Chicago Blackhawks Who Must Prove Themselves Early in 2014-15 Season
The Chicago Blackhawks are in a position that is far more fortunate than most teams. They have an array of star players who have produced consistently and given the team a strong base.
Head coach Joel Quenneville knows that Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Duncan Keith are the leaders who have the ability to keep the team at a high level. But Quenneville and the Blackhawks are not interested in merely maintaining.
The goal is to get better. If that is going to happen, all players have to raise their level of play on a consistent basis. However, there are five players in particular that have something to prove in the 2014-15 season. In this piece, we look at those five players.
Defenseman Nick Leddy
2013-14 stats: 82 games, 7 goals, 24 assists, 34 points, plus-10
Needs to prove: Overall consistency
Nobody is blaming Nick Leddy because Alec Martinez's overtime goal in the seventh game of the Western Conference Final glanced off of his shoulder before it careened past Corey Crawford and into the net for the decisive goal in the series. Leddy was victimized by bad luck on that play.
However, the Blackhawks would like to see more consistency and fewer mistakes from Leddy. The 23-year-old is a talented performer who can carry the puck and create plays. He has shown the ability to score and set up his teammates. However, Leddy's propensity for mistakes has hurt him and the team in the past.
When Quenneville benched Leddy in Game 3 of the conference semifinal series against the Minnesota Wild, the coach told Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times he needed to see more speed from the defenseman.
If the Blackhawks are going to make changes to their blue line because of salary-cap issues, it seems likely that the team will ask more of Leddy. It's time that he fulfills all his promise and plays with the consistency that the Blackhawks have patiently been waiting on.
Left Wing Brandon Saad
2013-14 stats: 78 games, 19 goals, 28 assists, 47 points, plus-20
Needs to prove: Star power
Brandon Saad has proven to be one of the best young players in the NHL as he gets ready for his third full season with the Blackhawks. However, Saad has such strong tools and a bright future that more is expected from such a talented player.
Saad, 21, is an excellent skater who has shown he can take over and make key plays. However, he has just scratched the surface. Saad has a star's talent, and he should be able to elevate his game this season and prove he can play with the likes of Toews, Kane, Sharp and Hossa.
He may not be a superstar, but he appears to be just a notch below that level. When he turns on the jets, he is capable of making some of the best defensemen in the game look foolish. He also has shown the heart and desire to go into the corners or to the front of the net and eat an elbow so he can make plays.
Saad stood out with a goal and two assists in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final. Quenneville told Brian Hedger of NHL.com how impressed he was with Saad's contribution.
"He was amazing last night," Quenneville said. "I thought he's had some games like that over the course of the season, when he takes it to a different level."
Right Wing Ben Smith
2013-14 stats: 75 games, 14 goals, 12 assists, 26 points, plus-3
Needs to prove: Build off of his playoff showing
Ben Smith did enough last year that head coach Joel Quenneville had enough confidence in him to give him 15 minutes of ice time per night in the playoffs.
Many of those minutes came at the most crucial times, as Quenneville did not hesitate to play him late in the final period when the Blackhawks were either up or down by a goal or tied.
Smith should have every opportunity to prove that he can play 15 to 18 minutes per game this year, which would be up considerably from the 12:44 he averaged last year.
Smith, 25, is not an All-Star type of player, however he just does a professional job of skating, checking, defending and competing hard for every loose puck. He should flow seamlessly into a bigger role with the team, as long as he has the confidence to know that he belongs there.
Smith told Nina Falcone of CSNChicago.com that he is depending on his work ethic to take him further in his hockey career. "I'll always have that compete level, that hard work that got me to this point, but there's always room for improvement and I'm excited to see how next year can go," he said.
Left Wing Bryan Bickell
2013-14 stats: 59 games, 11 goals, 4 assists, 15 points, minus-6
Needs to prove: That he will play with maximum effort every night
Nobody gets to the NHL if he is going to relax or waltz through games. That's especially true of a player like Bryan Bickell, who has size, strength, a solid wrist shot and just decent skating ability.
When Bickell was progressing up the ladder through the junior ranks and the American Hockey League, nobody envisioned him as a game-changing player who would light up the scoreboard with an array of scintillating moves. He made the Blackhawks prior to the 2010-11 season because of his hard work and toughness.
Since that time, Bickell has had some brilliant moments. He has made huge contributions in each of the last two playoff seasons, as he scored nine goals and eight assists when the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2013 and had seven goals and three assists in the 2014 postseason.
It's far too simplistic to say that Bickell merely turns it on at playoff time, even though the numbers suggest that's just what has happened. But it is not too simplistic to say that Bickell needs to find a way to play more consistently and productively in the regular season.
Bickell acknowledged to ESPNChicago.com's Scott Powers that he needs to be in better shape during the regular season. "I think this is a big summer for me to get in shape and to be more of a regular-season guy, not just a playoff guy," Bickell said.
Quenneville has not been happy with Bickell's regular-season production, via Powers, and the left wing must step up this year or he may lose his opportunity to produce in the postseason.
Goalie Antti Raanta
2013-14 stats: 25 games, 2.71 goals-against average, .897 save percentage
Needs to prove: Excellent backup goalie to starter Corey Crawford
The Blackhawks may have gotten a tad lucky at the backup goaltender position last year. For some reason, general manager Stan Bowman made the questionable decision that aging goalie Nikolai Khabibulin would be an adequate No. 2 after Ray Emery had left the team as a free agent last summer.
Khabibulin had been a star in the league years ago, but he was 41 years old at the start of last season, and his previous four years with the Edmonton Oilers had shown diminishing returns. When Khabibulin got a chance to play in a few early-season games, he struggled quite a bit. He gave up 5.00 goals per game and had a low .811 save percentage before groin and shoulder injuries put him on the shelf.
That's where Raanta came into the picture. He had been a starting goalie in his native Finland, but he was quite pleased to take on the backup role with the Blackhawks. During one stretch, he went 7-1-2 with a 2.24 GAA and a .910 save percentage.
The Blackhawks would like to see him build off that showing. He played fairly well in his first NHL season, but he needs to prove his consistency and show some improvement. His background suggests that he can do the job, but the Blackhawks can't afford to see him backslide or have any slumps as he moves into his second year.