Predicting the Chicago Blackhawks' Most Improved Players for the 2014-15 Season
The team is loaded with superstar talent, but general manager Stan Bowman and head coach Joel Quenneville know it's not enough to depend on Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Marian Hossa for everything.
The team needs productivity from all levels, and that means its role players must step up and improve. It's impossible for a team to stay on top by remaining stagnant.
The Blackhawks have a handful of players who they can expect improvement from in 2014-15. Included in this is a young player with star potential who has already asserted himself, but he has plenty of room to grow.
Here's a look at four players who should be Chicago's most improved players next season.
Left Wing Brandon Saad
2013-14 stats: 19 goals, 28 assists, 47 points, +20
Why he will improve: Brandon Saad is a 21-year-old player who may be on the verge of stardom. He already has two seasons of NHL experience under his belt, and he showed quite a bit of improvement in his second year.
Saad is an excellent skater who has the stick-handling, playmaking and shooting skills to become a star. He has found his stride with the Blackhawks, and he has the confidence to grow into one of the team's most dependable players.
Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman believes Saad has a lot of room to grow.
"We certainly haven’t seen the best of Brandon Saad yet," Bowman told CSNChicago.com's Tracey Myers. "He had a great season, and I would expect he would be one of the players who take an even bigger step next year in terms of a bigger role and asserting himself as a top player in the league.”
2014-15 predicted stats: 25 goals, 33 assists, 58 points, +25
Left Wing Bryan Bickell
2013-14 stats: 11 goals, 4 assists, 15 points, -6
Why he will improve: This will not be an easy or comfortable regular season for Bryan Bickell. He has demonstrated that he can assert himself in the postseason two years in a row, but he has not been able to maintain a decent level of productivity in the regular season. It is very unlikely that Quenneville will put up with another unproductive season.
He benched Bickell last January for his ineffective play.
"He needs to be physically involved in his game, more direct in his play and stronger on the puck," Quenneville told ESPNChicago.com's Scott Powers at the time.
He saw Bickell score nine goals and eight assists in the 2013 playoffs, and he followed that with seven goals and three assists in the 2014 postseason. At 6'4" and 233 pounds, Bickell has the size and strength to dominate physically and the skills to be an asset on the scoreboard. It all comes together for Bickell this season.
2014-15 predicted stats: 22 goals, 20 goals, 42 points, +11
Defenseman Nick Leddy
2013-14 stats: 7 goals, 24 assists, 31 points, +10
Why he will improve: Nick Leddy is preparing to play his fifth season with the Blackhawks, and this should be the year he comes into his own. Leddy, 23, has all the tools needed to be a solid top-four defenseman in the NHL. He is an excellent skater, knows how to handle the puck and can fire a rocket shot from the point.
Defenseman Johnny Oduya said during the playoffs that Leddy's best hockey is still in front of him.
“I think he has a bright future," Oduya told Tom Musick of the Northwest Herald. "It’s one more step for him to take to get to that elite level, but it’s something that he can do, guaranteed.”
Leddy has flashed his talent in his first four seasons, but he has failed to play with consistency. Quenneville has called him on his mistakes, and he has appeared to be in the coach's doghouse at times. That comes to an end this season as Leddy calms down and steps up.
2014-15 predicted stats: 10 goals, 28 assists, 38 points, +18
RW Ben Smith
2013-14 stats: 14 goals, 12 assists, 26 points, +3
Why he will improve: Anyone who watched the effort that Ben Smith displayed on an every-game basis in the postseason (four goals, two assists, 15:44 ice time per game) knows that he stepped up in a big way and is ready to graduate to a regular shift with the Blackhawks.
Smith earned rave reviews from his teammates for his performance in key games.
"Smitty's been unbelievable for us this year, throughout the whole season," defenseman Brent Seabrook told ESPN The Magazine's Craig Custance during the postseason. "He's been huge in different aspects, killing penalties, standing in front of the net on the power play when needed, doing all the little things that you need players to do to win."
Smith is not a star and it's unlikely he will ever develop into one, but he is a tough, hard-nosed player who can kill penalties, win battles in the dirty areas and score clutch goals. The Blackhawks had confidence when Smith was sent on the ice in the postseason, and he will fill a key role this season.
2014-15 predicted stats: 18 goals, 19 assists, 37 points, +10