The Chicago Blackhawks come into the 2013 season looking very much like a re-energized team.
With training camp already underway, the Blackhawks are trying to fix some loose ends that may have cost them in last year's playoff run.
Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook need to up their defensive contributions in order to help the team drudge through a 48-game season. Corey Crawford and Ray Emery must perform better in net if they want to have a long playoff run.
The Blackhawks will also have to answer questions on which players to bring up from the Rockford IceHogs.
On top of which, the team is still struggling to find a legitimate second-line center—will the 'Hawks finally answer this question?
General manager Stan Bowman and coach Joel Quenneville will have a lot of say in who stays and who goes. Let's just hope that the right decisions are made before the season starts on January 19.
These are the five biggest questions in 2013 training camp:
Second-line center has been a issue for the Blackhawks as far back as the Dale Tallon days.
Numerous players have been worked into the position, often failing and leaving a gaping whole for defense and faceoffs.
Patrick Kane was put into the role earlier last season. The Blackhawks had hoped that he would transition into a better two-way forward similar to Jonathan Toews. The experiment didn't pan out, all they got was a less-offensive Kane.
Marcus Kruger accepted most of the second-line responsibility throughout last season. But again, expectations led to letdowns and the Blackhawks were still scratching their heads for an answer.
Enter Dave Bolland.
While it may not pop up at first, Bolland may just be the answer to the Blackhawks' second-line center problem.
He's proven himself as one of the most underrated shutdown centers on the Blackhawks' third line, winning faceoffs and making great passes.
But what's really intriguing about Bolland is his offensive potential.
Before joining the Blackhawks, Bolland was a point producer for the London Knights of the OHL. His final season with the Knights saw him put up 130 points in 59 games—pretty good for just a shutdown center.
"I like the balance that that line shows and the upside offensively that they all bring," Quenneville said. "Bolland offensively has some skill and you could argue that every team in the league, Bolland could be their second-line center."
Brandon Saad has a world of potential that one day may benefit the Blackhawks in numerous ways.
The only question is, will it be sooner rather than later? Saad was recalled by the Blackhawks but is not expected to be in the lineup once the regular season starts.
Talks are (via ESPNChicago) that the Blackhawks are content with the roster they have on the ice right now—with Andrew Shaw, Brandon Bollig, Bryan Bickell and possibly even Jimmy Hayes being the only forwards considered to stay in the lineup.
But Saad should get his shot to come back onto the Blackhawks' roster pretty soon.
He has been on fire as of late down in the AHL, nabbing AHL Player of the Week on Monday. His play cannot be ignored for long, especially if he keeps contributing like he did this past week.
But therein lies the problem; the Blackhawks' lineup is already full of guys that have tremendous potential. The only difference between those players and Saad is that they have more NHL experience.
He will get his chances, but it's unlikely to come at the start of the 2013 season.
In a shortened 48-game NHL season, points become twice as important to make it into the playoffs.
That's why coach Quenneville believes a team's playoff fate can be determined by shootouts this season (via Scott Powers of ESPN):
We were looking at our numbers the last couple of days about shootouts, and we really think the importance of shootouts this year is going to be tremendous. And it's going to make the difference in making the playoffs, winning a division, moving up in the seeding. It's going to be that close.
Love it or hate it, Quenneville is spot on that shootouts will take center stage in a season that is already shaping up to be abnormal.
This should be an advantage for the 'Hawks, who have some of the best hands and shooters in the NHL. Skill combined with showmanship are all it takes to best a goaltender in a shootout.
Training camp will run the usual power play and penalty-kill drills, but shootout drills will now probably get equal time.
Considering how many one-goal games the Blackhawks played in last season, preparing for overtime and shootouts is the smart thing to do in the little time they have available.
Corey Crawford and Ray Emery will be back in net for the Blackhawks for at least one more season.
This could be a good thing or bad depending on how many soft goals the two give up combined. Let's be honest, it's the soft goals that killed the Blackhawks in the playoffs.
The real question during training camp is which goalie will be pegged with the No. 1 job?
The natural choice would be Crawford, as he played in a majority of the games last season even when he was shaky.
But what if Crawford is still shaken by his performance in last season's playoffs? Emery could easily win over the No. 1 spot if he remains consistent.
Regardless of who is named the starter, the Blackhawks will likely switch out the two goaltenders thanks to a shortened season. Back-to-back games will become normal for this team and the two goalies will have to be rotated.
Emery said that he will be ready regardless of who lands the No. 1 starting role (via Chris Kuc of The Chicago Tribune):
Depth at any position in a schedule when there are 48 games in 99 days is a good thing. You don't know what your role is going to be, but when called upon you just have to make sure you're ready. You always want to play as much as you can, but that's a coach's decision and my job is just to be ready when I get the opportunity.
The two biggest superstars on the Blackhawks also had some of the biggest health concerns entering last year's offseason.
Both Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa had lingering symptoms from concussions that were sustained from last season. But both said they are 100 percent ready to go when the season starts on January 19 (ESPN Chicago).
Regardless if both players are fully healthy and have passed their physicals leading up to this season, the Blackhawks must be cautious.
In such a short season, injuries are bound to pile up for every NHL team. A lot of that stems from fatigue and cheap hits, ones that could send star players off the ice for the remainder of the year.
Things have been positive in training camp for Toews and Hossa. Both players look like their former selves, ready to play the game and forget about the lockout.
Let's just hope it remains this way for the rest of the season.
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