Jun 1, 2014; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane (88) skates off the ice after game seven of the Western Conference Final of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Los Angeles Kings at United Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

2014-15 NHL season preview: Chicago Blackhawks

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This 2014-15 NHL season preview features the Chicago Blackhawks.

What was Stanley Cup worthy in 2013-14?

The 2013 Stanley Cup Champions may very well have come within one goal of their second consecutive title, and third in five years last season. Quite ironic considering how offense was the team’s strength. They finished with the second highest goals-per-game average (3.18) in the NHL, and were the fourth best 5-on-5 team as well.

The offense was led by 32 year-old Patrick Sharp, who posted career highs in assists (44), points (78) and shots (313) to go with his team-high 34 goals.

The highest goals-per-game average however, and for that matter points-per-game as well, belonged to Patrick Kane. Although he missed 13 games at the end of the regular season with an injury, he still managed to post 29 goals and 69 points and lead the team with 6 game-winning goals.

At the age of 35, Marian Hossa notched his 8th season of 30 or more goals in the NHL, and missed the 1000 career points plateau by 5, a mark he surely would’ve reached had he not missed 10 games. He also finished 5th in the Selke Trophy voting as the league’s best defensive forward.

Duncan Keith became the first defenseman not named Nicklas Lidstrom to win multiple Norris Trophies since 1996-97 (Brian Leetch). His 55 assists led the team and were good for 6th in the entire league.

Marcus Kruger. Playing in a star-studded lineup, he rarely gets any recognition for his tenacity, fearlessness and work ethic. He was the team’s shutdown centre last season, and improved his faceoff ability by more than 10%, finishing 7th in the NHL at 56.7% and taking tons of pressure off Jonathan Toews.

What was draft lottery worthy in 2013-14?

After being a top 5 unit the season before, the Blackhawks’ penalty kill was abysmal in 2014, especially in the first two thirds of the year. They finished 19th, with a 81.4% success rate.

Another disappointment last season was 2013 playoff hero Bryan Bickell. After signing a 4-year, 16-million dollar contract extension following his breakout performance and Stanley Cup win, Bickell managed just 11 goals in 59 games, and often found himself in the press-box. Not the way you want to start a lucrative, long-term deal.

After coming to Chicago via trade from Florida, Kris Versteeg couldn’t recapture the mojo that made him such an integral part of the Blackhawks’ success in 2010. It wasn’t so much that there wasn’t enough offensive production (29 points in 63 games), but more the lack of consistency and commitment to defense that resulted in Versteeg seeing the least ice-time of his career.

Perhaps the biggest let-down of the season was young defenseman Nick Leddy. The physical tools are all there for him to be a top 4 defenseman in the NHL, but he just hasn’t been able to earn the trust of his coaches. The problem is if he’s not going to be more reliable in his own end, he needs to find a way to produce more offense than just 31 points in 82 games.

So what did they do to get better?

Chicago has built this foundation in order to promote from within as much as possible, and to a large extent the talent is there to do just that.

However, when Brad Richards was brought in on a one-year, 2-million dollar contract, it filled possibly the only hole the organization has had since its resurgence in 2008: second line centre. Richards will try and fill that role between likely wingers Kane and Brandon Saad while the Hawks wait for 19 year-old Teuvo Teravainen to prove he’s ready for prime-time. If Richards can stabilize the second line, Patrick Kane may very well have a career year, a Hart trophy and a third Stanley Cup ring by season’s end.

The Blackhawks also have to make at least one more change somewhere, as they are currently about 1.3 million over the cap if Teravainen starts the season in the AHL, and about 2.2 million if he makes the team. Will that make them worse? Unlikely, since many of the options are easily enough replaceable (Versteeg, Leddy, Michal Rozsival, etc).

Player to watch

With 16 points in 19 playoff games, including 9 in 7 games against the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference Final, Brandon Saad seems ready to take the next step in his evolution and make one of the deepest, most talented forward groups in the NHL even better. Some think he can be an adequate replacement for Hossa who’s getting older, but the reality is the sky’s the limit with the 21 year-old.

(This team) will be playing with a chip on its shoulder, as they know they let a chance at history slip away last season.

They will make the playoffs if…

They avoid major injuries. Toews, Hossa, Sharp and Brent Seabrook have all had fairly severe injuries over the last 2-3 seasons, with Hossa also being on the wrong side of 35. Health is paramount.

They will miss the playoffs if…

They get complacent. In 2011, coming off their first Stanley Cup victory in 49 years and a salary cap purge, the remaining players were still good enough to be a top team in the league. As Duncan Keith admitted, they just didn’t have the drive or the energy to make another run and nearly missed the playoffs, needing a miracle result on the last day of the season to squeak in.

What should we expect this season?

The Chicago Blackhawks return one of the best lineups in the league from last season nearly 100% intact, and add Brad Richards.

They are the first team since the 1999-2000 Colorado Avalanche to have three Conn Smythe Trophy winners on their roster at the same time.

This is a very good, very deep team who will be playing with a chip on its shoulder, as they know they let a chance at history slip away last season.

Look for them to ice a more balanced lineup thanks to continued growth from young players like Saad, Andrew Shaw, Ben Smith, Jeremy Morin and others, and spread out the ice-time in preparation for another deep post-season run.

Prediction

50-20-12 112 points, 1st in the Central Division, 2nd in the Western Conference

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Tags: 2014-15 NHL Season Previews Brandon Saad Brent Seabrook Bryan Bickell Chicago Blackhawks Duncan Keith Jonathan Toews Marcus Kruger Marian Hossa NHL Nick Leddy Patrick Kane Patrick Sharp Teuvo Teravainen

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