The Chicago Blackhawks are the defending Stanley Cup champions and almost all of their most important players are returning. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp will all be on the ice trying to win back-to-back Cups, and as a huge plus, general manager Stan Bowman didn't have to trade the entire third line during the offseason to stay under the cap.
Few teams boast the same level of depth as Chicago, which means that coach Joel Quenneville has a lot of options when it comes to line shuffling. It's quite a luxury to be able to use Kane and Toews on the same line without sacrificing quality scoring on the second line.
Then again, when Sharp is joined on the second line by Marian Hossa, filling the nets is never going to be a problem.
This is how we see Chicago's roster shaking down for opening night on Oct. 1 against Washington. Injuries and outstanding camp performances could change things, but as it stands right now these predictions are our best guesses.
All statistics appear courtesy of Hockeydb.com unless otherwise noted.
Center: Michal Handzus
Left Wing: Brandon Bollig
Right Wing: Ben Smith
All three of the forwards on this line weigh in at more than 200 pounds. The size and skill here is outstanding for a fourth line. Handzus is a guy who can play a top-six role if injuries or consistency problems strike, but in this setup he's an above-average bottom-six center who can screen goaltenders and bang in juicy rebounds.
Bollig is no stranger to crashing and banging and is capable of winning board battles, while Smith could get his first chance to be a full-time NHLer this year. He's the trigger man on this line and would see some extra time and space because of Handzus and Bollig raising hell down low.
While the size here is phenomenal, the speed is below average. Handzus, in particular, can be a detriment if he's caught up ice, and more talented first or second lines could end up skating circles around them.
When Chicago is at home and has the last change, this wouldn't be as big of a problem. Opportunistic coaches who don't mind double-shifting their first or second line could end up with a favorable matchup—both talent- and speed-wise—if this line doesn't have its legs going on a particular evening.
Center: Brandon Saad
Left Wing: Andrew Shaw
Right Wing: Jimmy Hayes
With Saad getting a look at centering the second line, there's a chance that Chicago likes him enough down the middle to allow him to anchor the third line. It'd be a bit of a step down for a youngster who wasn't out of place while playing in the top six at times over the last year, but this trio could do some real damage.
Hayes has to make the team out of camp—he's been impressive so far, according to the Chicago Tribune—and Saad needs to prove he can hack it as an NHL pivot, but if the stars align this could be one of the best third lines in the NHL.
The finish here is undeniable. Shaw scored nine goals last season and is a master agitator at this stage of his young career. Saad scored 10 goals in 2013, while Hayes lit the lamp 25 times in 67 AHL contests.
This group has the defensive acumen to play a shutdown role, and the offensive capability to make teams pay for any mistakes they make in the neutral or defensive zone. What's not to like?
While there's no question that all three of these kids can play, there isn't a whole lot of experience here. Due to the 2013 year being lockout-shortened, none of these players has actually played an entire season in the NHL.
They all have less than 50 games worth of experience, and that could cost the Hawks as Shaw, Saad and Hayes continue to learn what it takes to be professional players on a nightly basis.
Center: Brandon Pirri
Left Wing: Patrick Sharp
Right Wing: Marian Hossa
This is where things get interesting for Chicago, as for the second season in a row there's a question as to who will fill the No. 2 center position. While Brandon Saad will be given a shot at landing the gig, our money is on AHL scoring champ Brandon Pirri coming down with the spot out of camp.
Through four seasons of development in the AHL, Pirri has added a defensive element to his game that will allow him to put up some monstrously positive turnover numbers alongside Hossa—who may be the most underrated two-way player in the NHL.
Sharp is right at home here and will look to return to his 30-goal form after having a rough year in 2013.
Overall the talent here is above average, even for a second line. Hossa and Sharp could be first-liners on half the teams in the NHL, and it's embarrassing that the Hawks can recruit from within and promote an AHL scoring champion to center their second line this year.
While there's a lot of talent to be shared among these three players, there's also fear of the injury bug spreading. Hossa missed eight games due to injury last season, while Sharp had his year derailed by an upper-body injury.
While out on the ice, the duo is capable of racking up outstanding goal totals. The tendency has been for one or the other to be watching from above the ice while on the mend though, and that could be the downfall of this otherwise outstanding trio of players.
Center: Jonathan Toews
Left Wing: Bryan Bickell
Right Wing: Patrick Kane
The Hawks showed that they believed Bickell to be a top-line player when they signed him to a four-year, $16 million contract over the summer. It took some roster shuffling to make it work, but in Bickell, Chicago has a power forward to place on its top line along the shifty Kane and the responsible Toews.
You get the best of all three approaches to the game here. Bickell can wreak havoc below the hash marks and in front of the net as he uses his body to create separation from defenders. Kane can be impossible to stop once he gets his legs and stick going, and Toews is one of the most steady contributors in the NHL.
Put them out on the ice together and you have a line that is tough to shut down because of the variety with which it can attack.
Name your game: Chicago's top line can hang in every conceivable scenario.
Bickell scored nine goals through 48 games played in 2013. Not bad considering he was a depth guy at that point, but not outstanding either. He was re-signed largely on the back of his nine-goal, eight-assist playoff run.
That eruption came after he was united with Toews and Kane, and while it's likely the the trio can continue to be borderline unstoppable, Bickell is really the only question mark. Kane would have had his best season yet had 2013 been a full-length campaign, and Toews has morphed into an outstanding two-way player over the last few years.
Bickell needs to bring his A-game night in and night out and not overthink things because of his new deal.