In the two years since the Chicago Blackhawks won their first Stanley Cup in 49 years, they’ve failed to return to those lofty heights, bowing out in the opening round of the playoffs in consecutive seasons.
That’s because the Blackhawks haven’t fully recovered from the salary-dumping moves in the summer of 2010 that were necessary to become compliant with the salary cap for the following season.
While the core of the club remained intact (forwards Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp, defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook), several key supporting players were shipped out via trades or lost to free agency.
As a result, GM Stan Bowman was forced to rebuild from within (forwards Viktor Stalberg, Andrew Shaw, Bryan Bickell, Marcus Kruger and Jimmy Hayes, defenseman Nick Leddy, goaltender Corey Crawford), while also adding veteran depth (left winger Dan Carcillo, defensemen Johnny Oduya and Steve Montador) in hopes of regaining that championship magic.
With more cap space this past summer, Bowman pursued notable free agents such as left winger Zach Parise, defenseman Ryan Suter and goaltender Martin Brodeur, but was unable to convince them to come to the Windy City.
Goaltending and scoring depth on the wings are two areas of concern worth watching for the Blackhawks heading into this season.
Crawford struggled at times as the Blackhawks starting goalie. Bowman stuck by Crawford, but his interest in Brodeur cast a show of doubt upon his confidence in the 27-year-old sophomore netminder.
That explains why the Blackhawks were linked throughout the off-season to Vancouver Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo, despite the intense rivalry between the clubs over the past four seasons.
Luongo only added fuel to the fire during a July interview by suggesting Chicago would be a great place to play. His hefty contract ($5.3 million per season) would be a tight fit for a Blackhawks team with more than $35 million already invested in just six players.
Bowman maintains he’ll stick with Crawford and backup Ray Emery, who was re-signed earlier this year to a one-year extension. Should Crawford struggle again, however, Bowman would be forced to explore other options.
A lack of a skilled second-line center resulted in Kane being moved there from right wing, leaving Hossa as Chicago’s only experienced scorer on the right side.
The season-ending concussion Hossa suffered in the Blackhawks’ opening playoff round series against the Phoenix Coyotes was a serious blow and contributed to their six-game elimination. They’re hoping he’s made a full recovery in time for this season, as losing him for any significant period would be devastating.
Stalberg showed improvement last season, with 22 goals and 43 points, but was a bust in the playoffs. Shaw displayed considerable promise, with 23 points in 37 games following his mid-season call-up, but it remains to be seen how he’ll do over the course of an 82-game schedule.
On the left side, it’s a bigger problem, with Sharp the only true scorer on that wing, likely prompting Bowman’s interest in Parise this summer.
Carcillo and Bickell are checking-line wingers, so the Blackhawks hope promising Brandon Saad can fill the second-line role.
That lack of scoring punch on the wings contributed to the Blackhawks’ poor power play last season, which tied for 25th overall.
Another factor was the inability to fill the void on the point left by defenseman Brian Campbell, who was dealt to the Florida Panthers during the 2011 NHL draft. That would explain why Bowman pursued Suter earlier this summer.
Anticipation of Bowman adding a scoring winger or puck-moving defenseman via free agency sparked speculation in June blueliners such as Montador or Niklas Hjalmarsson were being shopped in to free up sufficient cap space.
If the need arises for Bowman to bolster his scoring or goaltending depth, it’s possible their names will be floated again as trade bait.
Another area of concern was their penalty killing, which last season was 27th overall in the league. Defensemen Michal Rozsival and Sheldon Brookbank were signed this summer to address that issue.
For the Blackhawks to return to Cup contention, they’ll need a healthy Hossa, considerable improvement from Shaw and Leddy, consistency from Stalberg, a strong rookie season from Saad and a bounce-back performance from Crawford.
If Hossa’s recovery takes longer than expected, Shaw and Leddy struggle through a sophomore slump, Stalberg remains inconsistent, Saad becomes a bust or Crawford fails to improve between the pipes, Bowman will be forced into the trade market.
Rumor Roundup appears Monday-Friday only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News, Kukla’s Korner and The Guardian, Charlottetown.