CHICAGO – The last time Chicago won the Stanley Cup, the team was dismantled during the off-season and a frustrating title defence ended in the first round of the playoffs.
Not so much this time. When the Blackhawks hit the ice next week for their opener against Washington, it will be a very familiar group.
Jonathan Toews and Co. are all set to go for their second consecutive NHL title and a historic third in five seasons. There was no salary-cap purge this summer, leaving the Blackhawks largely intact as they try to become the first team to repeat since the Detroit Red Wings won it all in 1997 and 1998.
Last year was a dream season for Chicago, which set an NHL record by recording at least one point in the first 24 games. It finished with the league’s best record in the regular season, and then beat the Boston Bruins in six games for the franchise’s fifth championship.
What followed was a productive off-season that eliminated any potential distractions before the Blackhawks reported for training camp. Physical winger Bryan Bickell returned with a four-year contract after he might have been able to grab a bigger deal in free agency. Goaltender Corey Crawford, defenceman Niklas Hjalmarsson, coach Joel Quenneville and general manager Stan Bowman agreed to extensions.
While Chicago appears to be in prime position for another great season, there are several potential roadblocks that could derail its title defence. Here are five areas to watch for the reigning champion:
HEALTH: The Blackhawks played an NHL-high 71 games last season, counting the playoffs. That’s less than the league’s usual 82-game schedule for just the regular season, but it also came with fewer off days after the lockout wreaked havoc on the calendar. Facing another grueling slate due to the Sochi Olympics, health is a major concern.
Marian Hossa, who turns 35 in January, was hampered by a back problem during the Stanley Cup and missed time during the preseason with an undisclosed upper-body injury. Toews’ preseason debut was delayed by an upper-body injury. Fellow forward Michal Handzus is coming back from two off-season surgeries.
The deep Blackhawks may be able to withstand an injury to one of their big stars—Patrick Sharp missed part of last season, and Chicago still finished with the league’s best record—but they will need everyone come playoff time if they hope to repeat. Look for Quenneville to keep a close watch on minutes and maybe employ a more cautious approach when it comes to aches and pains.
X-FACTORS: With Toews, Patrick Kane, Sharp and Hossa, the Blackhawks know what to expect pretty much every night. Same for top defenceman Duncan Keith.
The biggest variable could be Brandon Saad, who was a finalist for the Calder Trophy last season awarded to the NHL’s top rookie. The 20-year-old Saad, who had 10 goals and 17 assists in 46 games, got a tryout at second-line centre during training camp before he was moved back to left wing. Wherever he plays, the Pittsburgh native is strong with the puck and could better his numbers from a year ago now that he’s got more experience under his belt.
Bickell, who is expected to play with Toews and Kane on the top line, also could put together a big season. The 6-foot-4 Bickell had nine goals and eight assists in the playoffs, and the pressure is on to live up to his new contract.
THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT: While managing the salary cap over the summer, Bowman traded away key veterans Michael Frolik and Dave Bolland. Viktor Stalberg and goaltender Ray Emery left in free agency.
Bowman thinks some of Chicago’s prospects are ready for the NHL, and their development could be key to the Blackhawks’ season. Forwards Jimmy Hayes and Ben Smith looked good during training camp. Brandon Pirri led the AHL in scoring last season and is in the mix for second-line centre, but missed part of the preseason with a lower-body injury.
“Whatever the role, we want to be here,” Smith said. “We want to be on this squad and part of this winning tradition that they’ve grown here over the last four, five, six years. Whatever role they ask me to do, I’ll be willing to do it.”
LOOK WHO’S BACK: Nikolai Khabibulin is beginning his second stint in Chicago after he signed a one-year deal to take Emery’s place as the backup for Corey Crawford. The 40-year-old Khabibulin also played for the Blackhawks from 2005-09. Crawford and Emery combined to win the William B. Jennings Trophy awarded to the team with the lowest goals-against average. Khabibulin will be hard-pressed to duplicate Emery’s 17-1 record from a year ago, but the Blackhawks are counting on him to spell Crawford enough to keep both players fresh.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Frolik was a key part of Chicago’s strong penalty-kill unit last season, and the race is on to find someone to pair with speedy Marcus Kruger. Success in that role could give one of the younger players a boost in their effort to make the roster. While the Blackhawks excelled at penalty killing last season, they struggled on the power play. They were still searching for solutions in training camp, and it could be an ongoing issue again this year.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap