NHL season preview series: Chicago Blackhawks
F, Brad Richards (FA)
F, Kevin Hayes (RFA, signed with NYR)
One goal was what separated the Chicago Blackhawks from a return trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. If Chicago had scored in overtime against the Kings, The talk about this team might be about a dynasty in the making. That's how close they came.
Though Chicago fell just short of a chance at going back-to-back, with the entire team back, it should be more of the same success from the 'Hawks. With the addition of Brad Richards, it gives the Blackhawks an added element. Richards mostly struggled as a Ranger, but putting him into a stacked lineup in Chicago should bring out the best in him, right? Though that remains to be seen, this team seems primed and ready to make another deep run.
Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane both signed long-term contracts and the defense is back as well. Corey Crawford is another year older and more experienced and now has a bad taste in his mouth to go with a Stanley Cup ring.
If everything breaks right: They hoist Lord Stanley's Cup in June. Yes, those are the expectations for this team every season now. They were close enough, that a few plays their way could result in another trip to the finals this season.
Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are entering the prime of their careers and should put up monster numbers once again. Kane scored so many big goals in the playoffs last year and that sort of production is expected.
On the blueline, the Hawks are still just as strong. Duncan Keith continues to be one of the best defensemen in the world and Brent Seabrook and Nicklas Hjalmarsson are as steady as they come.
The key is Crawford. If he's able to shake off a sub-par playoff run (2.53 gaa, .912 save percentage) and ascend his game to another level, then there are no glaring weaknesses on this roster.
Not to be forgotten is the exceptional coaching of Joel Quenneville. He seems to have his finger right on the pulse of this club. Though the other clubs in the division are talented, none of them have a coach that has won and lost with his club like Quenneville.
If it all goes downhill: We're probably living in some sort of dream world, because barring a slew of injuries or a catastrophic collapse, downhill isn't a direction the Blackhawks should be traveling. One thing to point out though is that they play in a very tough division. St. Louis should be firmly in the mix and Colorado should be even better. With Dallas improving and the Predators finding some offense, any sort of down year could have the Blackhawks looking at a wild-card berth. Realistically though, that shouldn't happen, but they did finish third in the Central last year.
The Hawks also lost Kevin Hayes after he refused to sign. In Hayes, the Blackhawks could have had an exciting, young forward to add to the mix, so when he departed for the Rangers it served as a bit of a blow. Why Hayes couldn't find a way to sign with such a perennial contender is puzzling, but for that, Chicago will receive the 54th pick in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft.
Realistic Expectations: This team knows what to expect and how to navigate the ebb and flow of a long, grueling NHL season. Pound for pound, this is one of, if not the most talented rosters in the sport. With gamebreakers, depth scoring, elite blueliners and a goalie that, (for better or for worse) is battle tested, anything short of hoisting the Cup would be viewed as a failure. After eating a slice of humble pie at the expense of the Kings last June, the Blackhawks should be more focused and primed to make another deep run.
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