30 in 15: Blackhawks confident they can repeat

Monday, 09.30.2013 / 9:55 AM
Dan Rosen  - NHL.com senior writer

NHL.com continues its preview of the 2013-14 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.

They were on the ropes, one loss from being wiped out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, from erasing all the goodwill they built up in a record-setting regular season.

The Detroit Red Wings had a 3-1 series lead against the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Semifinals in May. They also had Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews frustrated, boiling over like a pot of water that's been on the stove too long.

Things were ugly for the Blackhawks; but only two nights later they managed to stay alive, and two nights after that they found themselves needing one win to pull off what once seemed like an improbable comeback.

The Blackhawks finished the job with an overtime win in Game 7 at United Center on May 29. They would play 11 more games, win eight of them and raise the Stanley Cup in Boston. The championship banner goes up in United Center on Tuesday, right next to the one the Blackhawks raised in 2010.

"If we didn't believe in ourselves before then, that was really our moment," Toews told NHL.com earlier this month. "To come back from a 3-1 deficit against the Red Wings, that is when we knew we could come back from anything."

The Blackhawks' belief in their own invincibility is a feeling that could carry them through another Cup run this season and right into the discussion as the NHL's first salary-cap era dynasty.

They are already the first team to win the Stanley Cup twice since the salary cap came into play eight years ago. Their roster was gutted around the core after they won in 2010, but the Blackhawks return all but four players who played at least one game for them in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season.

They are favored to become the first team since the Red Wings in 1997-98 to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. They see no reason why they can't do it.

"We're tough to beat," Toews said. "A lot of things have to go wrong for us to lose in a playoff series. If we can keep leading that same way, find that same belief and will to win, then there is no reason we can't find ourselves back in the Stanley Cup Final and competing for the Stanley Cup again."

Here's a breakdown for how they're going to go about trying to do it:

FORWARDS

Toews and Patrick Kane should start the season together, making up two-thirds of Chicago's top line. The third guy should be the same guy who found a starring role with Toews and Kane last spring.

Bryan Bickell, Chicago's 6-foot-4, 233-pound left wing, was a breakout star in the playoffs and the Blackhawks rewarded him with a four-year, $16 million contract before he could hit the free-agent market. Bickell, who was second on the team with nine goals and 17 points in the playoffs, now has to prove he can be a top-six forward for the long haul.

The only reason Quenneville separated Bickell, Toews and Kane early in the Stanley Cup Final is because Bickell had a Grade 2 knee sprain, an injury that typically keeps a player out for three-to-four weeks. But Bickell didn't miss any time and by Game 4 against the Boston Bruins was back to playing well and back with Toews and Kane: He scored the game-tying goal late in Game 6 against the Bruins.

"There's going to be more pressure," Bickell said. "They're going to rely on me more. I feel [last season's] playoffs I took a big step in the way I need to play and the consistency level I need to bring, but I feel I can bring that every night. I know what it takes now, what they want, and hopefully I can just bring it."

The bigger question marks are on the second line.

It appears that the line will be the same as it was in the playoffs last season with Michal Handzus between right wing Marian Hossa and left wing Patrick Sharp. However, Hossa is still questionable for opening night after missing most of the preseason with a shoulder injury and Handzus was not his coach's first choice to be the second-line center.

Quenneville was hoping that Brandon Saad or Brandon Pirri would win the job in training camp, but it didn't happen.

Saad, in his second season after being a Calder Trophy finalist last season (27 points in 46 games), was given the first crack, but he didn't look comfortable and was moved back to left wing, his natural position.

Pirri, who led the American Hockey League in scoring last season with 75 points in 76 games, missed the first half of training camp with an injury, a setback too great to overcome.

So Quenneville is again turning to Handzus, who he called the safe option in an interview with NHL.com during the summer. Handzus is 36 and had 11 points in 23 playoff games last season despite playing with a myriad of injuries, including a bad wrist and a bum knee, both of which kept him out of the early part of the preseason schedule as well.

While the experiment with Saad appears to be over for now, Quenneville said he could go back to it at any time. There's also still a good chance Pirri could get a chance to win the second-line center job during the season. For now, Handzus will be keeping the spot warm.

"If you play well, they're going to keep you there," Handzus told reporters last week.

It appears as though Andrew Shaw will center Saad and Jimmy Hayes on the third line.

Shaw had 15 points in 48 regular-season games. He had nine points, including five goals, in 23 playoff games playing primarily as the third-line center.

Hayes, who is 6-foot-6 and 221 pounds, was a breakout star in training camp. He spent the summer in the gym and appears to have gotten stronger and leaner. It has translated to him being faster and more dangerous in offensive situations. Hayes is the replacement for Viktor Stalberg, who signed a four-year contract with the Nashville Predators during the summer.

"I'm excited for the whole opportunity in general, just having a chance to make this team and having a chance to get going on the right foot here to get my NHL career started here," Hayes told NHL.com. "The opportunity has been given to me and now I just need to run with it."

It's looking like Marcus Kruger, Ben Smith and Brandon Bollig will make up the fourth line. Kruger and Smith will likely be Chicago's top penalty-killing duo to start the season. The Blackhawks need to replace the shorthanded minutes that Michael Frolik played and Smith is the guy who gets the chance to do it at the start of the season.

DEFENSEMEN

The Blackhawks are carrying eight defensemen to start the season, but their top-six is set and the pairs shouldn't be any different than they were at the end of last season.

Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook will again make up the top pair. The second pair will be Swedes Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson, who signed a five-year contract extension earlier this month. The third pair will be Michal Rozsival with Nick Leddy. Sheldon Brookbank and Michael Kostka are the extra defensemen as Quenneville prefers to carry eight to start the season.

The only real question marks here are on the third pair.

After a strong regular season, in which Leddy had 18 points and a plus-15 rating in 48 games, he was basically benched for the last three games of the Stanley Cup Final. Leddy played a combined 12:55 in the three games as Quenneville shortened his lineup to go with five defensemen, giving the struggling Leddy only an odd shift here and there.

Leddy, who is still considered a promising young defenseman despite having played a combined 212 regular-season and playoff games, has to show he can rebound from his poor finish to last season. The Blackhawks gave him a two-year contract during the summer, but that was after Leddy was basically benched despite being in the lineup for Games 4-6 of the Final.

"Everybody has got pride, they want to play, they want to do well and contribute in a meaningful way," Quenneville said. "Whether it's a motivator or not, I mean, that's where we're at and that's where we are today. Take advantage of the situation and show us that you deserve more and earn more and I expect that."

Quenneville challenged Rozsival at the end of last season to play bigger minutes because of Leddy's struggles. Rozsival proved he could handle the extra responsibility; that's why the Blackhawks signed him to a two-year, $4.4 million contract.

He's 35 years old and hungry for more.

"When you get to the end of the year you want to be called a Stanley Cup champion again. It's the best motivation you have," Rozsival told the Chicago Tribune. "If you think about it, anything short of being a Stanley Cup champion then you're selling yourself short. It's such a great feeling, you want to experience it again and again."

GOALIES

The Blackhawks are starting the season with an obvious No. 1 goalie for the first time since Nikolai Khabibulin was the top goalie 2007-08.

Corey Crawford has been Chicago's top goalie since 2010-11, but he was constantly looking over his shoulder during the past two seasons, first at Marty Turco and then at Ray Emery. Let's also not forget that Crawford had to be the guy who replaced Antti Niemi, who in 2010 helped bring Chicago its first Stanley Cup championship in 49 years.

Crawford won his job security by winning the Stanley Cup last season. He signed a six-year contract extension during the summer, and the Blackhawks can finally say with certainty that they have their No. 1 guy.

Crawford is coming off a regular season in which he won 19 games with a 1.94 goals-against average and .926 save percentage. He was better in the playoffs with 16 wins, a 1.84 GAA and .932 save percentage.

He'll start this season with a chance to win a roster spot on Canada's Olympic team. Crawford was one of five goalies at Canada's Olympic orientation camp in August.

"There's no reason that he can't [make the Olympic team]," Keith told NHL.com. "Everybody saw what he was able to do for us."

Ironically, Khabibulin is the guy behind Crawford now. He returns to Chicago after playing the past four seasons in Edmonton. Khabibulin was Chicago's pre-championship goalie from 2005-09, winning 90 games with a .903 save percentage and 2.81 GAA.

"Khabibulin coming in gives us the reassurance of a guy who is really experienced, knowledgeable," Quenneville said. "I can see him being a good working partner with [Crawford] because he's a real student of the game. He's excited being back in Chicago. They've been around each other as goaltenders so there is some familiarity there. I just think it'd be a nice tandem at this stage."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Senior Writer

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