Role Players Who Must Step Up for Chicago Blackhawks When the NHL Returns

Steve Silverman@@profootballboyFeatured ColumnistFebruary 26, 2014

Role Players Who Must Step Up for Chicago Blackhawks When the NHL Returns

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    Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

    The Chicago Blackhawks sent 10 of their players to Sochi to participate in the Olympic Games.

    That speaks volumes about the talent level that general manager Stan Bowman has provided head coach Joel Quenneville to work with on an every-game basis.

    However, in the first few games following the Sochi experience, it may be hard for key Olympians like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith, Patrick Kane, Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson to get back to speed right away.

    The Blackhawks resume regular-season play at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers Feb. 27 and then host the Pittsburgh Penguins Mar. 1 in a Stadium Series game at Soldier Field.

    While the key Olympians get their NHL bearings back, the Blackhawks will depend on some of their role players to step up and increase their production in the first few games following the break.

Brandon Saad

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    Norm Hall/Getty Images

    Brandon Saad may fit the definition of a role player for this feature—he did not get invited to play for the U.S. team in Sochi—but he is a young player who is clearly on the rise.

    Saad may eventually become an All-Star because he is a dynamic skater who plays the game hard on a night-in, night-out basis, and that has allowed him to make a rapid improvement.

    Saad has already scored 18 goals and 22 assists, and his 40 points in 60 games has made him one of Quenneville's most dependable players. The second-year left winger from Pittsburgh will go into the corners and win puck battles, and he also has the finesse to score with his accurate shot or make near-perfect passes.

    Look for him to be fully involved as the Blackhawks' Olympic core gets its legs back in the first few games following the break. Saad wants to develop into one of the team's most dependable players, and he will have an excellent chance to demonstrate his leadership down the home stretch of the regular season.

Andrew Shaw

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    Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

    It was Andrew Shaw who gave Blackhawks fans and teammates his famous quote of "I love shin pads" (23-second mark) during last June's Stanley Cup Final against the Boston Bruins.

    When Michal Rozsival's shot deflected off his lower-leg protectors and by Tuukka Rask in the third overtime, the Blackhawks had a win in the first game of the series, and those were the words that came out of Shaw's mouth as he celebrated with his teammates.

    That's the kind of hard, gritty work that Shaw regularly does for the Blackhawks. It's not always going to result in a game-winning overtime goal, but it helps set a tone for the team. Shaw will go into the hard, dirty areas, and while he may come out with sore shins or a bloody nose, he will make the physically demanding plays.

    Shaw has scored 14 goals and 12 assists for the Blackahawks this season and is averaging 15:16 of ice time. Quenneville knows that Shaw will make occasional mistakes, but he never comes with anything but a full effort.

Bryan Bickell

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    Bryan Bickell was one of the heroes of last year's Stanley Cup run for the Blackhawks. He scored nine goals in last year's postseason, and none was bigger than the game-tying goal (above) he scored in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Boston Bruins.

    Bickell was rewarded with a four-year, $16 million contract shortly after the playoffs concluded, and it's clear that the Blackhawks were expecting a lot more from him than he has delivered this year.

    Bickell has put up just eight goals and two assists in 43 games this year and has been frequently benched or held to just a modicum of minutes by Quenneville. Bickell is averaging 11:21 of ice time per game.

    While Quenneville said that he thought Bickell was doing a bit better in the games leading up to the Olympic break, last year's hero must find a way to get back on track quickly once NHL games resume.

Brent Seabrook

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    Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    Brent Seabrook is not merely a role player. He is one of the Blackhawks' best big-play performers on the blue line, and a good argument can be made that he should have been selected to play on the Canadian Olympic team.

    However, he was not, and it had to hurt. Seabrook was a member of the 2010 Olympic team that won gold in Vancouver, and it had to sting to watch his countrymen win another gold without him.

    But that's life in the NHL. Some players make the cut and others don't, but the sun rises again, and everyone is expected to perform at their best regardless of hurt feelings.

    Quenneville needs Seabrook to be at his best just in case Keith is not prepared to play his usual allotment of minutes or he is not at the top of his game.

    Seabrook has one of the best shots of any defensemen in the NHL, and he is a good passer. He plays a standout defensive game and excels at getting in the way of passes and shots in the defensive zone when it matters most.

    Seabrook has six goals and 28 assists thus far in 2013-14 and is averaging 21:54 of ice time. He must continue to play to his high standards—or better—until his Olympic mates are at their best.

Corey Crawford

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    Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

    Corey Crawford can dream about how nice it would have been to win a Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal within months of each other.

    However, it's not reality since Crawford was not one of the three Canadian goalies named to the Olympic squad. Many criticized the Canadian choices at the goaltender position—Carey Price of Montreal, Roberto Luongo of Vancouver and Mike Smith of Phoenix—but Price was superb as the No. 1 goalie, and there was no on-ice controversy.

    The numbers say that Crawford has been having a good year: 22-9-10, 2.35 goals-against average, .916 save percentage and one shutout.

    Those are decent numbers, but Crawford showed last spring that he can do much better. He tends to give up one ordinary goal nearly every game, and the Blackhawks need him to play shutdown hockey in the games after the break and down the stretch if they are going to win the Stanley Cup again in the spring.