Blackhawks player previews: Forwards will be a strength in 2014-15

A group without much to worry about should prove to be among the league's best again next season.

It's time to break down each Chicago Blackhawks player for the 2014-15 season, and on Wednesday we start with the forwards. This is a group built for today's NHL, full of speed, shooting, passing ability and enough defensive acumen to beat any team in the league.

Other teams might be stronger up the middle, such as the Kings and Penguins with their big names, but the Hawks are able to toy around with a unique combination of versatile, talented players. Over the past few years, it's yielded some pretty spectacular results, and entering next season, there's only reason to be optimistic.

After something of a transition year for the team, it feels like the Hawks have more stability with their forwards entering the season. Everyone is relatively healthy, and while the bottom of the depth chart still needs to be shaken out, it's clear how the top two lines will look. And that's good news, because nobody wants to face us when those guys are rolling.

So let's take a look at each of the Hawks' forwards, and before the season, expect some more detailed previews of certain players. We'll also be doing these for the defensemen and goaltenders, so don't worry, they won't feel left out.

Projected Depth Chart

Patrick Sharp
Jonathan Toews
Marian Hossa
Brandon Saad Brad Richards
Patrick Kane
Bryan Bickell Andrew Shaw Kris Versteeg
Brandon Mashinter Marcus Kruger Ben Smith

(Note: The team also has Jeremy Morin and Peter Regin, who are better players than Mashinter but all three can't make the roster. We'll have to see how the team determines this crunch; it can't involve sending Morin back to Rockford because there's no way he passes through waivers.)

Player expectations for 2014-15
Bryan Bickell -- age: 28 -- cap hit: $4 million

Everyone seems down on Bickell after a rough season, but the more I look at him, the more I'm thinking he's going to surprise everyone. He's apparently a bit trimmer this fall, and more importantly, the underlying numbers from last season indicate a guy who's set for a bounceback. Bickell's possessions statistics were fantastic -- a 57.7 Corsi was among the best for Hawks forwards -- and his PDO was an ugly 95.7. While he was due for some regression after a strong 2013-14, the reverse in fortune for Bicks was brutally extreme last season. If he keeps doing his thing and gets help from Shaw and Versteeg, that $4 million price tag won't look so bad.

Marian Hossa -- age: 35 -- cap hit: $5.275 million

The only questions with Hossa involve his health at this point. Assuming there's nothing wrong with the 35-year-old physically, he's still among the best two-way wingers in the league. Hossa has scored 24 or more goals in every non-lockout season since 1999, and while he's no longer a reasonable expectation for 80 points, he's still good for around 60. The top-level possession stats in partnership with Toews and Sharp don't hurt, either.

Patrick Kane -- age: 25 -- cap hit: $6.3 million

Oh boy. Ohhhhhh boy. What are the expectations for Kane next season, as he enters his physical prime and finally gets partnered with a stable, talented second line? Let's just say that a repeat of last season's 29-goal, 69-point performance would be something of a disappointment. We've never seen a truly bonkers, MVP-quality numbers season from Kane before, but this is definitely the strongest position he's ever been in to conjure that sort of production. Richards and Saad should be able to set up him for countless opportunities that eluded him in the past, and that's reason to be excited. We certainly know the guy can finish.

Marcus Kruger -- age: 24 -- cap hit: $1.325 million

Any good team can use a guy like Kruger, who's a capable offensive player, kills penalties and leads a defensive-minded fourth line. He'll never light up the box scores, but nobody is asking him to, and for the most part, he does his job well. The declining Corsi is one concern -- he dropped from 55.6 percent in 2013-14 to 51.4 percent last season -- but it's merely something to watch at this point. Kruger remains a solid option manning the middle of Chicago's fourth line, and at an affordable price, too.

Brandon Mashinter -- age: 26 -- cap hit: $562,500

What to make of Mashinter seemingly elbowing his way onto the team? We'll have to live with him for now, but when people are telling you "He might be a slightly less terrible Bollig," that's not exactly a vote of confidence. Mashinter is obviously around to be a body, and over his NHL career, he's recorded 134 minutes of ice time without getting a single point. So I don't expect much, and hopefully the team doesn't, either.

Jeremy Morin: -- age: 23 -- cap hit: $800,000

And here's the guy who's hopefully not losing too much playing time to Mashinter's expense. There's almost no way Morin doesn't make the team given his current situation -- the Hawks can't send him back to Rockford without putting him on waivers, which he definitely wouldn't clear. So hopefully he carves out a role, and finally gets to show off what appears to be some serious talent. Otherwise he'll be taking the Brandon Pirri route out of town, and I don't think anyone is hoping for that.

Peter Regin -- age: 28 -- cap hit: $650,000

A good depth forward who would figure to be the 13th guy without Mashinter, it's unclear how Regin fits onto the Hawks now. He's a solid player who has historically put up decent possession numbers, and other teams would figure to want him and his affordable cap hit if Chicago doesn't. Regin seems to like it with the Blackhawks, though, so hopefully they can find a way to keep him around.

Brad Richards -- age: 34 -- cap hit: $2 million

There are lots of reasons to be excited about Richards next season. Then there's his points per game numbers over the past five years: 1.14; 1.07; 0.80; 0.74; 0.62. Since his age-29 season with the Dallas Stars in 2009-10, we've seen a precipitous decline in Richards' on-ice production that's basically the only explanation for why the Hawks could afford him in the first place. However, the veteran quietly was among the best Rangers in Corsi and Fenwick over the past two seasons, and this time around he gets to skate with Kane and Saad. His new role as the point man on the team's second power play unit could also be a boon for his numbers, too, after posting the lowest assist rate of his career last season. Nobody can doubt that Richards is declining, but he's far from done, and we can hope for a little rejuvenation.

Brandon Saad -- age: 21 -- cap hit: $764,167

I'm almost nervous with Saad entering the season, because if he's too awesome, the Hawks will pay out the ass on his next contract. However, that would also mean Saad, you know, having a great season, and that's something everyone wants to see. The 19 goals and 47 points last season felt like Saad just scratching the surface of his talent, and he's also another Hawk with superb possession numbers. Finally settled into the second-line role next to Kane and Richards this year, don't be surprised if we get 25-plus goals.

Patrick Sharp -- age: 32 -- cap hit: $5.9 million
Outside of an injury-filled 2013-14, Sharp has established a pretty consistent level of play for the Hawks. Even as he creeps into his mid-30s, you know that you're going to get 25-35 goals, 35-40 assists and solid play on the defensive end from Sharpie. His Corsi has sat 54 percent or better in his past five healthy seasons, and was at 57 percent last year. Partnering him with Toews and Hossa, the Hawks have had some pretty devastating production from the first line, and one imagines that will continue in 2014-15. Sharp says he's not worried about his age, and for now, we're not, either.

Andrew Shaw -- age: 23 -- cap hit: $2 million

He won't get first crack at being the No. 2 center, but Shaw should still be able to have a strong year manning the middle of the third line. Even if Versteeg and Bickell aren't exactly comparable to Kane and Saad, Shaw has proven he can make a positive impact without being partnered with elite players. His 57 percent Corsi last season was exceptional, and while he's still a work-in-progress on faceoffs, he'll be a bargain for the Blackhawks over the next two seasons.

Ben Smith -- age: 26 -- cap hit: $1.5 million

After breaking out last season, Smith settles back into a fourth line role with the Blackhawks this season. He's got fans in the coaching staff and stands, and while he doesn't have the offensive upside of someone like Morin, he's arguably a more steady option. There's little reason to expect a significant increase in scoring output, but the team doesn't necessarily need it, and Smith is capable at what he's asked of. When you're loaded with guys making over $5 million annually, you need affordable guys like Smith to fill out the roster.

Jonathan Toews -- age: 26 -- cap hit: $6.3 million

You'll never confuse the raw stats with Sidney Crosby, but the underlying numbers show the impact Toews has on the ice. The Blackhawks' first line was among the best in the league last season in Corsi, and that goes for practically every grouping Toews was part of. The Hawks' captain hasn't posted a Corsi below 56.3 percent since his rookie season, and the same can be said for his Fenwick. Few players are as good at even strength as Toews, and while he hasn't propelled the team's power play into the stratosphere, it's a minor quibble for one of the game's greats.

Kris Versteeg -- age: 28 -- cap hit: $2.2 million

Ah, Kristopher Royce Versteeg. We've reached the point with Versteeg where, when the coaching staff lobs praise his way, we just assume they're trying to inflate his trade value. It's hard to imagine anyone is truly optimistic about the 28-year-old after a mess of a season, and yet, we keep hearing it over the past few weeks. But Versteeg was just so underwhelming last season, and it's not like he can point to an unsustainable PDO like Bickell. Versteeg's PDO in 63 games with Chicago last season was 100.3. So there are two things to balance here: (a) Versteeg's past as a 20-goal scorer and the strong words of the coaches and (b) those pesky memories of him borderline embarrassing himself during last year's playoffs. I want to believe the former can outweigh the latter, but part of me still wonders if it's just gamesmanship from a team looking to trade.
**Stats and information via Hockey-Reference, CapGeek and Progressive Hockey