The Blackhawks needed help from the Stars last season just to make the playoffs. They hope a stable offseason will have them depending less on other clubs and more on the players on the ice as the franchise tries to return to the Stanley Cup Finals for the second time in three years.
Chicago begins that quest tonight with a home-and-home season-opening set against a hosting Dallas Stars club that is looking to move on after losing one of its best players.
Expectations were lowered for the Blackhawks in 2009-10 despite the team coming off a Stanley Cup title because of the roster overhaul the club underwent to get under the salary cap. The turnstile movement of players led to a drop in eight wins for Chicago, who didn't qualify for the postseason until the season's final day thanks to a Dallas loss but did push eventual Western Conference champion Vancouver to seven games in the opening round, winning three straight after falling behind 3-0 in the series.
While the Blackhawks still made moves this offseason, they involved fewer bigger names, something head coach Joel Quenneville thinks that will help his team heading into the season.
"[The chemistry] feels good, I think, across the board. I think everybody feels comfortable initially," he said. "I think last year we were probably at the point where everybody was uncomfortable, wondering if I'm on the team, who am I playing with, am I going to make the team, and new surroundings. I think everybody that we brought in, we've got more experienced guys coming into the locker room."
Those additions include forward Andrew Brunette, tough-guys Jamal Mayers and Dan Carcillo and veteran defender Sean O'Donnell. Carcillo, though, will sit out the first two games of the season because of a suspension handed down for off-the-ice actions between periods during Game 4's loss to the Bruins in the playoffs that eliminated his former Flyers club.
Chicago still has an excellent core with captain Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and former Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith. Toews set a career high with 76 points last year off 32 goals and 44 assists, while Kane topped the club with 46 helpers and was second with 73 points.
Sharp will also be in action as he is fully recovered from an emergency appendectomy that he underwent on Sept. 12. He notched 34 goals last year and Quenneville envisions his forward playing a regular workload.
"He looks good in practice, he's skating well. I think he's ready to go," Quenneville said. "We'll see how he is in games to see how he's handling it.
After overtaking Marty Turco for the No. 1 job last year, Corey Crawford will open Chicago's season in net tonight and went 33-18-6 with a 2.30 goals- against average and .917 save percentage as a rookie in 2010-11.
Crawford won't have to worry about Brad Richards, Dallas' leading scorer from a season ago who signed a nine-year deal with the Rangers this offseason. The Stars didn't do much to replace his production, adding role players Michael Ryder, Radek Dvorak and Vernon Fiddler up front while taking a chance on defenseman Sheldon Souray.
That leaves many not expecting big things out of the Stars this year, but rookie head coach Glen Gulutzan, who replaces a fired Marc Crawford, has his team set to embrace that role.
"Who doesn't like the underdog role? The expectations are low obviously nationally," the coach said. "Our expectations internally are a little higher than that and that's fine."
Without Richards, more pressure will fall on the sticks of Mike Ribeiro and captain Brenden Morrow. Ribeiro was third on the club with 71 points, six less than Richards, while Morrow had a team-high 33 goals.
Dallas is also hoping that younger players can also help fill the void, especially 22-year-old forward Jamie Benn, 26-year-old defenseman Alex Goligoski and winger Loui Eriksson, 26, while Gulutzan will look towards Morrow to mentor the rebuilding locker room.
"He's a worker, he's quiet, you don't hear a peep from him, you don't know if he's hurt, you don't know if he's happy or sad," Gulutzan said of his captain. "He just goes out and does his job and does it hard and makes guys accountable on the ice and that's why he's our leader."
Returning to net for the Stars is Kari Lehtonen, who turned in a solid 2010-11 campaign by going 34-24-11 with a 2.55 GAA in 69 games.
The Stars won three of four over the Blackhawks last year, winning both games at home. They are 9-2-6 on opening night since relocating to Texas.