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THN’s 2014-15 NHL season preview: Chicago Blackhawks

The Chicago Blackhawks are one of the NHL’s biggest powerhouses and return almost the same lineup they had last season. Where will they finish this season? We’re predicting they’ll win the Stanley Cup.

2014-15 record: 46-21-15

Acquisitions: Michael Leighton, Kyle Cumiskey, Brad Richards, Pierre-Cedric Labrie

Departures: Jason LaBarbera, Brandon Bollig

Top five fantasy players: Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa

Boom, Bust and Bottom Line: The best, worst and most likely scenario
Boom: Chicago fell short of a third Stanley Cup in five years, but its 2013-14 was still excellent. The Hawks were a Game 7 overtime goal away from the Cup final and return with the same stars and a couple notable upgrades.

Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, soon to be $10.5-million men, lead the attack but have plenty of help. It’s not just stalwarts Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa chipping in, as Brandon Saad has blossomed into a premier power winger and Teuvo Teravainen projects as a future star. There’s no pressure to rush Teravainen, as GM Stan Bowman finally secured a No. 2 center in Brad Richards, who will be asked to do far less than he was in New York.

The Hawks return with an elite defense, led by two-time Norris winner Duncan Keith with his partner Brent Seabrook and fortified by Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson. Corey Crawford is good, not great, and that’s all the Hawks need in net. This team is as stacked as ever and has the hunger and horses to bring another championship back to Chicago.

Bust: The Hawks can’t match the Kings’ size and strength player for player. The Ducks and even the Stars may outmuscle them in that regard, too. Sooner or later the years of deep playoff runs will add up and wear the Hawks down. As formidable as they are, they lack an intimidating physical presence up front aside from Bryan Bickell. Saad, Hossa and Toews don’t make opposing defensemen tremble in the corners the way Dustin Brown, Ryan Getzlaf and Jamie Benn do.

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When the Hawks meet the rare opponent evenly matched with them, they usually field the weaker goaltender in Crawford, who deserves more respect than he gets but also doesn’t win games on his own the way Jonathan Quick does.

It’ll be interesting to see how or if the specter of Kane and Toews’ contracts impacts the Hawks this season. Stan Bowman can’t fit his current roster under the cap for 2015-16, so at least one big salary will be moved before next season.

Bottom Line: To criticize the Blackhawks is to nitpick. This is the team to beat. They project to finish second in the Central behind St. Louis only because the best teams often conserve their best efforts for the post-season. Once the 16-team tournament begins, the Hawks are in their element, and they’ll kick off the summer of 2015 with their third Stanley Cup parade since 2010. It feels like they and the Kings will continue taking turns winning titles. You’re up, Chicago.

Prospect To Watch: The big one to watch in Chicago is Teravainen, the 18th overall pick of the 2012 draft. There’s lots of excitement around this guy. He arrived in North America at the end of last season, playing three games with the Blackhawks and five games for the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs. The only question is if there’s enough room for him in the lineup on opening night.

THN’s Prediction: Second in Central Division – Stanley Cup champion


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Contributors: Matt Larkin, Rory Boylen