Of all of the components to this Blackhawks team, the forward group has changed the most since Jonathan Toews hoisted the Cup in June. The top six looks the same, as Bryan Bickell resigned on a four-year deal, Michal Handzus was brought back for another year and the big guns all return. The bottom six, however, will have some new faces. Gone are Viktor Stalberg and Jamal Mayers, as well as Car Bomb, Fabulous Weapon, Taters/GROIN RIPPER and their wonderful nicknames. In their place stand a collection of kids from Rockford who will look to stick around the big club for a while.
The 2013 Blackhawks finished 6th in the league in 5v5 SF/60 (5v5 shots per 60 minutes) with 30.6, tied for 2nd in 5v5 GF/60 (5v5 goals per 60 minutes) with 2.9 and tied for second in total 5v5 goals with 112. Bottom line; last year's offense was a powerhouse (not including the power play). With many of the same faces returning, the forward corps should stay formidable.
Jonathan Toews will probably have Patrick Kane and Bryan Bickell flanking his wings to start the season. The arrangement yielded great results against the Kings and the Bruins during the playoffs. As a result, Joel Quenneville will probably open the season against Washington with these three on the first line. Well, at least until he runs out of patience after about three scoreless shifts and decides to turn the line blender on. Kane and Toews were magical together in the playoffs and they're obviously going to rack up their fair share of points together. After an offseason of ridiculous trade rumors, Kane leaped forward in 2013 by putting up 55 points in 47 regular season games and bringing home the Conn Smythe. Anything less than 100+ points for him this year could be considered a disappointment. Toews was a PPG player and considered a Hart candidate throughout most of last year. It's hard to imagine the 2-time Cup winning captain can get much better but at 25, his best years could still be ahead of him.
The biggest question about the first line is whether or not Bickell can play anything like he did during a postseason run where he racked up 9 goals and 17 points in 23 games. It's unlikely he'll repeat similar numbers over an 82 game season, but expectations are high for him after taking a hometown deal to return to Chicago. For Bickell to stick on the first line, he will need to play physically, help Toews on the forecheck and get to the dirty areas like the boards and the front of the net.
If Bickell can't stick on the first line, he'll probably be replaced by Brandon Saad or somebody on the second line. Patrick Sharp struggled during the regular season but improved during the Cup run. He finished with 16 points in 23 postseason games and led the team in goals and handsomeness. As long as Sharp avoids the injury bug, he should return to form. Speaking of the injury bug, Marian Hossa will be ready to begin the regular season after dealing with an upper-body injury. A healthy Hossa is a productive Hossa. When he's on the ice, he's going to dazzle with his incredible skills with and without the puck. But staying healthy has been an issue for Panda recently. Hopefully he can avoid death by Matt Cooke when the Hawks take on the Wild this year. The much maligned second center role will temporarily be filled by Michal Handzus. Handzus was serviceable as the 2C during the playoffs but there's no way Zeus sticks there throughout the whole year. He's a bottom six center, probably more of a fourth center than a third. Handzus'll probably be replaced by Pirri or someone else once he disintegrates into a fine powder sometime in November.
The bottom six will look very different when the team hangs four banners on Tuesday. Three useful players return in the forms of Andrew Shaw, Marcus Kruger and Brandon Saad. Brandon Bollig also exists. Saad saw some time in the top six last year but will probably begin this season playing third line minutes. As a rookie, Saad showed he has a nose for the next, great offensive instincts, and is a monster both with and without the puck. There may be some growing pains for him this season, as there usually are with players in their sophomore years. With that said, the ability is clearly there. He should be able to flatten out that learning curve after some time. Since Q finally realized Saad is better suited at wing instead of center, he'll flank Andrew Shaw's or Marcus Kruger's left. The Blackhawks depth chart has Saad on the third line to the left of Andrew Shaw but it also has Brandon Bollig on the right which isn't a thing. Brandon Bollig will either play sparingly on the fourth line or sit in the press box and eat mud from the bottom of the Mississippi River.
Marcus Kruger has developed into a really solid penalty killer and an all-around great roleplaying center. It'll be intriguing to see how he performs on the PK without Tater Aid. One would have to think Joakim Nordstrom - who spent time this preseason killing penalties with Kruger - would take over Frolik's vacated job for the time being. Even Andrew Shaw has proven himself to be a useful player. There were times during the playoffs where he looked like a poor man's Dustin Brown; equally irritating but less talented. If he could cut the stupid crap out of his game, he'd be that much more beneficial to the team. The last few spots will go to the prospects.
Nordstrom was a long shot to make the team but to his credit, management felt he earned his way onto the team. He'll be joined by Jimmy Hayes, brother of stair-shitter Kevin Hayes, and Playoff Hero Ben Smith. Hayes and Smith have seen time on the big club before. This time, they'll be looking to stick around for good. It sounds like Brandon Pirri, Jeremy Morin and Jeremy Morin's hair are among the last roster cuts and will soon be sent to Rockford. Many felt Pirri was going to fill the 2C role right out of camp. It doesn't look like Pirri will join the Hawks until he's had a teeny bit more seasoning. Even when he does see time in Chicago, he'll probably be eased into the 2C spot. Morin, on the other hand, has done his time in Rockford and it's sort of shocking that he isn't breaking camp with the team. It's not the end of the world if your name is Jeremy Morin, however. He and others down in Rockford will get their chance to prove themselves in Chicago throughout the year. There's no doubt that at least one of Hayes, Nordstrom or Smith will ride the shuttle to and from Rockford at some point during the season, and that's not even mentioning the possibility of needing injury replacements. Man, it really sucks to have so many NHL-ready prospects that can't all make the team because the rest of the team is filled with really good players.
A healthy team isn't going to have any trouble scoring goals. The top six is filled with extraordinarily talented scorers and the bottom six could be deep. But two things could potentially prevent the Blackhawks forwards from having success; injuries and struggles from the younger guys. Toews has dealt with concussion issues for the last couple years, Sharp struggled to stay healthy last year and at this point, it'd make more sense to list the body parts Hossa hasn't hurt. If one of those three misses any extended period of time, it could deal a huge blow to Chicago's chances at a repeat.
With so many young faces on the roster, there are bound to be growing pains. If the young kids have trouble filling the roles that Dave Bolland, Michael Frolik and Viktor Stalberg left empty, the forward group as a whole will suffer. Stalberg was as good as gone the moment the NHL announced Columbus was switching conferences. One of the kids should be able replace his spot rather easily. Filling Bolland's and Frolik's role will be much more difficult. Bolland struggled much of last year but was a defensive juggernaut throughout his Blackhawks career. Frolik was a fantastic penalty killer and a great depth forward. Some of the kids will need to answer the bell so the bottom six won't lose a beat. The Hawks depth last year was one of their biggest strengths and they rode it hard all throughout the year. A top-heavy team could win the cakewalk that will be Conference III but it won't go very far in the playoffs. As previously mentioned, the good news is if some of the young guys have issues, there are others waiting in the wings for their shot.
Chicago's top six is as good as or better than any top six in the league. Combine a healthy DDN, Hoss and Sharp with a deep supporting cast and this team will again be among the elite offenses in the NHL.