Central Division 2014-15 Preview: Chicago Blackhawks
COACH: Joel Quenneville
2013-14 RECORD: 46-21-15, 107 points (third in Central; lost to Kings, 4-3, in conference final)
VITAL SIGHS: 3.18 goals per game (2nd); goals-against per game (2.58); 19.5 power play pct. (10th); 81.4 penalty kill pct. (19th); shootout record: 6-8 (17th)
NOTABLE ARRIVALS: C Brad Richards
NOTABLE DEPARTURES: LW Brandon Bollig, G Nikolai Khabibulin, D Nick Leddy
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
Peter Regin — Jeremy Morin
OUTLOOK: The playoffs exposed a serious hole in the Blackhawks' deep offense: Michal Handzus was simply no longer equipped to be a second-line center in such a high-octane offense. After allowing Handzus to walk via free agency, Chicago hopes the signing of veteran Brad Richards, 34, who was bought out by the Rangers after a disappointing three-season tenure, will provide an upgrade. Slotting between Brandon Saad and Patrick Kane, he could complete a second act that will help alleviate the pressure on the first line while unleashing Kane's full offensive potential. (Kane's initial impression of playing with Richards was positive.) If so, consider the hole plugged and the rest of the league on notice as the Blackhawks are determined to erase the bitter taste of their Game 7 OT loss to Los Angeles in the conference final that deprived them of a shot at third Stanley Cup since 2010. There are other questions—will Corey Crawford bounce back from an up-and-down year?; will GM Stan Bowman pull off a trade to get the Hawks under the cap without weakening his defense or forward corps? — that must be answered, but the Blackhawks remain the class of the division.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Bryan Bickell
The big power forward cashed in on his 2013 playoffs (17 points in 23 games) with a four-tear, $16 million extension, and then suffered through injuries and inconsistency last season (15 points in 59 games). He came around once again in the postseason, scoring seven goals and racking up 80 hits in 19 games. While maintaining that pace would be a stretch over a full season, a 20-goal, 40-point campaign with 200 or so hits would go a long way towards making his big contract more palatable.
PREDICTION: 108 points; first in Central