Here are six observations from the Chicago Blackhawks' training camp and preseason games:
1. The durability of the Blackhawks’ older players has to be a concern. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville has been very cautious with players’ injuries in the preseason. There is no reason to risk anything. Yet, the fact 34-year-old Marian Hossa and 36-year-old Michal Handzus didn’t play in a single preseason game and haven’t been 100 percent healthy in the preseason has to be somewhat alarming. Both players are getting up in age, and both are coming off a season where they suffered severe injuries. With Hossa, there’s a lot at stake for the present, but even more so for the future. Back injuries aren’t anything to mess with, and the Blackhawks are depending on Hossa for years to come. As for Handzus, his injury wouldn’t be as much of an immediate concern if Brandon Saad or Brandon Pirri had worked out at the second-line center. But with Handzus being that option now, the Blackhawks are looking for him to duplicate what he did in the playoffs.
2. Patrick Sharp has come prepared for the season. Finishing first in the team’s physical testing was the first sign Sharp arrived to camp ready. He’s since followed that up with some impressive play on the ice. He’s put away goals and created for teammates. He set up Nick Leddy on two goals in Saturday’s game. The 2013 regular season was a bit rocky for him due to a shoulder injury, but he was his normal self in the playoffs and scored 10 goals in 23 playoff games. He can be expected to return to that same form this season and produce 30-plus goals again. I predict he leads the team in goals again.
3. The Bryan Bickell-Jonathan Toews-Patrick Kane line has the makings of something special this season. The trio only played together once in the six preseason games, but they appear to be already in sync. The line was clicking and creating chance after chance in Saturday’s game against the Washington Capitals. Toews and Kane have always had success together, and Bickell’s game appears to complement them well. Bickell has looked confident and comfortable being a top-6 forward in the preseason just as he did in the playoffs last season. His size, powerful shot and skating ability should produce in a variety of ways for that line. I don’t see Kane and Toews leading the team in goals again, but they’ll have plenty of points.
4. The Blackhawks’ defenseman group is deeper and more skilled than last year. Returning seven defensemen from last year’s team certainly put the Blackhawks in a good position for this season. Duncan Keith is still Duncan Keith. Brent Seabrook looks in good form after some ups and downs in the playoffs last year. Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson are picking up where they left off as a pairing. Nick Leddy looks to have his confidence back and is expected to be more of an offensive threat this season. Michal Rozsival and Sheldon Brookbank will likely rotate games again, and you also add another reliable defenseman in Michael Kostka. Plus, you have a few prospects, especially Ryan Stanton, who can step in at any point and not be a liability.
5. The Blackhawks have proven you don’t need a power play to win a Stanley Cup, but that still doesn’t excuse their continued struggles there. Their power play was far from productive again throughout the preseason. The Blackhawks possess too much offensive skill to not take advantage of power plays. They can talk all they want about creating momentum, but ultimately they’re still constantly failing to score while having an additional player on the ice. If they continue to win without a power play, no one will ultimately care again. But if they do end up losing, their power-play struggles will be pointed to quickly.
6. Pirri not making the team out of training camp is a surprise. His injury certainly didn’t help him. As much as Pirri proved in the AHL last season, it was important for Quenneville to see him produce as a center in the preseason games. Pirri only got two games, and it wasn’t enough to persuade Quenneville to keep him. I would imagine Pirri will get another shot to prove himself with the Blackhawks this season. Of course, Joakim Nordstrom making the team was also a surprise. He really earned that spot by excelling on the penalty kill and developing a bond with Marcus Kruger.