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2011-2012 season preview: Chicago Blackhawks

Oct 3, 2011, 12:25 AM EDT

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2010-2011 record: 44-29-9, 97 points; 3rd in Central, 8th in West

Playoffs: Lost to Vancouver 4-3 in Western quarterfinals

After struggling at the start of last season and a suffering a tough first-round exit against the rival Canucks, the Blackhawks should be back among the league’s elite. They traded Troy Brouwer at the draft for a first-round pick, then went out and acquired veteran Andrew Brunette to fill a top-six role. Chicago still has great leadership with Jonathan Toews, a top-flight defensive pairing with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, and the experience of a team than can go deep. If you believe the Blackhawks can rebound from last season’s Stanley Cup hangover, then you have good reason to think they might hoist the prize again in June.

Offense

Even during their post-Stanley Cup season, scoring was never a problem for the Blackhawks. They finished as one of only four teams that averaged over three goals per game — their fourth-ranked power play certainly helped. Something to watch will be the Hawks second-line center role. Patrick Sharp may be making the move back to the position that he started his career, but Patrick Kane will move from the wing and begin season in the middle. Aside from the usual suspects like Toews, Kane, and Sharp, guys like Dave Bolland and Marian Hossa are waiting in the wings to show their stuff as well. Needless to say, they’re stacked up front.

Defense

Over the course of the season, Keith admitted that things weren’t right last season. Obviously, the ‘Hawks want to get back to the Cup finals and likewise Keith will want to return to the Norris Trophy-level that he displayed in 2009-10. The team will also look to replace Brian Campbell’s offensive awareness on the back end. While Campbell was overpaid, he helped on the power play and solidified the ‘Hawks depth on the blueline (fun fact: Campbell’s plus-28 led the ‘Hawks last season). Look for Nick Leddy to fill Campbell’s skates over the course of the season.

Goalies

Corey Crawford took over the starting role midway through last season and never looked back. In 55 starts, Crawford posted a 33-18-6 record with a strong 2.30 goals against average and .917 save percentage — the numbers were good enough to put him in the discussion for the Calder Trophy. It will be important to prove that he can avoid the dreaded sophomore slump for the full season after signing a brand new 3-year deal worth $8 million. Behind Crawford, Ray Emery was brought in and should be an upgrade over Marty Turco’s performance last season.

Coaching

Widely regarded as one of the most respected coaches in the league during his tenure in St. Louis, Joel Quenneville seemed to push all of the right buttons from the moment he arrived in Chicago — eventually leading the ‘Hawks to the Cup in 2010. Last season, he couldn’t find an answer for the Stanley Cup hangover at the beginning of the season (nor could he decide on a starting goaltender). This season, he should have no problem getting the team’s attention from Day 1.

Breakout candidate

Chicago will ask Leddy to step up and play the significant minutes this season with Campbell’s exodus to Florida. Drafted in the first round by Minnesota, Leddy split time between Rockford (AHL) and the Blackhawks last season. The team will look to Leddy to perform on the power play — if he can fulfill the potential that he flashed last season, then ‘Hawks fans will forget about Campbell by Christmas.

Best-case scenario

When people talk about ‘best-case scenario’ in Chicago, they aren’t concerning themselves with the regular season. If everything falls into place this season, there’s no reason to think the ‘Hawks can’t complete to win it all. Crawford will need to prove that last season wasn’t a fluke, Keith will need to demonstrate that he can return to an elite level and the organization will need to fill Brouwer’s left wing position. If those things come to pass, Chicago will be in the conversation to win it all.

Reality

In a tough Central Division, the ‘Hawks have the talent and depth to complete for the divisional crown. They’re a team that has all the pieces and has proven they can perform at the highest level — they’ll just have to prove they’ve found the motivation that was lacking at the beginning of last season. It’s realistic to expect the Blackhawks to fight with the Red Wings to win the Central. The top spot in the division and the second or third seed in the Western Conference are certainly within the realm of possibility.

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