The Chicago Blackhawks could become the first franchise to win the Stanley Cup three times in six years since the Detroit Red Wings did so in 1997, 1998 and 2002.
Of course, the Blackhawks weren't far from becoming the first team to win the Cup three times in five years since 1990, but the Los Angeles Kings scored in overtime at United Center during Game 7 of the Western Conference Final. The Kings and Blackhawks have won four of the past six NHL titles, and appear to have ignited a rivalry akin to the Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche in the 1990s -- sans the line brawls.
The Western Conference remains loaded, so it is not just the Kings and Blackhawks in 2014-15, but they'll be the favorites to meet in the conference final for a third straight season. Chicago's biggest addition, Brad Richards, is a response to the disadvantage the Blackhawks had down the middle against Los Angeles in May.
Chicago is still loaded, and the expectations remain the same. Either the Blackhawks conclude the 2014-15 season with a party in Grant Park, or it is a disappointment.
The Blackhawks won the Cup twice without an established No. 2 center, but neither of those teams faced Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Jarret Stoll and Mike Richards in a seven-game series (Richards, along with several other Kings players, was not available or near 100 percent in 2013). Brad Richards could be that guy for the Blackhawks.
Andrew Shaw had a nice few games near the end of the conference final with Brandon Saad and Patrick Kane, and could still get another chance there if Richards falters. The long-term solution is still likely Teuvo Teravainen, who might not have a place on the roster on opening night.
Bryan Bickell did not have a lot of goals and points last season, but he was a very strong possession player and could still fit on the top line next to Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa. Saad took a huge step forward last season, and the quartet of him, Kane, Hossa and Patrick Sharp is unmatched on the wings in the NHL.
The player to watch for a Saad-like leap this season might be Jeremy Morin, who played well in limited duty last season but seemed to struggle when it came to earning Joel Quenneville's trust. Another to watch is Kris Versteeg, who was not good last season and could become a salary cap casualty. He might not be one of Chicago's 12 best forwards if he does stay.
If Teravainen and Morin succeed enough to earn regular roles, this might be the best forward corps of the NHL's salary-cap era.
Analytics in hockey is not just about shot attempts and Corsi and Fenwick, and the Blackhawks are a great example of this on the blue line. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are one of the best defense parings in the NHL, but Quenneville uses Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya against opposing team's top lines when he can to allow Keith and Seabrook's offensive abilities to flourish.
Quenneville didn't just shelter Nick Leddy at times near the end of the 2013 and 2014 playoff runs, he benched him and went with five defensemen. The Blackhawks have been adamant they are still high on Leddy's long-term prospects, and with Sheldon Brookbank gone and Michal Rozsival progressing deep into his 30s, Chicago needs to be able to trust Leddy more at the end of this season.
If David Rundblad or one of the prospects like Adam Clendening or Stephen Johns can prove ready for regular NHL duty, that would also open up a lot of options not only for Quenneville but for general manager Stan Bowman.
There have been 40 goaltenders to play at least 100 games in the past four seasons. Corey Crawford's .914 save percentage during his tenure as Chicago's No. 1 goaltender is 24th in that group. Now, in three of those four seasons he checked in with at least a .917 save percentage, and that is enough to win a lot of games with the firepower the Blackhawks possess.
He also played very well for nearly all of the 2013 Cup run, and had a strong series against the Minnesota Wild in the second round of 2014. The issue for the Blackhawks is his contract, which makes him the joint sixth-highest paid goalie in the League. Chicago doesn't just need him to be better than his .912 save percentage overall during the 2014 playoffs to have a better chance to win more championships, it also needs more value out of that contract. Paying $6 million a year for League-average goaltending given the salary cap constraints in the Windy City is not ideal.
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Author: Corey Masisak | NHL.com Staff Writer
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