Puck Daddy NHL Season Preview 2011-12: Chicago Blackhawks

Puck Daddy

It's going to be another year of blockbusters and huge flops in the NHL. Which teams blew out their budgets for big name stars and gigantic special effects to score Michael Bay-levels of box office gold? Which teams are bloated action retreads and terrible sequels? Find out in Puck Daddy's 2011-12 NHL Season Previews, running throughout the month.

After a highly successful 2009-10 campaign in which the Chicago Blackhawks won that big, fancy trophy everyone seems to want, the Hawks followed up their Stanley Cup season with a less than vigorous defense of the chalice.

Looking disinterested and tired, they spent much of the season perched on the playoff bubble and, after losing to the Detroit Red Wings in game 82, needed a Dallas Stars loss to the Minnesota Wild in order to even qualify for the postseason. Thankfully, the Stars came through for them.

The Blackhawks then opened their first round series versus the Vancouver Canucks with the same lethargy they had opened the regular season, waking up after they had already spotted their archnemesis a 3-game lead. Though they stormed back, tying the series and sending the Game 7 into overtime, a Chris Campoli giveaway allowed Alex Burrows to walk in on Corey Crawford and end their season.

Truthfully, a lot of people blamed the Blackhawks' middling year on a Stanley Cup hangover, but it had more to do with the turnover they suffered in the offseason following their Cup victory. The Blackhawks effectively lost the entire bottom half of their lineup. It's tough to have your heart ripped out and not take a step backward.

The depth has been rebuilt, however, and the team looks ready to contend yet again.

Can the 2011-12 Chicago Blackhawks do what last year's team couldn't, and play like Stanley Cup champions?

Perhaps the most significant change is on defense, where Brian Campbell has been shipped to Florida for Rotislav Olesz and will likely be replaced in the top four by the rugged Steve Montador.

The acquisition of toughness -- such as that of Montador -- was a major offseason focus, as Chicago added gritty forwards Dan Carcillo and Jamal Mayers, as well as tough blueliner Sean O'Donnell. Rounding out their additions are depth players Sami Lepisto and Andrew Brunette.

Gone from the forward corps are Troy Brouwer, traded to the Washington Capitals for a 1st round pick, Tomas Kopecky, who joined Brian Campbell in Florida, and Jake Dowell, who signed with the Dallas Stars. Ryan Johnson and Fernando Pisani, stopgap fourth-line measures that didn't work out, weren't tendered contracts.

Neither were defensemen Jordan Hendry and Chris Campoli, the latter rejected after an arbitration hearing, either after Stan Bowman disagreed with the arbitrator's award or after remembering Campoli cost the Hawks a trip to the second round.

Goaltender Marty Turco was also not invited back. Instead, the backup role will go to either Alexander Salak or Ray Emery, who will be attending training camp on a tryout contract.

At forward, this team will continue to be led by captain Jonathan Toews, who put up a career-high 76 points last year, and running mate/chronic mouthguard chewer Patrick Kane, whose skill is such that a 73-point season in 2010-11 was a big disappointment. They'll carry the scoring load for this team. A combined 160 points from the duo isn't an unrealistic expectation.

Their backup is stellar. Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp make up two-thirds of a potent second-line, and third line pivot Dave "The Rat" Bolland is quickly emerging as one of the league's best two-way centres. Three years ago, he put up 47 points in 81 games, but injuries have prevented him from improving on that. A healthy season could allow Bolland to reach 50 points for the first time in his career, a feat that might garner him some of the Selke chatter he already deserves.

On defense, the Blackhawks boast one of the league's most effective pairings, with offensive dynamo Duncan Keith and the heavy-hitting Brent Seabrook. The new pairing of Niklas Hjalmarsson and the vastly underrated Steve Montador could be Keith & Seabrook lite.

Prospect Nick Leddy showed flashes last season, and could be the third-string offensive d-man the Blackhawks need to prevent their opponents from seeing any time off from Chicago's breakneck, puck-moving system.

Corey Crawford returns in goal, having inked a three-year, $8 million contract extension. While he split the load last season with Marcy Turco, starting only 55 games, he'll be the number one guy from day one this time around, and should finish with well over 60 appearances.

"Back to the Future Part III." After following up an absolute classic with a bit of a stinker, the Blackhawks, like Marty McFly, have some unfinished business to attend to in the Wild West. Also, both have beefed up their cast -- Steve Montador is the Blackhawks' Mary Steenburgen.

Joel Quenneville enters his fourth season as the man behind the moustache behind the bench. He's a wise and experienced coach whose system perfectly suits the guys he's got. He's also the editor of The Daily Bugle.

GM Stan Bowman was dealt a tough hand when he took over a Chicago team whose contracts and bonuses put them well over the cap last offseason. Still, he's shown some real savvy, establishing and locking up his core while stocking up on prospects and moving problem contracts like Brian Campbell's. He's reopened Chicago's window in a big way.

Bryan Bickell debuted for the Blackhawks in the 2006-07 season, but last year was the first time he spent the entire year in Chicago. He posted 17 goals and 20 assists over the 2010-11 campaign, improving on his AHL totals from the year prior, and showing a lot of promise as an NHL-quality power forward.

Joel Quenneville likes to play Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews with big bodies, and with Troy Brouwer and Tomas Kopecky moved on, Bickell will have plenty of opportunity to be the new muscle on Chicago's first line.

"The man that you call Dave Bolland, I once knew as Socrates."

Andrew Brunette was a smart depth signing. Brunette has played no fewer than 80 games in each of the last 9 years, and he's averaged 58 points a season over that span. Stan Bowman is banking on the veteran rounding out his top nine.

But, at 37, Brunette's career may be on a downturn. His 46 points in 2010-11 were his lowest season total since 2002-03. Couple a statistical regression with the fact that he won't get the plum minutes he became accustomed to in Minnesota -- Chicago's a much deeper team -- and you have a recipe for a potential bust.

Still not quite 100% after returning from a concussion, Dave Bolland was pretty upset about this hit by Dan Hamhuis. But you really can't draw up a response better than what transpires above. How much do you think Bolland paid Cory Schneider to make that pass?

For the second season in a row, the Hawks have retooled their depth and, in order for things to work, it needs to mesh in a hurry. It might not. But, that aside, much of the Hawks' success this season rests in the capable hands of Blackhawks' offensive engine Duncan Keith. The year he won the Norris trophy, Chicago won the Stanley Cup. Last year, however, Keith took a step backward and the team followed suit.

With Brian Campbell departed to Florida, the Blackhawks will have to rely on Keith to power their uptempo style even more. A return to Norris-level form is assumed, but it's also a necessity. If he can't get back to the elite level of two years ago, the Blackhawks will struggle similarly, and they'll find themselves back in the Western Conference's second tier.

The 2010-11 Blackhawks weren't as bad as their record indicated, and they've gotten better. With added depth and toughness, and free of the Stanley Cup hangover (and the questionable goaltending of Marty Turco), don't expect Chicago to have to back into the playoffs again this season. They'll be right at the top of the conference all year.

Harrison Mooney is also the co-editor of Pass it to Bulis.

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