Top storylines countdown: 30-21
September, 9, 2013
By Scott Powers
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhMichal Rozsival posted one of the best plus/minus ratings for the Blackhawks last season.ESPNChicago.com’s Blackhawks reporter Scott Powers is counting down this season’s top-50 storylines leading into this week’s training camp. Here’s the third installment:
30. Brookbank, Rozsival splitting time
Good things happened for the Blackhawks last season when defenseman Michal Rozsival was on the ice. He had a plus-18 rating, third on the team, in the regular season and a plus-9 rating, tied for fifth, in the playoffs. During the regular season, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville split ice time between Rozsival and Sheldon Brookbank. Quenneville did that partly because Rozsival was dealing with an injury early in the season, but he also wanted to keep both players fresh. Quenneville eventually opted to use Rozsival throughout the playoffs, but expect Rozsival and Brookbank to be involved in another rotation this season. The Blackhawks hope Brookbank will bounce back from a subpar 2013 season and play as he did in his final season with the Anaheim Ducks, when he had 14 points and a plus-11 rating in 80 games.
29. The third line -- Shaw and who else?
Andrew Shaw is likely to center the third line for another season. It’s just not certain who will be beside him. Shaw, Bryan Bickell and Viktor Stalberg gave the Blackhawks a consistent third line last season. Bickell is now likely to move into a top-6 forward role after receiving a sizeable pay increase in the offseason, and Stalberg signed with the Nashville Predators. If Brandon Saad doesn’t work out as the second-line center, he could be a perfect fit on the third line. Saad would give the line some scoring punch and ease the pressure off him as he plays in his first 82-game NHL season. Jimmy Hayes is another possibility. He got called up from Rockford last season and had four points in 10 games with the Blackhawks. Jeremy Morin, who led the IceHogs with 30 goals last season, Brandon Pirri, who led the IceHogs in points, and Ben Smith could be in the mix as well.
28. Oduya’s continued consistency
Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman hasn’t traded for many players over the last few seasons, but the few players he has acquired have worked out for the Blackhawks. Defenseman Johnny Oduya was dealt for in the 2011-12 season and quickly proved to be a valuable asset. Oduya continued to be a consistent defenseman last season and had a plus-12 regular-season rating and a plus-12 playoff rating. He and Niklas Hjalmarsson have given the Blackhawks a strong second defensive pairing. The Blackhawks will hope for more of the same this season. Not that Oduya is solely responsible, but the Blackhawks are 49-9-9 in the regular season since Oduya was traded for in 2012.
27. The other Swedish defenseman
There were rumors just a season ago that the Blackhawks could deal Niklas Hjalmarsson to free up money. A lot has changed since then. Hjalmarsson helped the Blackhawks to another Stanley Cup last season with a plus-15 regular-season rating and a plus-10 playoff rating, and Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman recently showed how important Hjalmarsson is to the franchise’s future. Bowman made sure Hjalmarsson would continue to be a part of the Blackhawks’ core for many years to come as Hjalmarsson signed a five-year extension which will keep him in Chicago through the 2018-19 season.
26. Bickell-Toews-Kane line
Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville toyed with the team’s lines during the playoffs last season until he found something that worked. One of the lines he found to be most the productive was Bryan Bickell, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. The line had success in the Western Conference finals and Stanley Cup finals. It’ll be interesting to see whether Quenneville tries that line again to start the season. Bickell was a regular on the third line last season, but is expected to a be a top-6 forward this season after his new contract. Quenneville often split up Kane and Toews last season to balance the lines. Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa are also expected to be on the first two lines, along with a new second-line center.
25. Need some luck
The Blackhawks possess plenty of skill. No doubt. But to win a Stanley Cup, you also have to possess some luck. In Rob Vollman’s "Hockey Abstract," he breaks down that luck can be accounted for by a team’s shooting and save percentages, special teams index, injuries, post-regulation record and record in one-goal games. After taking into account all those factors, Vollman determined the Blackhawks were the third luckiest team last season behind the Toronto Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh Penguins. He also calculated what the standings would have been last season if there had been 82 games and luck wasn’t a factor, and his luck-neutral standings were the Ottawa Senators would have finished with 104 points, the Detroit Red Wings with 103 points and the Blackhawks with 99 points. Finally, he predicted this season’s standings based on last season’s results, the removal of luck and major roster changes, and he has the Senators and New Jersey Devils finishing with 105 points, and the Blackhawks in 11th place overall with 93 points.
24. A new, but old, backup
The Blackhawks were the league’s best regular-season team last season largely because of the play of two goaltenders. Corey Crawford carried the goaltending load in the playoffs, but Ray Emery was just as important in the regular season, posting a 17-1-0 record, a 1.94 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage. Emery is gone now, and the Blackhawks’ backup responsibilities fall upon Nikolai Khabibulin, who is back with the Blackhawks for a second time. Khabibulin is 40 years old, but the Blackhawks are convinced he can still be a solid backup. He has been that at times the past few seasons, but he’s also had some inconsistencies due to injuries. If Antti Raanta progresses as the Blackhawks hope, he could fill in for Khabibulin if his play declines in the second half of the season.
23. Hitting the road twice
The Blackhawks will face two lengthy road trips this season. They will play seven consecutive road games from Nov. 19-Nov. 30 with games at Colorado, Winnipeg, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Dallas and Phoenix. They’ll also play seven consecutive road games beginning on Jan. 28 and ending on Feb. 27 with the Olympics in between those dates. Prior to the Olympics, the Blackhawks will play at Calgary, Vancouver, San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim and Phoenix. After the Olympics, the Blackhawks open on the road against the New York Rangers. The Blackhawks were 18-4-2 on the road last season and went 4-0-2 on their longest road trip of the season.
22. That power-play issue
No, a team doesn’t need an effective power play to win the Stanley Cup. The Blackhawks proved that again last season. But, yes, it wouldn’t hurt to have one. The Blackhawks’ power play struggled to find consistency for the second consecutive season last year. They ranked 19th with a 16.7 power-play percentage in the regular season. The Blackhawks undoubtedly have talented offensive players, but that hasn’t translated to power-play success. Blackhawks assistant coach Jamie Kompon said at the convention, “Eventually, there comes a time when players try to do too much as opposed to keeping it simple. When you simplify things, that's usually the way the pucks go into the net.” That will be the goal this season.
21. Replacing Frolik
Michael Frolik made himself a valuable piece to the Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup run last season with his play on the penalty kill. Frolik and Marcus Kruger were considered unsung heroes, but everyone knew about their penalty kill contributions by the end of the season. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville recently said Ben Smith could be the guy to replace Frolik. Smith hasn’t stuck in the NHL yet, but he has played in some big games – like Game 3 of the Stanley Cup last season – and seems mature enough to understand the importance of that role.