CHICAGO -- As the NHL lockout nears an end and we await the official details on a shortened season, here are five things to keep an eye on regarding the Chicago Blackhawks -- and their chances at a second Stanley Cup championship in four years.
1. Health: The extended period of time between games should mean the Hawks, like all teams, will be healthy as the season begins. It may have been a coincidence, but last year their regular season tanked after edgy forward Dan Carcillo went down with a knee injury and their playoff chances went south when Marian Hossa suffered a vicious shot to the head at the hands of Phoenix Coyotes forward Raffi Torres. Carcillo and Hossa are healthy now, although they haven’t taken contact since their injuries, as is Jonathan Toews, who pushed himself to come back from a concussion for the postseason. New injuries will certainly occur in a shortened year, but at least the Hawks can start with a clean slate for several star players.
2. Chemistry: You’re bound to hear that the teams that come together the quickest with a shortened training camp and reduced schedule will have the best chance at winning. What was considered a negative for general manager Stan Bowman -- little roster turnover for a team with two consecutive first-round exits -- might become a plus. Especially on offense. Unless there is a major surprise in training camp the Hawks will bring back every forward who saw time on the roster last season, including any prospects they deem ready who’ve been playing in the minors in Rockford. Offensive chemistry shouldn’t be an issue, it should be a plus.
3. Goaltending: The net is always a hot topic in Chicago, where the much maligned Corey Crawford returns as the starter while Ray Emery is lurking as his backup. It wasn’t long ago that Crawford nearly stole a first-round series against the Vancouver Canucks in the spring of 2011, but that was followed by a sub-par regular season the next year and then a questionable postseason in 2012. Crawford gave up two soft goals in overtime games to help secure the Phoenix Coyotes a six-game series win. There is nothing in Crawford’s physical technique that says he can’t rebound, but his emotional state will be the key. Crawford admitted he let bad goals -- and bad games -- linger too long. A return to form will help a penalty killing unit which struggled for much of last year. Otherwise, a change in goal would not come as a surprise.
4. Special teams: Power play and penalty killing successes and failures change from year to year and usually no one can pinpoint why. So making an issue of it here may not be important. But the Hawks were bad enough in those areas last year that it needs to be addressed. Penalty killing came down to a lack of effort and strategy. That’s a bad combination when playing with one less man on the ice. Add in Crawford’s struggles and the Hawks were doomed killing penalties. Expect more shot-blocking forwards to be on the ice this season, while Crawford undoubtedly will ask his defensemen to either clear the slot so he can see shots, or at least clear the crease after shots to avoid easy rebound goals. The power play issues were more vexing but new assistant coach Jamie Kompon will get a fresh look at things. The Hawks still need a body in front of the opposing netminder -- Carcillo could get that chance as will holdover Andrew Shaw.
5. Coaching: When last we left the Hawks there was growing tension between the front office and the coaching staff. Last season head coach Joel Quenneville was handed “help” in the form of Scotty Bowman-confidant Barry Smith. Smith isn’t expected to be back in that capacity, and after the season Quenneville fired long-time assistant Mike Haviland, replacing him with a Quenneville guy, Kompon. There’s little doubt that Quenneville is a good coach but that doesn’t necessarily mean he had a good year last season. The front office wants him to return to the form that led them to a championship in 2010. As last season ended, Quenneville hinted at coaching with more of an edge this year and making his star players earn playing time -- especially on special teams. Unless the extra time away has softened his stance, expect Quenneville to rule with an iron fist -- and that can only be a good thing for a team trying to return to glory with a young, but talented, roster.