Top storylines countdown: 40-31
September, 6, 2013
By Scott Powers
Victor Decolongon/Getty ImagesLocking up Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews to new extensions will be a priority for the Blackhawks.ESPNChicago.com's Blackhawks reporter Scott Powers is counting down this season's top-50 storylines over the next week leading into training camp. Here's the second installment:
40. Kane and Toews extensions
Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews aren't unrestricted free agents until after the 2014-15 season and can't negotiate contract extensions until after the 2013-14 season, but still expect this to be a storyline throughout this season. Those deals are Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman's priorities, and he's been planning for them for a long time. Everything Bowman has done -- the extensions he gave Bryan Bickell, Corey Crawford and Niklas Hjalmarsson, signing restricted free agents, etc. -- has been with Kane's and Toews' contracts in mind. The salary cap is expected to be raised in the future, which will help the Blackhawks. Kane and Toews have implied they'd like to remain in Chicago and may be willing to give the Blackhawks a hometown deal. To put both among the top-15 paid players in the NHL, the Blackhawks would have to give them around $7.5 million each.
39. The No. 3 shootout shooter
The Blackhawks were slightly above .500 in shootouts last season with a 6-5 record. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville turned to Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews in every shootout last season, and the pair scored 11 of the team's 16 shootout goals. But Quenneville couldn't consistently decide on a No. 3 shooter and used a number of different players there. Marian Hossa, Michal Rozsival, Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw and Patrick Sharp were among the players to get multiple shootout attempts last season. Of the group, Hossa was the only player to score more than one goal. He had two goals in three attempts. It will be interesting to see whether Quenneville sticks with Hossa as the No. 3 shooter this season or goes a different route.
38. Less of Detroit
The Blackhawks consider the Vancouver Canucks their biggest rival now, but the Detroit Red Wings still weren't far behind. Last season's Western Conference semifinals certainly added another chapter to the Blackhawks-Red Wings' history. But now the Red Wings have moved over to the Eastern Conference, and the teams will see less of each other. The Blackhawks will travel to Detroit on Jan. 22 and host the Red Wings on March 16. They will also play two preseason games. And then there is also the chance of a Blackhawks-Red Wings Stanley Cup finals.
37. Welcome to North America
The Blackhawks are expected to play Finnish goaltender Antti Raanta, who was signed in June, at some point this season. When that will be likely depends on how quickly he adjusts to North American hockey after playing his entire career on the larger European rinks. The plan is for Raanta to start the season in the AHL with the Rockford IceHogs. Raanta's goaltending coach last season recently said he doesn't expect Raanta to have trouble adjusting to the small rink. Blackhawks backup goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin has worn down in recent seasons, and Raanta could be NHL-ready at the perfect time to help prevent that dip in the second half of the season.
The Blackhawks will look to improve on their faceoff percentage this season. They were among the league's best in the regular season and were tied for 10th with a 50.8 winning percentage, but that dropped to 46.8 percent in the playoffs. Jonathan Toews accounted for much of the team's faceoff success. He had a 59.9 winning percentage in the regular season and a 53.1 winning percentage in the playoffs. The percentages dropped off from there in the regular season among the regular centers -- Marcus Kruger (46.2 percent), Dave Bolland (46.1) and Andrew Shaw (44.0). The addition of Michal Handzus (55.0 percent in 11 regular-season games) at the trade deadline did help the team. Shaw (47.2 percent) improved in the playoffs, but Handzus (46.4), Bolland (42.5) and Kruger (37.6) declined. Shaw likely will center the third line again, and Handzus and Kruger will split duties on the fourth line. Bolland has departed for the Toronto Maple Leafs, leaving the second-line center open. Brandon Saad has been talked about there, and he had varied success at the dot last season. He was 17-of-46 in the regular season and 7-of-17 in the playoffs. The Blackhawks could always use Patrick Sharp to take faceoffs. Sharp has won 2,016-of-4,159 faceoffs during his career with the Blackhawks. He was 40-of-62 in the regular season and 32-of-60 in the playoffs last season.
35. A weaker division
The Central Division should be easier for the Blackhawks with the Columbus Blue Jackets and Red Wings moving to the Eastern Conference. The Central is widely considered the weakest division among the four re-aligned ones. The Blackhawks are left with the Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues and Winnipeg Jets. The Blues (fourth seed) and Wild (eighth seed) made the playoff last season, and the Avalanche, Predators, Stars and Jets did not.
34. The countdown for Teravainen
The Blackhawks' success has allowed them not to rush the arrival of 2012 first-round pick Teuvo Teravainen. By all accounts, the 18-year-old Teravainen is ready to play in the NHL right now, but not exactly ready to star in it. He'll spend another season in Finland's SM-liiga and develop some more. Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman has done nothing to extinguish the hype around Teravainen. He's expected to be the real deal once he gets to the NHL. His agent recently said Teravainen could join the Blackhawks as early as the end of his SM-liiga season. Teravainen could be playing for the Blackhawks just in time to help them in April.
33. The jump from Rockford
The Blackhawks will be turning to their prospect system more and more in the upcoming years as their core, especially Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, get more expensive and take up more of the salary cap. The Blackhawks dealt Dave Bolland and Michael Frolik and allowed Viktor Stalberg to walk away after last season to partly free up money, but also to start giving their prospects a chance in the NHL. Ben Smith, Brandon Pirri, Jimmy Hayes, Jeremy Morin, Drew LeBlanc, Ryan Stanton, Mark McNeil, Phillip Danault, Garret Ross, Adam Clendening, Dylan Olsen, Kent Simpson and Mac Carruth are among the prospects who could see time in the NHL this season. College players such as Stephen Johns and Justin Holl aren't far behind either.
32. A full season of Handzus
Bowman made one move at the trade deadline last season, and that was to acquire Handzus from the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks had pretty much given up hope on Handzus and often made him a healthy scratch. The move sparked Handzus, and he became a key player for the Blackhawks throughout the playoffs after being moved to second-line center. Now the question is whether Handzus, who signed a one-year deal in July, can continue to play at that rate for an entire season. He isn't expected to have as big a role this season unless the Blackhawks get desperate at second-line center. The 36-year-old Handzus is also coming off knee and wrist surgeries.
31. Kruger's vital role
Marcus Kruger likely earned himself some more money this past offseason by the way he played last season. Kruger became a valuable piece to the Blackhawks' Stanley Cup puzzle by embracing his role on the penalty kill. He and Michael Frolik were often the ones behind thwarting opponents' power plays and improving the Blackhawks' penalty-kill percentage. Kruger, who is still only 23, likely will be asked to do that again this season. He might also play more of a wing role with Handzus likely moving back to the fourth line as center.