The Biggest Question for Each Chicago Blackhawks Star in 2014-15
It may all be about winning the Stanley Cup, but if the Chicago Blackhawks want to get back to the top of the mountain for the third time in six years, their superstars will need to produce at a high level.
Joel Quenneville's team is fortunate, because it has a number of players who can seize the leadership role with their talent and drive.
In this piece, we look at five of the biggest superstars on the team and the biggest question each one faces heading into the 2014-15 season.
Can Jonathan Toews Make a Legitimate Run at the Hart Trophy?
Jonathan Toews is the unabashed leader of the Blackhawks, and he has more than fulfilled the expectations of ownership and team management.
General manager Stan Bowman demonstrated the team's satisfaction when he gave Toews (along with running mate Patrick Kane) an $84 million contract extension that will kick in at the start of the 2015-16 season.
Toews, 26, has proven to be a skilled and opportunistic offensive player, while maintaining the highest levels of efficiency in the faceoff circle and the defensive zone.
When it comes to all-around play, Toews is one of the best performers in the league. Many observers consider him the near equal of Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby, who came away with the Hart Trophy as the NHL's MVP last season.
Since Toews is such a strong all-around player—28 goals, 40 assists, plus-26 rating and 59.3 Corsi figure, courtesy of ExtraSkater.com—is this the year he can become a serious Hart Trophy candidate?
It will not be easy for Toews because he has not put up gaudy scoring totals through his first seven seasons. He achieved his career high in goals (32) in 2008-09 and points (76) in 2010-11. He may need to score 35 goals and 90 points to be taken seriously as a Hart Trophy candidate.
Toews has the kind of skills that could bring him to that level. However, his best attribute may be the drive he brings to the ice on an every-night basis. He is in the prime of his career, and it would be a surprise if he does not come away with the Hart Trophy at least once before he hangs up his skates.
Will Patrick Kane Dazzle in the Regular Season?
Patrick Kane is one of the NHL's most thrilling playoff performers over the last decade or longer.
Kane has a propensity for scoring in the playoffs, and his own personal specialty is scoring the overtime goals that knock opponents out of the postseason.
When he did it in 2010 against the Philadelphia Flyers in the Stanley Cup Final, it gave the Blackhawks their first Stanley Cup in 49 years. He scored the knockout OT goal versus the Los Angeles Kings in 2013 (Western Conference Final), and he did it again this year when the Blackhawks eliminated the Minnesota Wild in the Western Conference Semifinal playoff meeting.
Kane accelerates his game in the playoffs, and he flashes his talent at times during the regular season. However, he is not as consistent over the 82-game schedule as he could be.
Kane has never scored more than 30 goals in a season, and he has only reached that total once. With his quickness, moves, dexterity and shooting accuracy, there's no reason Kane could not surpass 35 or even 40 goals in a regular season.
Nobody associated with the team would want to sacrifice Kane's postseason productivity for increased scoring totals in the regular season, but it's clearly not a case of one or the other. With a slightly greater effort in the regular season, Kane could be a first- or second-team All-Star.
The 2014-15 season would be a great year for Kane to make that happen.
Is Marian Hossa Still Capable of Producing in Big Games?
Marian Hossa has been a huge difference-maker throughout his career.
He has demonstrated the rare combination of size, strength, skill and skating ability that allows him to take over games and become the dominant player on the ice.
Hossa, 35, did not appear to concede much to wear and tear or age last year, as he scored 30 goals and 30 assists in the regular season and had a plus-28 rating along with a 57.8 Corsi figure, per ExtraSkater.com.
However, Hossa was often the picture of frustration during the postseason. He was held to two goals in 19 postseason games. While there was little doubt about his effort, and he made other contributions as evidenced by his 12 assists, he had a difficult time finishing off scoring opportunities.
The Blackhawks may not find out exactly how much he is capable of providing until next season's playoffs. His production in the regular season was fine, but he had a hard time getting the job done when the intensity was ratcheted up in the postseason.
Hossa is going to have to answer the question of whether he is a player in decline or can shake off his frustrations in the 2014 playoffs.
Is Duncan Keith the Dominant Defenseman in the NHL?
Duncan Keith is no stranger to the NHL's most important awards. He picked up the Norris Trophy as the league's best defenseman last month in Las Vegas.
If you're not keeping score at home, that's the second time Keith has won that award. The competition has been quite formidable, as he has beaten out the likes of Boston's Zdeno Chara, the Kings' Drew Doughty, Minnesota's Ryan Suter, Nashville's Shea Weber, Ottawa's Erik Karlsson and Montreal's P.K. Subban.
Keith, 31, has all the skills that many of the top defensemen in the history of the game have demonstrated. He is a brilliant skater, as he has speed, quickness and agility. He's got a bomb of a shot, and he can control play from the point.
He is a willing hitter and shot-blocker. He has shown his courage by getting in front of some brutal blasts that have cost him his teeth.
What appears to separate Keith from his peers is his complete game. All of the other defensemen have one weakness or another. Keith does not have any blemishes.
Since that's the case, the question is whether Keith can string together Norris Trophies the way former Detroit Red Wings superstar Nicklas Lidstrom did. Lidstrom won seven Norris Trophies overall, and all of them came after he reached age 30.
As good as Keith is, he may not have the all-around talent that Lidstrom demonstrated throughout his career. However, he is the best defenseman in the league, and he should be in contention for the Norris at least two or three more times in his career.
Will Patrick Sharp Remain with the Blackhawks?
The Blackhawks will have to make some moves with their roster if they are going to get below the league's $69 million salary cap for the 2014-15 season.
Right now, the Blackhawks are scheduled to pay $71.2 million in salaries that are impacted by the cap, according to CapGeek.com They are not the only team currently over the cap number—there are three others—so they have to make moves that will get them below the salary cap.
Patrick Sharp is one of the team's best players and a legitimate superstar. He played for Canada in the 2014 Olympics, and he has scored 33 or more goals in each of the last three complete (non-lockout) NHL seasons. Sharp is scheduled to earn $5.9 million in salary this season.
Sharp's name came up last month in a report by Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times when the Blackhawks appeared to be in the running for Ryan Kesler, who was ultimately traded by the Vancouver Canucks to the Anaheim Ducks.
It's possible that Bowman could work out a trade for the high-priced winger to get the Blackhawks under the salary cap.