30 in 30: Leddy, Hossa on list of Hawks' questions
It's been 15 years since the Detroit Red Wings became the last team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. The Chicago Blackhawks are built to do it again, but so were the Los Angeles Kings last season and that didn't quite work out as advertised.
Chicago's roster changeover isn't that significant, certainly not in comparison to when the Blackhawks won the Cup in 2010 and had to overhaul nearly half the roster because of salary-cap constraints. Chicago has to replace three players who played in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final: Dave Bolland and Michael Frolik were traded, and Viktor Stalberg was not re-signed.
The Blackhawks have it all in place to win the Cup again, but that doesn't mean they're free of questions heading into training camp next month. Here are six:
1. Who is the No. 2 center? -- There are as many as five legitimate candidates and two wild cards for coach Joel Quenneville to choose from. He's expected to give Brandon Saad and Brandon Pirri, who led the AHL in scoring last season, first dibs.
Pirri would be the ideal candidate. Not only is he a natural center and a point producer, but if he were to be the No. 2 center it would allow Quenneville to keep Saad at left wing to potentially push Bickell for playing time in the top six. Pirri needs to prove to Quenneville his defensive game is sound. It's been the knock on him since he turned pro three years ago.
"There's no question what he can do offensively, but it's never offense that gets you here," Blackhawks director of amateur scouting Mark Kelley told NHL.com.
Quenneville said he likes the idea of Saad having the puck more, but there is no way to know how he will react to being a center in the NHL.
The other candidates are Andrew Shaw, Marcus Kruger and Michal Handzus. Quenneville would prefer to have 36-year-old Handzus in a smaller role, but he called him the safe option if the others don't work out. The wild cards are Patrick Sharp and Drew LeBlanc.
Quenneville wants Sharp on the left wing, but he knows he can move him to the middle if need be. LeBlanc, who played two games with Chicago in April after turning pro, would have to have an outstanding camp to be on the radar; he's more than likely ticketed to start the season in Rockford, Chicago's AHL affiliate.
2. Is Nick Leddy going to be better than he was in the playoffs? -- He'd better be or the Blackhawks will have a problem on their hands, because at 22 years old Leddy should be making progress, not going through a regression.
Quenneville did not trust him as the games got bigger in the Stanley Cup Final. Leddy averaged 4:18 of ice time over the last three games, including a season-low 2:37 in Game 4. He was stapled to the bench as Quenneville went with five defenders, including Michal Rozsival, who spent most of the regular season in a No. 6 platoon with Sheldon Brookbank.
Leddy is supposed to be a fleet-footed, puck-moving defenseman, but he was stationary and turnover-prone in the playoffs, when he had zero points over the final 17 games and finished as a minus-8.
The Blackhawks showed faith in Leddy by giving him a two-year contract on July 3. It'll either be a bridge deal to something bigger and more lucrative if he develops the way Chicago thinks he can, or it will be a bridge deal to nowhere if he regresses the way he did in the postseason.
3. Is Marian Hossa healthy? -- Quenneville says yes.
"All our guys should be ready to go when we start," Quenneville said.
Hossa missed Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final because of a bad back and he was limited in Games 4, 5 and 6. After initially thinking he would require surgery, doctors determined Hossa's back would heal on its own.
He had 16 points in 22 games in the playoffs after producing 17 goals and 31 points in 40 regular-season games.
4. Who takes over for Michael Frolik on the PK? -- Bowman knew the gamble he was taking in trading Frolik to the Winnipeg Jets on draft day, but he likely wouldn't have done it without thinking there are solid in-house candidates to take over as Kruger's partner on the PK.
Quenneville said he is eyeing Ben Smith as a replacement for Frolik, who averaged nearly two-and-a-half minutes of shorthanded ice time per game in the regular season and almost three minutes in the postseason. Chicago was better than 87 percent on the PK in the regular season and nearly 91 percent in the playoffs.
Smith first has to make the team in training camp, but that is expected to be a formality. Quenneville wants someone with grit, speed and some offensive skill to play with Kruger on the PK, and he'd prefer it not be top-six forwards Toews or Hossa, who typically comprised the team's second PK duo.
Depending on who wins the battle to be the No. 2 center, Saad could be a candidate to take Frolik's shorthanded minutes.
5. Can Bryan Bickell build on his postseason and live up to his contract? -- The Blackhawks wouldn't have given him a four-year, $16 million contract if they didn't believe he could. Bickell wouldn't have given up a chance to test his worth on the free-agent market if he didn't believe in Chicago.
Quenneville said he thinks Bickell is the ideal NHL power forward because of his size (6-4, 233 pounds), skill, hands around the net and physical prowess. He played well down the stretch on the top line with Toews and Kane, who found more space to work with and another option around the net with Bickell on the left side.
Now Bickell has to prove he can do it on a more consistent basis. He has to build on his excellent postseason, when he scored nine goals and had 19 points.
Bickell is 27 years old and his time has come. Chicago needs him to be worth every penny.
"There's going to be more pressure," Bickell said. "They're going to rely on me more. I feel this 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."
6. Will Corey Crawford mesh well with Khabibulin and his still to be determined goalie coach? -- Last season, Crawford, backup goalie Ray Emery and goalie coach Stephane Waite had a productive working relationship. The goalies fed off each other, competing for the net in practice and when they got the call from Quenneville to play in the games. Emery's injury late in the season gave Crawford the opening he needed to become the unquestioned No. 1 goalie, which he obviously is now.
Emery left to sign with the Philadelphia Flyers and Waite moved on to work with Carey Price and the Montreal Canadiens. Chicago signed Nikolai Khabibulin to be Crawford's backup and they're searching for Waite's replacement.
Crawford's confidence should be strong enough that he doesn't need as much of a support system as he did last season. The Blackhawks signed Khabibulin to be the veteran to help Crawford through any rough patches and push him for playing time, the way Emery did last season.
"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.
"I don't think there should be any questions about what [Crawford] is capable of doing and the consistency of what we should be expecting from our goaltenders."