Ranking the Chicago Blackhawks' Biggest Obstacles in Stanley Cup Defense

Nicholas Goss@@NicholasGoss35Correspondent IJuly 29, 2013

Ranking the Chicago Blackhawks' Biggest Obstacles in Stanley Cup Defense

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    Winning back-to-back Stanley Cups is arguably the toughest team challenge in pro sports.

    It's one that hasn't been met since the Detroit Red Wings swept the Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals in the 1997 and 1998 Cup Finals, respectively.

    In about two months, the Chicago Blackhawks will embark on their journey to return to the Stanley Cup Final and win back-to-back championships.

    Bovada released its latest odds for next year's Stanley Cup on Monday and the Blackhawks are the favorites to win again at 6/1.

    Let's take a look at the five biggest challenges that Chicago will face in its title defense.

5. Finding the Same Hunger/Motivation to Win Another Stanley Cup

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    When players win the Stanley Cup, the motivation to work hard and pursue a championship deteriorates a bit. It's only human nature.

    Players become satisfied and lose the hunger and determination to reach the summit of pro hockey because they have already accomplished this goal.

    But the great teams, the ones who become dynasties and cement their place in NHL lore, are able to summon the competitive fire needed to win the Stanley Cup every season.

    As a team with a veteran core intact for a few more years, plenty of depth and a great head coach, Chicago has a rare opportunity to become the first dynasty of the salary cap era (2005-06 to the present).

    Even if the Blackhawks fail to repeat as champions, it won't be because of a lack of effort. A leader of Jonathan Toews' caliber won't allow that to happen.

4. Replacing Backup Goaltender Ray Emery

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    Backup goaltenders are vitally important to finishing the regular season with a record good enough to earn home-ice advantage, and Ray Emery was a perfect example of that last season.

    The 30-year-old veteran had a remarkable 17-1 record, a 1.94 GAA and a .922 save percentage in 2013. Starting goalie Corey Crawford wouldn't have been well rested for the playoffs without Emery's ability to give him a break when needed and maintain the team's winning form.

    After losing Emery in free agency to the Philadelphia Flyers, the Blackhawks signed veteran netminder Nikolai Khabibulin, who spent the last four seasons with the Edmonton Oilers.

    The former Stanley Cup champion played in Chicago from 2005-06 through 2008-09, and now returns as a backup who hasn't won more than 12 games in five years. Over the last four seasons, Khabibulin has a record of 33-67-14. To be fair, he spent those years with an Edmonton team that lacked elite defensive talent and quality depth on the blue line.

    Khabibulin should put up better numbers with the Blackhawks, but if Crawford suffers an injury, will Chicago be able to make a deep postseason run with a 40-year-old veteran starting in net?

3. Avoiding Early-Season Slump (Stanley Cup Hangover)

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    The Stanley Cup hangover is unavoidable. Even when the regular season begins, fans, family and friends are still congratulating players on last season's accomplishments.

    In the likely event that the Blackhawks take the Stanley Cup to Soldier Field before a Chicago Bears game in September or October, it's going to be even more difficult to turn the page and forget about 2013.

    The other early-season challenge is battling fatigue. The defending champions have to endure a shorter offseason as a result of a lengthy playoff run, but the Blackhawks had an even shorter summer because of the lockout. Most Cup Final series end in mid-June, but the lockout resulted in Chicago's championship-clinching Game 6 being played on June 24.

    The last two Stanley Cup champions didn't start their title defense on the right foot. The Boston Bruins went 3-7 in the first month of 2011-12, while the Los Angeles Kings finished the first month of last year 5-6-2.

    If Chicago is going to repeat as Presidents' Trophy winners and capture home ice in the 2014 Western Conference playoffs, it must be well-prepared after training camp to prevent the Stanley Cup hangover from negatively impacting the team in October.

2. Replacing Veterans with Younger, Inexperienced Players

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    The Blackhawks didn't do a good job replacing the veterans who were traded or departed as free agents in the two years after the team lifted the Stanley Cup in 2010. This caused Chicago to lose in the first round of the playoffs in two consecutive seasons because it didn't have enough depth.

    A repeat scenario is unlikely given the impressive amount of young talent that general manager Stan Bowman has acquired in the draft over the last four years.

    There are several prospects who could crack the Blackhawks roster next year and provide valuable depth, including Mark McNeill (center), Jeremy Morin (left wing), Jimmy Hayes (right wing), Phillip Danault (left wing), Drew LeBlanc (center) and Brandon Pirri (center).

    One player to watch is Pirri, who led the team's AHL affiliate the Rockford IceHogs in scoring last season with 75 points. Veteran center Michal Handzus did an excellent job in the second-line center spot during last year's playoffs, but he doesn't provide the scoring production or speed that teams want from that role. Pirri is a center capable of bolstering Chicago's playmaking skill, puck handling, speed and goal scoring on the second line.

    Morin, Hayes and Danault are also likely to feature on the NHL club next season as skilled wingers who protect the puck well and create scoring chances with impressive playmaking skills.

    There are two openings on the wing with veterans Michael Frolik and Viktor Stalberg leaving the team in the summer, and the Blackhawks should be able to fill both spots from within the organization using players on entry-level deals, which saves valuable salary cap space.

1. Avoiding Injuries

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    This is the most obvious obstacle on the journey to the Stanley Cup.

    The Blackhawks were fortunate that most of their important players were pretty healthy during last year's playoff run. Marian Hossa was the only star who missed a game due to injury.

    The last two Stanley Cup champions' chances of repeating were significantly impacted by injuries. The Bruins lost postseason hero and top-line winger Nathan Horton (concussion) for the second half of the season and the playoffs in 2011-12, while several Kings players played through injuries against Chicago in last year's Western Conference Final.

    The Blackhawks have enough talent and depth to make another deep playoff run even if a few veteran players are battling injuries. With that said, there are certain players whose absence from the lineup because of injuries would make it nearly impossible for Chicago to repeat. That list includes Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Corey Crawford.

    The health of these players will be the most important factor in the team's chances of winning back-to-back championships.

    Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. He was a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Finals, as well as the 2013 NHL draft.


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