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Wednesday, October 21

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Blackhawks Thu Oct 07 2010

Forwards see new faces as Hawks open title defense tonight

Given that the biggest amount of turnover on the Blackhawks roster happened at the forward positions, a lot of attention is going to be paid to this group. Seeing names like Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg and Andrew Ladd depart after their contributions in winning the Stanley Cup was difficult, no matter how expected and necessary they were. However, even with the losses, general manager Stan Bowman kept together a core group of forwards that is still one of the strongest in the NHL.

Jonathon Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Troy Brouwer and Dave Bolland are all integral players to the Hawks, and a list that includes last season's top 5 goal scorers and 5 of their top 7 in total points (Versteeg and Duncan Keith being the other two). And though Bolland missed half the season with a bad back, his tenacity and two-way play in the postseason was essential in shutting down opponent's top lines. Add in Tomas Kopecky, whose game seemed to grow after a strong Olympic performance, and the Hawks have a talented group of 7 wingers and centers that can play a variety of styles.

Of course, the loss of the 3 players above, along with John Madden, Adam Burish and Ben Eager, whose 4th line work when clicking could provide a spark to the entire team, means the Hawks need their new faces to come together cohesively and complement the core.

A few faces getting the chance to step up should be familiar to most fans, as Bryan Bickell, Jake Dowell and Jack Skille have all come up through the Hawks organization and gotten some playing time with the big club. Bickell played in 16 games last season for the Hawks, as well as 4 early playoff games, where he notched an assist and was +3 and showed that Chicago has confidence in his power game. Likewise, Dowell has played in 23 games over the last 3 seasons and is being counted on to center the 4th line and provide some energy. Meanwhile, Skille's a former first round draft pick (No. 7 in 2005) who has had a hard time cracking the roster, due both to expectation and the higher salary cap hit from his contract. As the Hawks kept discovering young talent, it seemed they'd no longer have the patience to wait for Skille to round out. However, with the offseason moves and Skille's strong training camp before an arm injury sidelined him, Skille's shown the Hawks that he's ready to step up.

As for the remaining two spots, a mixture of young acqusitions and older veterans fought through training camp, with the Hawks deciding on veteran Fernando Pisani and 24-year-old Viktor Stalberg to open the season. Pisani's spent 7 seasons with the Edmonton Oilers before signing as a free agent, and his penalty killing abilities will help fill the holes left, provided he can stay healthy (Pisani's missed over 100 games the past 3 seasons). Stalberg's a speedy, sized winger who spent his rookie season with the Toronto Maple Leafs before coming over in the Versteeg deal. Despite a slow start in camp, he's come on and shown flashes of shifty passing and playmaking, Stalberg will need to keep coming on strong if he wants to stick on the roster, and is one of the players the Hawks are counting on the most to pick up the scoring slack.

If Stalberg falters, waiting in the wings is the surprise of camp, 19-year-old Jeremy Morin. Morin was the final cut made on Tuesday, but notched 4 points in 6 preseason games while getting time on the Hawks top lines and power plays. Acquired from Atlanta, Morin was another player with promise who seemed to be a few years away, but was one of the best players on the ice all preseason. It's a safe bet that Morin will spend some time with the Hawks this season, and if his play continues to impress, may find himself up full time before the season is out. Igor Makarov also showed potential and will begin the season in Rockford as well.

Last season's power play struggled at times, despite the wealth of talent available to it. Assistant coach John Torchetti, who ran the powerplay, departed to head to Atlanta, and coach Joel Quenneville has said special teams will be a group effort this year. Regardless, there's no reason for the Blackhawks to struggle with the man advantage, provided they can find a system that works for them.

A bigger problem may be the penalty kill, where the departures noted above will be felt the most. Burish, Madden, Versteeg, and Ladd all spent time on the PK unit, and while Toews, Hossa, Sharp and Bolland will all see significant time, some of the younger players will need to show that they can contribute in this area for the Hawks to win consistently, especially in the postseason.

Overall, while the Hawks top 6 is still as strong as any in the league, the loss of some key role players did open up some holes. While the new faces have all shown they have the talent to succeed in the NHL, how well the Hawks forwards do will depend on their ability to stay consistent game in and game out. Chicago has quality players throughout their system, but the chemistry and teamwork that made last season's squad so dominant will need to come together. Expect some bumps in the road, especially early in the season, but provided the team can avoid major injuries, they're poised for another deep run.

No team has repeated as Stanley Cup champs since the Red Wings in 1998, and in the salary cap era, it's that much tougher. Chicago will be a contender and one of the top teams in the West, but the gap that may have existed last season has tightened up. Detroit is healthy and ready for one last run with their aging lineup, and the L.A. Kings, Vancouver Canucks and San Jose Sharks all made improvements (or at least did not get any worse). The wholesale changes may be the best thing for the Hawks, as it moves the target ever so slightly off their backs. Last season's run was historic, and the team has the personnel to do it again, but it's a long season where injuries, luck, and intangibles can change everything. The Hawks have done all they can to prepare themselves for the title defense this offseason, now it's time to see where the cards are laid.

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