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SEASON PREVIEWS
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January 12, 2013 | 4:53pm ET
Season Preview: Chicago
By Tab Bamford, TheFourthPeriod.com

Last year was a roller coaster in Chicago. The Blackhawks were on top of the Western Conference into December, but then the wheels fell off. A nine-game losing streak, coupled with a number of key injuries, dropped the Hawks to fourth in the Central Division (albeit three points behind second place Nashville) and the sixth seed in the Western Conference playoffs.

A first round playoff loss to Phoenix -- including the Raffi Torres hit that ended Marian Hossa's post-season prematurely -- left Chicago asking questions this summer. Coach Joel Quenneville completed his Blues Reunion, replacing Mike Haviland with Jamie Kompon on the bench next to him; Kompon and Mike Kitchen both worked with Quenneville in St. Louis.

The roster in Chicago will deal with only minor, cosmetic tweaks among their bottom six forwards and bottom pair of defensemen this year. A couple years after the post-Cup breakup, Blackhawks fans welcome the changes surrounding them in the Central Division as big names have relocated off almost every other roster in the division.

Chicago's special teams were both disappointing last year, their consistency was lacking, and the play between the pipes left a lot to be desired. So where will things go in the new season?

Forwards

It's well known that the Blackhawks have some of the best top-end forwards in the NHL in Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Hossa. And center Dave Bolland is recognized around the league as one of the better defensive centers in the game, agitating the top line of an opponent on a nightly basis.

But what can the Blackhawks reasonably expect from the forwards filling in the lineup around those five players. The injuries that plagued Chicago in the second half of last season opened the door for some young players to make their mark. Andrew Shaw played exceptionally well in a limited role last year, while Jimmy Hayes and Brandon Bollig brought some much-needed size to the roster.

There are still some significant questions, though. Will Viktor Stalberg remain the top-six wing that scored reached the 20-goal plateau for the first time last year? Is young center Marcus Kruger able to step into a second line role? Will Michael Frolik ever be the 20-goal scorer he was in Florida? And will Bryan Bickell use his size consistently to be a force on both ends of the ice?

Defense

The Blackhawks' blueline will have added depth in the coming season, which should help Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook play fewer minutes. The team hopes Steve Montador can stay healthy for a full season, re-signed Johnny Oduya and added veteran Michal Rozsival to a group that already included Niklas Hjalmarsson and youngster Nick Leddy.

Leddy, acquired from Minnesota for Cam Barker a couple years ago, continues to develop as a nice puck-moving defenseman, and has spent the lockout skating with the Hawks' AHL affiliate in Rockford. He averaged over 22 minutes per game and posted 37 points last year, and didn't turn 21 until the end of March.

Looking at the crowded depth chart, Chicago's front office will likely want/need to move one of their defensemen once the season is set to begin.

Goalies

After a great series against Vancouver in the 2011 post-season, Corey Crawford took a significant step backward last season. He'll be backed-up once again by veteran Ray Emery, but it's hard to see the Blackhawks going an entire regular season (of any length) without a shutout from one of their netminders again. This will be a position of emphasis for the Blackhawks until they find a permanent solution.

Projected Outcome

As has been the case for the last couple years, the Blackhawks are good enough on paper to win the Central Division and, possibly, the Western Conference. But health, in-season moves and the play of their goaltenders are questions that we cannot answer today. Considering the moves made (or not made) surrounding them in the Central, consider the Hawks a good bet to finish one of the top two teams in the division this season.

3 Players to Watch
 
Marian Hossa
Is he healthy? Can he stay healthy? When he's been on the ice at 100 percent, Hossa has been nearly a point-per-game player in Chicago. The lockout has afforded him plenty of time to work his way back from the Torres hit.
Nick Leddy
The young defenseman continues to mature, but he is in the final year of his entry-level contract and Chicago has another young defenseman, Adam Clendening, developing in the AHL with him right now. Leddy played top-four minutes last year, but needs to improve his team-worst minus-12 rating in the coming year.
Corey Crawford
How Crawford performs to begin the season will determine what, if any, moves GM Stan Bowman will make before next season. Will the Hawks get the Crawford that kept them in the series against Vancouver, or the sub-.900 save percentage guy that lost his starting job to Emery last season? If it's the latter, look for Bowman to make a move.

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