Season preview: More fun -- and more wins

October, 6, 2011
10/06/11
9:37
PM CT
Rogers By Jesse Rogers
ESPNChicago.com
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Jonathan ToewsBill Smith/NHLI via Getty ImagesCaptain Serious hopes to have more fun as a team this season.
DALLAS -- Was it a coincidence that the Chicago Blackhawks picked up four players this past offseason who are frequent “tweeters?”

Probably.

But the fact that they enjoy the social networking of Twitter underlies what the Hawks are hoping for this season as opposed to last: more fun.

Over and over again, during the offseason, fan convention and this fall’s training camp players discussed the notion of needing to get that back in the locker room. It keeps coming up and many times it was unsolicited as in these examples:

  • Duncan Keith after practice on Wednesday: “The thing that I remember from that year [2010] it was rowdy in the dressing room and in the lounge, and I think we got that back a little more than we had last year.”

  • Patrick Sharp after his first practice with the team: “A lot of the product you see on the ice is a result of what goes on behind the scenes. It’s fun to be around these guys. New veterans always bring something new to the mix.”

  • Jonathan Toews on Tuesday on ESPN 1000: “We have some great [new] guys on the ice, on the bench they are going to help us contribute to what we do as a team, but most of all we are excited about the group that we have. We’re going to have a lot of fun in the locker room. When you keep it loose, when you have that personality in there it really translates into the way you play and practice.”Read that back again. Toews says “most of all” it’s about the fun the new guys bring.

    Now there’s no way of knowing just yet if the Hawks have found that chemistry again. Yes, the dressing room has more buzz to it than a year ago, but a final roster was just formed and the team has had little time to bond. But the players feel it and so does the head coach, who hasn’t been shy about the noise he’d like to hear this year as opposed to last.

    “It was quiet,” Joel Quenneville keeps saying of last year’s locker room.

    [+] EnlargeJoel Quenneville
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesJoel Quenneville doesn't want another quiet locker room this season.
    Why does it matter so much? Like Toews said, it matters because when a team has fun with each other off the ice they want to perform for each other on the ice, and it makes the grind more bearable. That’s what Toews most likely learned in 2009-2010 on the way to a Stanley Cup championship.

    And if you believe in Toews then you believe in the Hawks.

    The Hawks captain has never looked more at ease in his leadership role and his smile on his face lately almost tells of something he knows that we don’t: He thinks his team is ready. At least he knows he is.

    “I haven’t been this excited to play hockey in a long time,” Toews said. “I think a lot of the guys are really pumped to play, and we’re going to have some fun doing that. We want to win. We want to win a lot to start off the season.”

    There’s that reference to fun again. Believing in the 2011-2012 Blackhawks is simply believing in Toews and the core of players who will be together for several years after this one. They are rested. They are hungry.

    And they are talented.

    But believing in them means accepting the many question marks that come with any team at this time of year.

    Do the Hawks have enough good depth at center? Can Patrick Kane switch positions and still be Patrick Kane? Is employing an 18-year-old and a 40-year-old inherently dangerous? Can Dave Bolland stay healthy? And did Stan Bowman invest in the right changes this past offseason?

    Are these serious questions to ponder or just fodder for a new year?

    Maybe it doesn’t matter if Patrick Sharp plays right wing, left wing or center. Maybe it doesn’t matter where Kane lines up either. And maybe it doesn’t matter that defensemen 5-8 may make fans bite their nails.

    It might not matter, if you believe in Toews. And by extension, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Marian Hossa, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Sharp, Bolland and Kane. That’s their core. That’s your core. And they know how to win.
    It might just be enough -- a rejuvenated group with a fresh feel to the locker room. But it still has to translate on the ice.

    THE START


    The Hawks say they have learned their lessons of a year ago. Giving away points in October and November comes back to bite in March and April. In truth, they knew it then but were powerless to stop the early slide. A killer schedule, an exhausted defense and human nature took its toll. Even hockey lovers like Toews and Kane couldn’t feel the energy of the regular season games in late 2010, not when just months before they were playing for gold medals and Stanley Cups.

    [+] EnlargeCorey Crawford
    Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesCount on Corey Crawford to be solid from the start of the season.
    But those “dog days” are long forgotten. And midweek games in November in Edmonton this year should have a different feel. With a livelier locker room and newfound hunger the Hawks seem primed to take many more games seriously than last year around this time. Whether they jell quickly enough on the ice remains to be seen but the pieces are in place for a fast start.

    At least consider this: The Hawks are coming off two playoff years in which their starting goaltender to begin the season was eventually replaced due to ineffectiveness. Just think how many more wins could be achieved if Corey Crawford is solid from start to finish. There is no reason to believe he won’t be.

    And getting back to some of those question marks, if you have doubts about Brandon Saad or Kane’s position or anyone or anything else, none of it is written in stone.

    There is nothing more important to know about the 2011-2012 Blackhawks than this: what the team looks like in October doesn’t have to be what it looks like in April.

    With better depth in the minors and salary cap space to burn, the Hawks can win while fine-tuning their team for the spring. As a coach of many years with a championship under his belt, Quenneville knows about handing out roles when he needs to. And Toews knows about making sure those roles are accepted.

    SPECIAL TEAMS


    The power play and penalty kill get a section to themselves because they are always overlooked. Good for a goal or two a game either way, it’s the difference between being average and being good or being good and being great.

    The Hawks should be dynamic on the power play this year. Their second unit should produce much more than last year’s squad, and the first unit should repeat its domination. Overall they ranked fourth in the NHL, and they should repeat that or do better.

    The only question will be killing penalties. There were so many poor performances penalty killing a year ago it’s hard to point to just a couple of players, hence only five teams were worse last year in that department. Maybe that’s where the fatigue showed most. An improvement in that area has to happen or the Hawks will be treading water, scoring when up a man but giving it up when shorthanded.

    PREDICTION


    It’s hard not to buy into what Toews and Co. are selling. If he says they’re motivated from the word go, you have to believe him. He gets at least that benefit of the doubt.

    The Hawks’ early schedule fits like a glove though it does get dicey after the New Year. They won’t run away with the conference, but they won’t scratch for a playoff spot, either. With all that went on a year ago, they still managed a 44-29-9 record. The Hawks will win at least 48 games this year in a top-heavy conference, and their division won’t be the cakewalk like the Northwest undoubtedly will be for Vancouver.

    The worst team in the Central Division will finish no worse than 10th in the conference, meaning all will fight for a playoff seed. The Hawks will barely win the division, earning the No. 3 seed along the way. They’ll get to the conference finals where the Los Angeles Kings will be waiting. A seven-game series will entail. Get ready for the ride, it’s going to be another roller coaster.

    Projected team highs
  • Points: Kane, 92
  • Goals:Toews, 39
  • Assists: Kane, 64
  • Power play goals: Toews, 11
  • Team record: 49-25-8
  • Jesse Rogers | email

    Chicago Cubs beat reporter
    Jesse joined ESPN Chicago in September 2009 and covers the Chicago Cubs for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN Radio 1000.

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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