NHL Pre-season Predictions: Central Division – No. 1 Chicago Blackhawks

THN’s PRE-SEASON PREDICTION: First in Central Division.

KEY DEPARTURES: Steve Montador, Dan Carcillo, Viktor Stalberg, Rostislav Olesz, Ray Emery, Dave Bolland, Michael Frolik.

KEY ADDITIONS: Mike Kostka, Theo Peckham, Nikolai Khabibulin.

PROS: There are obviously many for an 87-year-old team fresh off arguably its best season, in which it went 24 games before a regulation loss and captured the Stanley Cup. The Hawks remain loaded with top-end talent up front, led by superstars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, the former the reigning Conn Smythe trophy winner, the latter the latest Selke Trophy recipient. Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp are stars who get to play complementary roles on this star-studded squad and Calder Trophy finalist Brandon Saad may leap toward stardom after a strong second half in 2012-13. Andrew Shaw and Bryan Bickell are revered as strong checking forwards who can elevate their offense at the right times, as Bickell in particular did during the Cup run. The Hawks still have the sport’s pre-eminent top two on defense in Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. That dynamite pair is backed up a by deep, versatile defense corps featuring Johnny Oduya, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Nick Leddy. There’s also a reason Chicago could let goaltender Ray Emery walk in free agency: Corey Crawford took his game to the next level. He bested his .926 regular season save percentage with a .932 mark in the post-season.

READ ALSO:  Maple Leafs Watch: Time to trade Kaberle

CONS: Since we have to nitpick, it’s worth noting the Hawks had to let some depth pieces go, just as they did after their 2010 Cup run – and they regressed the ensuing fall. Dave Bolland and Viktor Stalberg will be missed as high-end third-liners. And it’s possible Crawford was so great in the playoffs because Emery spelled him so often in the regular season. His new backup, Nikolai Khabibulin, is 40 and won’t shoulder as large a load as Emery did. Also, Chicago’s power play ranked just 19th in the NHL last season – and that was an improvement over the previous campaign’s 26th-place finish.

X-FACTOR: If Corey Crawford really is a top-five save percentage goalie, not only will the Blackhawks dominate again, he’ll also have a shot at Canada’s Olympic job. But if, like in 2011-12, he finishes outside of the top-30 in both save percentage and GAA, it will change the entire dynamic of both his and Chicago’s standing. It’s pressure, it’s motivation…it’s Crawford’s time to become an established elite starter.


 Chicago’s over/under for goals in their Dec. 20 home game against Vancouver gets set at 6.5.