Wednesday, September 11, 2013
Top storylines countdown: 10-1
By Scott Powers
Is another Stanley Cup celebration in the cards for the Blackhawks this 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 final installment:
10. Defensive stability Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman has made it a priority in the past few seasons to have veteran defensemen. He's willing to gamble with young forwards, but he doesn't like to rush young defensemen. That's why one of the Blackhawks' greatest strengths this season should be its defensive depth again. The Blackhawks return all seven defensemen -- Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Johnny Oduya, Nick Leddy, Michal Rozsival and Sheldon Brookbank -- from last year's Stanley Cup team, and all of those players except Brookbank are signed through the following season as well. ESPN recently ranked the Blackhawks' defensive group No. 1 in the league.
9. Captain consistent Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews is still 25 years old and has room to grow, but the Blackhawks wouldn't complain if he just kept doing on what he has done. He can be expected to produce 70-plus points, be among the league's leaders in faceoffs and takeways, be around a plus-20 rating, contribute on the power play and penalty kill and still be the team leader. The Blackhawks will be banking on similar numbers from Toews again this season.
8. The second-line center question The Blackhawks are in search of a consistent second-line center for the third consecutive season. They were hoping Dave Bolland would be that guy last season, but Bolland failed there due to injuries and inconsistencies. Michal Handzus held the job down in last season's playoffs, but he is expected to move back to the fourth line this season. The assumption was Brandon Pirri, who led the AHL in scoring last season, would be the front-runner for the spot, but Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville threw a curveball to that when he said Brandon Saad would get first crack in training camp. Saad played predominantly left wing last season, but Quenneville believes Saad can make the transition to center. Pirri, Andrew Shaw, Marcus Kruger and Drew LeBlanc could also get looks there.
7. Little roster turnover The last time the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup much of the team had been split up due to the salary cap. Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman didn't have that problem this time around. The Blackhawks return 19 players who appeared in the playoffs for them last season. They lost a few key role players such as Michal Frolik and Ray Emery from last year's roster, but they're not irreplaceable. Chemistry, understanding roles, adjusting to Quenneville's techniques and so on shouldn't be a problem for the Blackhawks this season. They should be ahead of the curve in all of those areas.
6. Bickell as a top-6 forward Blackhawks forward Bryan Bickell turned a monstrous postseason into a handsome payday this past season. After tearing up the playoffs for 17 points, which was second to only Patrick Kane, Bickell was given a four-year, $16 million dollar extension. With the money does come higher expectations. Bickell will be expected to perform as he did in the playoffs and be a top-6 forward rather than being a solid contributor like he was on the third line during the regular season.
5. Strong start to the season Another 24-game points streak to begin the season is unrealistic, but the Blackhawks are focusing on getting off to a strong start this season. When looking back on their last Stanley Cup defense, the Blackhawks thought their ups and downs early on led to their struggle to get into the playoffs. The Blackhawks were 9-9-2 after 20 games in the 2010-11 season.
4. Hossa's health When healthy, Marian Hossa has continued to be one of the league's premier two-way players. The problem is he hasn't been able to stay completely healthy for much of his stay with the Blackhawks. He dealt with lower-body injuries in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons, suffered a severe head injury during the 2012 playoffs and missed time with upper- and lower-body injuries last season. There was some concern Hossa may require back surgery after last year's Stanley Cup run, but he was able to avoid it. It probably isn't going to get any easier for Hossa, who turns 35 this season.
3. Crawford's consistency Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford proved his doubters wrong in 2013. He was among the league's top goaltenders in the regular season and followed that with an even stronger postseason while leading the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup. He was recently rewarded for that play with a six-year, $36 million contract extension. Now, he must do it again. Crawford has yet to put together back-to-back consistent seasons in his three years as a starter. This season will be his chance to do that. The task will be tougher with the schedule returning to 82 games and him likely having to carry more of the regular-season load with Ray Emery moving on in the offseason.
2. The continued development of Kane Some were wondering if Patrick Kane would be kept in Chicago much longer after the 2011-12 season due to his off-ice behavior and inconsistent play. Kane returned to the Blackhawks in 2013 a different person and player. He avoided the outside distractions and put together his strongest season since 2009-10. The Blackhawks need Kane to continue moving in that same direction. While the Blackhawks are full of talented offensive players, no one is as gifted an overall playmaker as Kane when he's at his best.
1. Repeating No team has repeated as Stanley Cup champions in the salary cap era, which began with the 2005-06 season. The last team to repeat was the Detroit Red Wings, who won the Cup in 1997 and 1998 and were coached by Scotty Bowman, the father of Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman. Stan has given the Blackhawks a better shot at repeating this time around as he was able to keep nearly all of last season's team together. The Blackhawks had a lot of breaks go their way last season, and they'll need some luck again. But they do have a lot of elements already in their favor, and they're expected to have a real shot at repeating.