Hockey will be returning to the Madhouse on Madison very soon. The new CBA for the NHL is expected to be ratified on Wednesday with training camps opening on Sunday. The league is rumored to go live on Jan 19 for a 48 game season. So what should Blackhawk fans expect and look for in this shortened season? Here are a few areas to look at it.
Quality of Play:
There is a difference between being "in shape" and being in "hockey shape". Players have been participating in informal skates at Johnny's Ice House while the lockout was going on. Riding a bike or doing some skating is different from the stop and go of skating in a real game. While some players have been playing overseas or in the AHL, expect anywhere between 5-10 games for the players to show the quality of play NHL fans are used to seeing.
Training camp is going to only be about 4 days. No exhibition games are planned. Expect to see a lot of pulled groins and strained abdominals in camp and the early parts of the schedule. Also, with teams likely playing 4 games a week under this 48 game format the likely hood of injuries will be high. A key for the Blackhawks is to keep their top players like Toews, Kane, Sharp, Hossa, Keith, and Seabrook all healthy.
Under a 48 game format there will be little room for error. Each game will be critical for points in the standings. The Blackhawks need a fast start out of the gate. It will be critical to obtain as many points as they possibly can. Also, winning the division games will be crucial. The Blackhawks cannot afford a 9 game losing streak like they had last year. If the Blackhawks have any type of major stumble or start slow out of the gate, their playoff hopes will be gone fast.
I do not expect GM Stan Bowman to make any trades before the start of the season. Bowman did his work before the lockout was initiated. He signed Sheldon Brookbank and Michal Rozsival to add depth at the blue line. Defensemen Johnny Oduya was brought back under a extension. Daniel Carcillo and Jamal Mayers will also return. Ray Emery also returns on a one year deal. Bowman appears happy with his roster and plans on some players having bounce back seasons. Also, the Blackhawks have some prospects developing in the minors.
The Blackhawks did not have a high roster turnover in the offseason. For the most part, they have the same team as last year. The top six forwards are Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, David Bolland, and Viktor Stalberg. Stalberg many not be a top six forward in the NHL, but he is on this current roster. Toews and Kane are like your top two centers, with Bolland filling his role on the 3rd line. Stan Bowman continues to ignore the need for a true 2nd line center for this team. I see Kane starting in that role, but there are some prospects that could fill that role later in the season. Expect your other forwards to be Bryan Bickell, Michael Frolik, Jamal Mayers, Dan Carcillo, and Andrew Shaw. Carcillo is full healthy and could see time either on the 4th line or 2nd line depending on need. There will be a competition in camp for the remaining roster spots for guys like Ben Smith, Brandon Bollig, Brandon Saad, Jimmy Hayes, Brandon Pirri, Marcus Kruger, Jeremy Morin, and Martin St Pierre.
As I mentioned above, Bowman added depth at the blue line with Oduya, Brookbank, and Rozsival in the offseason. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook will fill out your top pairing. Nick Leddy, who has struggled in Rockford, and Niklas Hjalmarsson will likely be your second pairing. The third pairing should be Oduya and likely Rozsival/Brookbank. Brookbank and Rozsical were brought in the help on the PK and Power Play. Steve Montador struggled last season and suffered a concussion. Depending on his health and performance, his role with the team is uncertain.
Unlike a usual training camp, Coach Joel Quenneville and his staff will not have the usual amount of time with prospects. That will make it harder for some young upcoming kids to make the team. Ben Smith has been producing down at Rockford (14 G, 11 A). I could see him breaking camp with the team. Marcus Kruger, Andrew Shaw, and Brandon Bollig should all be there as well. Names to keep a eye on during camp and through the season are Martin St. Pierre, Brandon Pirri, Jeremy Morin, Jimmy Hayes, and Adam Clendening. Pierre (14 G, 17 A) and Pirri (10 G, 14 A) are both centers, who are having good seasons at Rockford. Morin has dropped on the prospect ladder in the organization, but is still talented. I like Jimmy Hayes' size, but he needs to be more consistent with his play at the NHL level. Adam Clendening is a defensemen who is similar to Nick Leddy. Clendening has 4 goals and 18 assists at Rockford. I could see him being up here later in the year. Nick Leddy and Dylan Olsen are struggling at Rockford, so that's something to keep a eye on.
The Blackhawks Power Play and Penalty Kill units were terrible in 2011-2012. The Blackhawks fired assistant coach Mike Haviland in the offseason. They hired Jaime Kopon, who was with the LA Kings, to try and help. The Power Play was ranked 26th last year in the NHL. It was only able to convert 15 % of the time. The Penalty Kill was even worse ranking 27th in the NHL, only stopping the opposition 78% of the time. The Blackhawks also allowed 51 power play goals, which is too high. If the Blackhawks expect to be a cup contender, these areas need to improve dramatically.
Corey Crawford suffered a sophomore slump last year. He went 30-17-7 on the season, but his play was inconsistent. Inconsistent play led to Ray Emery starting over Crawford at certain points. Emery went 15-9-4 are showed he is more than a serviceable goalie. I belive Corey Crawford is good enough to win a Stanley Cup. I also believe he will have a much better season this year. Emery will be cruicial in the 48 game season though. With four games a week likely to be played. Emery will see more regular playing time.
With a 48 game season, the hunt for the playoffs begins in game one. Every point will be crucial to make the playoffs. Also, the playoffs will extend deeper into the summer. That will make for a short turn around next season.
The full version of the new CBA is still being prepared. There are a few interesting points that have been made public. This year's cap is around $70 million, but will drop to around a estimated $60 million next season. Each team will be allowed to amnesty two contracts starting in the 2013-2014 season. The salaries will not count on the cap, but the team will owe the player 2/3 of his salary. Realignment was not part of this CBA. Teams will only be able to sign players to 7 year contracts (8 yrs if it's the teams own player). The deal is for 10 years, but a mutual opt out clause is built in for after 8 years.
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