Chicago Blackhawks: 5 Most Critical Developments for a Stanley Cup Championship

Jacob Kornhauser@@KornSportsCorrespondent IIINovember 15, 2013

Chicago Blackhawks: 5 Most Critical Developments for a Stanley Cup Championship

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    The Blackhawks celebrate their second Stanley Cup in four seasons.
    The Blackhawks celebrate their second Stanley Cup in four seasons.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    As the first quarter or so of the Chicago Blackhawks' season comes to a close, there are several areas they can improve. Even while sitting in the top three of the Western Conference again this season, the defending Stanley Cup champions could stand to be better.

    Here are five keys to the Blackhawks celebrating a Stanley Cup for the third time in five years. 

Avoid the Injury Bug

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    Andrew Shaw shows off his battle scars from last year's Stanley Cup Final.
    Andrew Shaw shows off his battle scars from last year's Stanley Cup Final.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    The factor most beyond the Blackhawks' control is the team's health.

    With a longer season than last year, the team has more time to rest in between games. Last season, the team played 48 games in 137 days (2.85 games per week). This season, it plays 82 games—more for the many Blackhawks players that are participating in the Winter Olympics—in 195 days (2.38 games per week). 

    With a decreased workload, the team figures to be healthier, but all it takes is one significant injury to a star player to potentially send Chicago reeling. 

    Center Michal Handzus is already on the team's injured reserve, which may cause the Blackhawks to have to shift around their lines. Those moves could include moving Andrew Shaw to center more often to cover up for the team's lack of depth down the middle. 

    If every major contributor on the team is healthy come April, this team stands a serious chance to be the first repeat Stanley Cup champion since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings

Resurgence of Bryan Bickell

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    Bryan Bickell skates with the puck against the Detroit Red Wings.
    Bryan Bickell skates with the puck against the Detroit Red Wings.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Bryan Bickell played extremely well in the Stanley Cup playoffs last season, tallying nine goals and eight assists in 23 games. A couple of those goals were delivered in the clutch, with one marker coming in the third period of the Blackhawks' Game 6 comeback win over the Red Wings. 

    Based on those stats, Bickell was paid deservingly. While he clearly overachieved in the playoffs, the Blackhawks felt he earned the contract that they offered him. 

    The terms of Bickell's contract extension were $16 million over four years, clearly showing that the Blackhawks have faith in him going forward. Such a sum demands that a player be a top-six forward. 

    Bickell has been far from a top-six forward this season, as he has only totaled five goals and one assist in 19 games. Compared to his 2013 postseason stats, Bickell is putting up one-third of the production for twice the price. 

    There's still plenty of time for Bickell to get his act together, but the Blackhawks' chances of repeating as champions seriously decrease without a high level of production from him.

    Moving Bickell down to the third line is indicative of the fact that coach Joel Quenneville is trying to increase his production in any way. 

Increased Production from the 4th Line

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    Marcus Kruger centers the Blackhawks' fourth line.
    Marcus Kruger centers the Blackhawks' fourth line.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    A trademark of Chicago's recent championship teams has been depth. That must continue this year if the 'Hawks hope to contend for a Cup again.

    That hasn't been the case so far this season, though, as the fourth line has not come close to the production of the top three lines.

    To represent the disparity between the lines, listed below are the goals, assists and games played by each current line:

    • First Line (Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa): The top line for the Blackhawks has tallied 23 goals and 27 assists in a total of 57 games, good enough for an average of 0.88 points per game.
    • Second Line (Brandon Saad, Brandon Pirri and Patrick Kane): Perhaps the most diverse in terms of talent level, the second line has totaled 19 goals and 19 assists in 52 games for an average of 0.73 points per game. 
    • Third Line (Bryan Bickell, Andrew Shaw and Jeremy Morin): Andrew Shaw is relatively new to the center position and Bickell has been demoted from the first line, but this group has still managed nine goals and 10 assists in a total of 44 games, which amounts to 0.43 points per game. 
    • Fourth Line (Brandon Bollig, Marcus Kruger and Ben Smith): This group has played in a total of 50 games and registered just six goals and 10 assists, averaging only 0.32 points per game. 

    Clearly, the gradual decrease in production amongst the lines is logical, but the large disparity between the fourth line and the other three lines is glaring.

    Once the injured Michal Handzus comes back from injury, the team will have more depth. For now, the fourth line isn't producing enough for the team to perform at a championship level on a consistent basis. 

More Consistent Goalie Play

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    Nikolai Khabibulin needs to improve his play to keep his roster spot.
    Nikolai Khabibulin needs to improve his play to keep his roster spot.Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Last season, both Corey Crawford and backup Ray Emery were stellar in net. In the playoffs, Crawford somehow managed to be even better. The only player other than Patrick Kane that could've won the Conn Smythe Trophy was Crawford. 

    This season, Crawford's production has been down. His stats aren't way worse, but his inconsistency is cause for concern. His goals-against average this season is 2.31 and his save percentage sits at .914, down from 1.94 and .926 a year ago. 

    Far more concerning is the play from backup goalie Nikolai Khabibulin. The former fan favorite has been abysmal in net thus far, giving up 4.74 goals per game and saving only 81.8 percent of the shots that he's faced.

    If those numbers don't come way down and fast, Blackhawks management has a serious decision to make.

    As a team, the Blackhawks can't afford to not have a reliable backup. If Khabibulin continues to struggle, the team will likely cut him loose. 

    If Khabibulin is released, the Blackhawks will have to reach into the minor leagues and call up a talented Antti Raanta. At this point, calling up Raanta may be the best decision for a team that needs an insurance policy in case of injury to Crawford.

    Khabibulin's days in Chicago might be numbered. 

Improved Penalty Kill

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    Several Blackhawks get in a scrum around the goal crease.
    Several Blackhawks get in a scrum around the goal crease.David Banks/USA Today Sports

    Perhaps the area most in need of improvement this season is Chicago's penalty kill, which ranks 29th in the league and gives up a goal 25.9 percent of the time.

    Numbers like that aren't going to cut it in the playoffs this season, especially against a much-improved Western Conference. 

    Basically, figures like this one are going to require the Blackhawks to score one more goal per game if they take two or three penalties per game.

    Every single goal matters in the playoffs and the penalty-kill unit seems like a glaring hole that could lose the Blackhawks a playoff game and eventually a playoff series. 

    Several times this season, the team has just seemed disorganized on the PK. The lack of physicality and fore check from the Hawks' penalty-killers can be pointed at as the main reason for the serious lack of production from this unit.

    Until the team either mixes things up on the penalty-kill unit or the current group starts being more physical, the only thing standing between the Blackhawks and another title run could be themselves.