranked second in the league with six shutouts.

Darling and Leighton are expected to share the net for the Rockford IceHogs in the AHL to begin the season. The Blackhawks also have goaltender prospects Mac Carruth and Kent Simpson.

Hawks storylines (No. 18): Special teams

September, 9, 2014
Sep 9
11:23
AM CT
Powers By Scott Powers
ESPNChicago.com
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ESPNChicago.com's Scott Powers counts down the days to the opening of Blackhawks training camp on Sept. 19 with a look at 20 storylines facing the team this season.

The Chicago Blackhawks' special teams have been like a teeter-totter over the past five seasons.

When the power play has been up, the penalty kill has often been down, and the other way around. Rarely have the Blackhawks had sustained success from both units at the same time. It's something they'll strive for this season.

[+] EnlargeCorey Crawford
Bill Smith/NHLI/Getty ImagesCorey Crawford hasn't been at his best on the penalty kill over the past four seasons.
In the 2009-2010 season, the Blackhawks ranked fourth in the NHL with an 85.3 penalty-kill percentage and 16th with a 17.7 power-play percentage. In the 2010-11 season, they were 25th on the penalty kill (79.2 percent) and fourth on the power play (23.1 percent).

In the 2011-12 season, they were 26th on the power play (15.2 percent) and 27th on the penalty kill (78.1 percent). In the 2012-13 season, they were 19th on the power play (16.7 percent) and third on the penalty kill (87.2 percent).

Last season, the power play ranked 10th with a 19.5 percentage and 19th on the penalty kill with a 81.4 percentage.

The Blackhawks' penalty kill improved as last season progressed. The penalty kill was 28th in the league at 76 percent after 41 games and improved over the second half of the season.

The forward pairing of Marcus Kruger and Michal Handzus played a role in the Blackhawks' penalty-kill improvement last season. Kruger will have a new partner for the third consecutive season as Handzus was not re-signed by the Blackhawks. Brandon Saad and Ben Smith could be candidates for that role.

How much goaltending factors into the penalty kill is difficult to evaluate, but it hasn't been an area of strength for Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford throughout his career. He has an .861 save percentage (680 saves on 790 shots) against opponents' power plays during his four seasons as the team's No. 1 goalie. His primary backups had an .891 save percentage (427 saves on 479 shots) during those four seasons.

Crawford's numbers have gotten better in the playoffs. He had a .907 save percentage (337 saves on 365 shots) against power plays during the playoffs the past four seasons.

The Blackhawks' power play cracked the top 10 last season for just the second time in the past five seasons. The Blackhawks' inconsistencies on the power play are surprising considering they have finished in the top-5 in goals-per-game in three of the past five seasons. They do possess the firepower to score.

Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane led the way for the Blackhawks' power play last season. Sharp had 10 goals and 15 assists and his 25 power-play points was only second to his 26 points in the 2010-11 season. Kane also had 10 goals and 15 assists. He had a career-high 35 power-play points in the 2009-10 season.

The Blackhawks should have nearly the same personnel back on the power play, returning Sharp, Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Andrew Shaw from the first unit, and Marian Hossa, Brandon Saad, Nick Leddy and Brent Seabrook from the second unit. Kris Versteeg, Ben Smith and Bryan Bickell also played on the power play last season. Brad Richards led the New York Rangers in power-play ice time and had five goals and 14 assists in that role.

Jamie Kompon, who coached the Blackhawks' power play last season and left the team to take a job in the Western Hockey League this season, said recently the Blackhawks still have room for growth on the power play.

"At the start, it was a work in progress," Kompon said in July. "I didn't know them. Part of it was we never shot the puck enough. We had enough skill out there. We were unselfish. This year the big thing is we had the shot mentality. Everything opened up. Also our puck retrieval was excellent. Overall, it can still get better. I think there's another level there."

Patrick Kane never worried about contract

September, 8, 2014
Sep 8
6:26
PM CT
Strang By Katie Strang
ESPNChicago.com
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NEW YORK -- Patrick Kane admitted he's glad that both he and captain Jonathan Toews signed matching long-term extensions with the Chicago Blackhawks this summer, but said he was never too concerned that the deals would get done.

Kane, who will make an average of $10.5 million annually once the deal begins in 2015, said it was an interesting process to go through with his good friend and teammate; the two also share an agent, Pat Brisson.

"I don't think it was something I was ever worried about, to be honest with you," Kane told ESPN.com at the NHL media tour Monday in Manhattan. "Last year when the media started asking me about the contract situation, I thought it was kind of funny since there were two years left on our previous deals. We're in a good position now ... it's a great term, a great place to be, a great city and a great organization. We definitely feel fortunate with what we got."

Now that the two players are signed through 2022-23, they can turn their focus back on the upcoming season. The Blackhawks were just one goal shy of making it to the Stanley Cup finals last season, losing in overtime to the Los Angeles Kings in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals.

As much as that stung, Kane said he still watched the Stanley Cup finals, but that it was hard to wrap his head around watching someone else win the Cup after he and his teammates were so close to being there themselves.

"It's obviously disappointing and surreal when you see someone else win the Stanley Cup," Kane said. "It's like it's not real and you're going through a dream. But I guess it's inevitable. It's gonna happen, right?"

Hawks storylines (No. 19): Back to normal

September, 8, 2014
Sep 8
2:58
PM CT
Powers By Scott Powers
ESPNChicago.com
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ESPNChicago.com's Scott Powers counts down the days to the opening of Blackhawks training camp on Sept. 19 with a look at 20 storylines facing the team this season.

The Chicago Blackhawks will finally return to NHL normalcy this season.

There won't be a lockout followed by a condensed season. There won't be a shortened offseason due to a long playoff run into late June and a summer of Stanley Cup celebrations to follow. There won't be an Olympics to have to send players to and a pause in the league's schedule.

The NHL season will be back to its usual form -- 82 regular season games, NHL All-Star Game, etc. -- for the Blackhawks and everyone else for the first time since the 2011-2012 season.
The Blackhawks' challenges for the season will instead be the usual ones.

The schedule is the first obstacle. The Blackhawks have two extended road trips with the first being a six-game road trip from Nov. 20-29 and a seven-game one from Jan. 21-Feb. 8. The Blackhawks have fared well on their longer trips the past two seasons. They went 6-0-1 and 3-2-2 in their two long road trips last season and 4-0-2 in their one substantial road trip in the 2013 season.

The Blackhawks will again see their Central Division foes 29 times this season. They'll face the Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, St. Louis Blues and Winnipeg Jets five times each and the Nashville Predators four times. After winning the Central with a 16-1-1 record in 2013, the Blackhawks finished behind the Avalanche and Blues last season with a 13-13-3 division record. The Blackhawks went 3-4-3 against the Avalanche and Blues in the regular season last season.

The Blackhawks' health will be another deciding factor. The Blackhawks dealt with some injuries last season, but they got by relatively unscathed from serious injuries. Thirteen Blackhawks played in 70-plus games last season. Patrick Kane missed the final 12 regular season games due to a lower-body injury, but he returned for the playoffs. Bryan Bickell sat out 23 games due to a variety reasons, but he was ready to go in the playoffs. Corey Crawford missed time due to an injury, but he still started 56 games and was healthy for the playoffs.

The Blackhawks had to feel especially good last season to get 72 games out of Marian Hossa, who was troubled by a back injury during the Stanley Cup finals in 2013 and in the preseason last season. Hossa, who will turn 36 in January, 36-year-old Michal Rozsival, 34-year-old Brad Richards and Patrick Sharp, who will be 33 in December, will be the oldest players on the team this season.

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Patrick Sharp
PTS GOALS AST +/-
78 34 44 13
OTHER LEADERS
GoalsP. Sharp 34
AssistsD. Keith 55
+/-M. Hossa 28
GAAC. Crawford 2.26