Top storylines countdown: 20-11
September, 10, 2013
By Scott Powers | ESPNChicago.com
Kirk Irwin/Getty ImagesHow will Brandon Saad handle playing his first 82-game NHL 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 fourth installment:
20. Getting Leddy back to form
Blackhawks defenseman Nick Leddy had a postseason to forget with a minus-8 rating in 23 games and was limited to a career-low 2:37 of ice time in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville's lack of confidence in Leddy isn't expected to carry over into this season, but it would help both sides for Leddy to have a strong start to the season. He is still just 22, but he's now entering his fourth NHL season and will be expected to be more consistent. He signed a two-year, $5.4 million deal in the offseason.
19. Keeping Shaw on the right side of the line
Andrew Shaw thrived last season in the role of agitator and third-line center for the Blackhawks. On the third line, he was reliable enough defensively, was able to set up his wingers and could chip in the occasional goal. He has also been known to mix it up with opposing players and get under their skin. His post-whistle activities have at times worked against the Blackhawks and led to unnecessary penalties. Michal Handzus had a talk with Shaw during the playoffs about utilizing that additional energy, but also being smart about it. Shaw did a better job of doing that as the playoffs progressed. It will be important again for Shaw to find the right side of that line this season.
18. Seabrook bouncing back
Just as the Blackhawks have depended on Duncan Keith over the years, they have also expected Brent Seabrook to provide the same defensive stability. Seabrook wasn't as stable last season, especially in the playoffs, as Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville would have liked him to be. After Seabrook averaged 22 minutes of ice time in the regular season, Quenneville began cutting Seabrook's minutes in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Seabrook's minutes were decreased to a season-low 12:03 in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals. He had a minus-4 rating through nine playoff games at that point. In hope of jumpstarting Seabrook, Quenneville reunited him and Keith as a defensive pairing. The move led to a plus-3 rating and three goals for Seabrook over the final 14 playoff games. The Blackhawks hope he can build off that late playoff push this season.
17. Olympic participants
The Blackhawks will be one of the most represented NHL teams in the Olympics. It's hard to say whether that's good or bad for the Blackhawks. It will obviously be a negative if someone gets injured. If the players perform well or get a leg up on the other players who weren't participating in games during that period, it could be beneficial. The Blackhawks' Olympic participants could include Corey Crawford (Canada), Niklas Hjalmarsson (Sweden), Marian Hossa (Slovakia), Patrick Kane (United States), Duncan Keith (Canada), Marcus Kruger (Sweden), Nick Leddy (United States), Johnny Oduya (Sweden), Antti Raanta (Finland), Brandon Saad (United States), Brent Seabrook (Canada), Patrick Sharp (Canada) and Jonathan Toews (Canada).
16. Sophomore slump for Saad?
Brandon Saad only found a permanent spot in the Blackhawks lineup last season when Daniel Carcillo went down with an injury in the season opener. Saad was thrown onto the first line in the second game and the rest was history. Saad had his inconsistencies last season -- 15 of his 27 points on the season came in March and he scored one playoff goal -- but he held more than his own all year and was a finalist for the Calder Trophy. Now the challenge for Saad will be playing his first 82-game NHL season and trying to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump. He is expected to be given a chance at the second-line center this season. If that doesn't work, the third line could provide a comfortable spot for him.
15. Keith being Keith
Duncan Keith is the Blackhawks' defensive rock. While other players deal with inconsistencies and injuries over the course of time, Keith seems immune to them. He's missed a total of 15 regular-season games over the past eight seasons. He's had 20-plus assists in seven of those seasons and a plus-15 rating or better in five of the last six. He's averaged 24-plus minutes of ice time in six of the last eight seasons. There are few defensemen like him in the NHL. The Blackhawks will look for the 30-year-old Keith to continue that trend this season.
14. Sharp's full return
The Blackhawks got by offensively during the regular season, but that doesn't mean they didn't still miss having sharpshooter Patrick Sharp. He missed 20 games due to injury and scored just six goals last season. Considering he's led the Blackhawks in goals in three of the past six seasons and has never been worse than third in goals during that period, his contributions are usually vital to the team's success. Sharp was healthy in the playoffs last season and led the team with 10 goals. The Blackhawks look forward to him bringing that type of performance for an entire regular season again.
13. Penalty kill success
The Blackhawks were able to have a mediocre power play last season because they had such a strong penalty kill. They ranked third with an 87.2 penalty-kill percentage in the regular season and third in the playoffs with a 90.8 percentage. The penalty kill helped the Blackhawks to a 19-3-5 record in one-goal games in the regular season and a 9-2 record in the playoffs. The Blackhawks hope to duplicate their penalty-kill play this season, but there's no guarantee that will happen. The Blackhawks have fluctuated from being among the best to being among the worst in penalty-kill percentage over the past five seasons. It should work to the Blackhawks' advantage that they return nearly everyone from last season's penalty-kill units. As noted in a previous storyline, replacing Michael Frolik will be important.
12. Staying healthy
The Blackhawks faced some injury adversities last season, but none of them affected their season too much. Part of that has to do with the Blackhawks' depth. When Daniel Carcillo went down, Saad stepped up. When Dave Bolland missed time, others emerged as the second-line center. The only significant injuries the Blackhawks really had to deal with was missing Sharp for 20 games and Marian Hossa for eight games. The Blackhawks got by without them in the regular season, but they were needed in the playoffs. The Blackhawks will undoubtedly have to overcome more injuries this season, but it will depend when and to whom those injuries occur to determine their impact. The Blackhawks' core has been able to remain relatively healthy in the recent past.
11. Short offseason, compact season
The Blackhawks played their last game of the 2013 season on June 24 and open training camp on Thursday. There's not much time in between there. The Blackhawks were at least lucky enough to complete their Stanley Cup run on June 9 in 2010. Aside from the short offseason, the Blackhawks will also have to combat a compact schedule again this season due to the Olympics. The Blackhawks will play 18 sets of back-to-backs this season. Expect Quenneville to adjust his team's ice time much like he did last season and cut back on his star players' minutes whenever possible. Fatigue will be an obstacle this season.