2011-12 Chicago Blackhawks Preview

One of the biggest stories last summer was the dismantling of the Chicago Blackhawks just weeks after they won their first Stanley Cup in nearly half a century.

A dismal salary cap situation prompted Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman to get his fiscal house in order, and considering the caliber of the players who left the Windy City (Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, John Madden, Brent Sopel, etc), the 2010-11 campaign could've been a lot worse.

The Blackhawks needed help from Dallas on the final day of the regular season to qualify for the playoffs, but after all the turnover the roster had undergone, qualifying for the postseason was still an achievement.

Chicago then nearly gave eventual Western Conference champion Vancouver more than it could handle in the opening round. The Blackhawks lost the first three games of the series before charging back to force a decisive seventh game, which they lost in overtime.

Last season proved how strong Chicago's excellent core group is and will continue to be for the next several years. Even with the club's depth gutted by salary issues guys like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith still made the Hawks a formidable team.

Bowman and the Blackhawks were able to open the checkbook this summer and they acquired some gritty role players. Those moves may not be enough to get Chicago another Stanley Cup this year, but the Blackhawks should challenge Detroit as favorites to win the Central Division.

FORWARDS - At just 23 years old, Toews has already captained his club to a Stanley Cup title and has established himself as one of the best leaders in the game.

Meanwhile, Kane, who is a few months younger than Toews, is one of the league's most explosive offensive weapons. Together they spell years of success for Chicago and nightmares for everybody else.

Toews led Chicago in points with a career-high 76 (32 goals, 44 assists), while Kane was first in assists (46) and second in points (73). Both players have the potential to be 100-point scorers and it wouldn't be shocking to see one of them reach the century mark this year.

With Toews and Kane holding the roles of center and right wing, respectively, on the top line, the Blackhawks are expected to give veteran forward and offseason signee Andrew Brunette a shot at left wing.

Brunette, 37, played the last three seasons in Minnesota and is a six-time 20- goal scorer. He tallied 18 goals with the Wild last year before inking a one- year, $2 million deal with Chicago this summer.

With Toews on the top unit and Sharp manning the middle on Line 2, Chicago boasts one of the league's best 1-2 centermen combinations. Sharp led the Blackhawks with 34 goals last year and is an excellent two-way player. He did undergo emergency appendectomy surgery on Sep. 12 and is expected to miss three-to-four weeks, meaning he might not be available for the season opener.

Sharp's linemate, Hossa, did not have a banner 2010-11 campaign, posting 25 goals and 32 assists in just 65 games. The Blackhawks would love the Slovakian sniper to approach the 40 goals he scored with Detroit in 2008-09 before signing a mammoth 12-year, $63 million with Chicago.

The 32-year-old Hossa also needs to find a way to stay healthy, having missed 43 regular-season games over his first two years in Chi-town.

Left winger Brian Bickell should round out the top-six forwards after tallying 17 goals and dishing out 20 assists in 78 games last season.

The third unit is expected to feature centerman Dave Bolland (15g, 22a in 2010-11) and left winger Viktor Stalberg (12g, 12a). Forward Michael Frolik, who was acquired last season in a trade with Florida will likely man the right win on the third line.

The Blackhawks added toughness up front with the signings of Daniel Carcillo and Jamal Mayers, who last year had 127 and 124 penalty minutes, respectively.

DEFENSE - Chicago boasts potentially one of the league's best top defensive pairings in Keith and Brent Seabrook, although the duo are in need of a bounce-back year.

Keith, 28, won the Norris Trophy in 2009-10 as the NHL's best defenseman, but saw his production dip last year. He had 14 goals, 69 points and a plus-21 rating two seasons ago, but had seven goals, 45 points and a minus-one rating in 2010-11.

Seabrook led the Chicago blue line in both goals (9) and assists (39), but his plus-minus dropped from plus-23 two seasons ago to an even-0 last year.

Expect the longer offseason to help both players have a more effective 2011-12 campaign.

Chicago dumped a big salary from its blue line in the offseason, shipping overpaid defenseman Brian Campbell to Florida. Campbell has five years left on a ridiculous eight-year, $56.8 million contract that was handed to him by Bowman's predecessor Dale Tallon, who just happens to be the current GM in Florida.

While Campbell isn't worth his outlandish $7.1 million-a-year salary, the Hawks still have to replace him and his nearly 23 minutes of ice time per night in the second pairing. Niklas Hjalmarsson will be in that unit and Campbell's replacement will be either Nick Leddy or offseason acquisition Steve Montador.

Leddy is just 20 years of age and he posted just four goals and three assists in 46 games as a rookie last year, so the veteran Montador is probably a safer bet to pair with Hjalmarsson on the second unit.

Montador, 31, had five goals and 21 assists in 73 games with Buffalo last season, while the 24-year-old Hjalmarsson, a stay-at-home blueliner, recorded three goals, seven assists and a plus-13 rating with the Hawks.

To match the moves to add toughness up front, the Blackhawks inked veteran Sean O'Donnell to a one-year deal. O'Donnell, who will turn 40 in October, had 18 points (1g, 17a) and 87 PIM in 81 games with Philadelphia last season.

GOALTENDING - It may have taken Corey Crawford a long time to develop into an full-time NHL goaltender, but the Blackhawks are sure glad they waited for that to happen.

Crawford, 26, was taken by Chicago with the 53rd overall pick in the 2003 draft and made his NHL debut way back in 2005-06. He entered last season with eight NHL appearances and was expected to serve primarily in a backup role to veteran backstop Marty Turco.

But, when it was obvious Turco wasn't panning out, the Blackhawks handed the reins over to Crawford and never looked back. Crawford is now the club's undisputed No. 1 netminder and Turco is still a free agent.

Crawford was named to the NHL's All-Rookie team in 2010-11 after going 33-18-6 with a 2.30 goals-against average and a .917 save percentage.

The role of Crawford's backup is still up in the air, as the unproven Alexander Salak and Ray Emery, who has been invited to Chicago's training camp, are still battling for that role.

Salak has just two games, and no starts, at the NHL level, while Emery, who spent last year in Anaheim, has 173 regular-season games and 36 playoff tilts under his belt.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - The Blackhawks have stars to burn up front, a pair of superb defensemen and a well-groomed goaltender about to enter his prime years. The club's depth is also much better than it was a year ago and that should make Joel Quenneville's job this year a bit easier. Chicago should be considered the favorite to win the Central Division over Detroit, and a deep postseason run could also be in the cards.