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September 30, 2013 | 9:54am ET
2013-14 Season Preview: Chicago
By Tab Bamford, TheFourthPeriod.com

Life is good in Chicago.

That might be an understatement, actually. After winning a second Cup in four seasons -- making them the first franchise to accomplish the feat since the implementation of a salary cap -- the Blackhawks are facing dramatically different circumstances than after their 2010 victory.

No longer is the cap an evil force keeping the team from locking-up key players. During the summer, the Blackhawks had given new deals to Bryan Bickell, Corey Crawford and Niklas Hjalmarsson on the ice, coach Joel Quenneville on the bench and general manager Stan Bowman in the expensive seats upstairs.

The Hawks will bring back almost the entire roster that won the Stanley Cup, with the exceptions being forwards Dave Bolland (traded to Toronto), Michael Frolik (traded to Winnipeg) and Viktor Stalberg (free agent; signed with Nashville) and backup netminder Ray Emery (free agent; Philly).

However, by the end of the Cup Final, Bolland and Frolik were fourth line players and Stalberg was a healthy scratch; the top 10 forwards on the roster will all be back, as will the top seven defensemen from the 2013 team that dominated the regular season before running the table in the playoffs.

Will there be some changes? Certainly. Nikolai Khabibulin is back in Chicago to backup Crawford, and a number of youngsters will battle for bottom-six ice time this year as the Hawks begin what some have called the beginning of establishing a cap-era dynasty.

Meanwhile, Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are still in their mid-20s and appear to be getting better.

FORWARDS

As we noted earlier, there will be some changes up front. The Hawks essentially replaced Bolland as the talkative third line center with Andrew Shaw last season, and he will likely be flanked by a couple new faces this season. Jeremy Morin, Jimmy Hayes and Ben Smith will all look to contribute to the Hawks’ bottom six this season, mixing in with Shaw and Marcus Kruger.

One area of interest leading into the season will be the second line center position, which has become an annual conversation in Chicago. This year, it appears the coaches want to give Brandon Saad a shot after he finished the runner-up for the Calder last season. Also in the mix will be 22-year-old center Brandon Pirri, who led the AHL in assists and tied for the league lead in points last season with Rockford.

Whether it’s Pirri or Saad on the second line, the youngster will have a great opportunity to succeed between Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa; Quenneville will likely begin the new season with Bickell on the top line with Kane and Toews.

One common theme with Pirri, Morin, Hayes and Smith is that each of them has seen NHL ice time over the last couple seasons. The Hawks will continue to be a young team, but Bowman has successfully managed the cap to a place where the organization can replace departed piece internally with quality players.

DEFENSE

The Hawks bring back all seven defensemen from last season, which is rare for any team in the current NHL much less a defending champion.

Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook will begin another season together on the blue line as one of the elite pairs in the game. Both made a significant addition in their personal lives in the last year, as both Keith and Seabrook have become fathers in the last few months. If they maintain the level of play they brought to the postseason, the Hawks have two Olympians at the top of their depth chart.

With Hjalmarsson extended this summer, Chicago will have a couple players on their second pair that will likely see over 20 minutes per night again as well. Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya could be teammates on Sweden’s Olympic team as well in February.

The “third pair” in Chicago also has two defensemen that have recently averaged over 20 minutes per night. Michal Rozsival had an exceptional postseason, and signed for two more years in Chicago. He’ll be paired with young Nick Leddy, who signed a bridge deal for two more seasons with the Hawks this summer as well. It’s worth noting that Sheldon Brookbank will have some pressure to stay on the roster this year with prospects Ryan Stanton and Adam Clendening appearing to be ready for the NHL.

GOALTENDING

Crawford earned a big-money deal with his should-have-been Conn Smythe performance in the playoffs, and will start a season without the pressure of replacing Antti Niemi for the first time. While there won’t be questions about whether or not he can lead the Blackhawks to a Cup victory, there will be some asking if he can lead Canada to gold in Sochi; his performance over the last nine months certainly put his name into the mix for a spot on Canada’s Olympic roster.

Khabibulin, who led the beginning of Chicago’s renaissance with the Hawks’ run to the Western Conference Final in 2009, returns as the backup between the pipes this year. His signing raised a few eyebrows this summer after the Blackhawks signed highly-touted Finnish prospect Antti Raanta during the Cup Final. Raanta will begin the year in Rockford.

SPECIAL TEAMS

This is an area that actually presents a number of question marks for the Blackhawks heading into the 2013-14 campaign.

After an incredible run killing penalties in the regular season and playoffs, the Hawks moved one of their top PK specialists, Frolik, for draft picks this summer. Having solid defensive forwards like Selke-winner Toews, Hossa and Sharp in secondary roles on this unit helped the team last year down the stretch, so replacing Frolik will be an interesting spot for Quenneville. Smith, who played in the Cup Final for Hossa, could fill that role early in the season.

The powerplay in Chicago has been mediocre over the last few years, so fixing it will continue to be labeled a “work in progress.” Additional ice time for Bickell, Shaw and perhaps Pirri and Morin could inject life into the unit, but there are enough elite scorers in Chicago that this shouldn’t continue to be an issue.

PREDICTION

The Blackhawks have a good, deep organization with talented players developing in juniors, the AHL and overseas. As veteran contracts come close to their end, as was the case with Bolland and Frolik, the Hawks have done a good job of stockpiling talent to replace players internally; we haven’t mentioned Finnish stud Teuvo Teravainen yet, who has been (perhaps unfairly) compared to Kane recently.

Sochi will play a significant role in the Hawks’ performance down the stretch as well. Chicago could have as many players headed to the 2014 Olympics as any roster in the NHL, with Toews, Kane, Hossa, Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson and Oduya playing significant roles for their respective countries. How the organization manages the workload of these players, and how the travel and additional games impacts their play down the stretch, will be something to keep an eye on.

With cap flexibility and the core of a championship roster coming back, the word “repeat” will be used a lot in the coming months. Can the Blackhawks become the first team since the 97-98 Red Wings to win back-to-back Stanley Cups?

Yes, it’s possible. If these Blackhawks can stay healthy -- a significant consideration given the injury histories of a few players, especially Hossa -- there is no reason to exclude them from the short-list of Cup contenders next spring. But winning one championship brings new pressures and expectations, and the Hawks will certainly have plenty to deal with this season.

Tab Bamford is the Chicago Correspondent and a Columnist for The Fourth Period.


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