10 teams that can win it all: Chicago Blackhawks

Chicago Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane (88) celebrates with centre Jonathan Toews (19) and defenceman Duncan Keith (2) after scoring a goal against the Boston Bruins in the second period during Game 5 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Finals in Chicago. (AP/Nam Y. Huh)

Every Thursday for the 10 weeks leading up to the start of the 2013-14 NHL season, Ryan Porth examines the one club that is a true contender to hoist the Stanley Cup come June. These are the 10 Teams that Can Win It All.

We begin our weekly feature by taking a gander at the defending Stanley Cup champions. One month after stunning the hockey world with a dramatic Game 6 win in Boston, the Chicago Blackhawks appear to be in good shape heading into the 2013-14 season. The core once again remained intact after a Cup victory, but as was the case in 2010, there were plenty of changes to the roster.

The shrinking salary cap forced general manager Stan Bowman to make tough decisions this off-season. He traded away Dave Bolland and Michael Frolik, two valuable depth forwards. And while breakout playoff performer Bryan Bickell was brought back on a four-year deal, free agent Viktor Stalberg was not retained. Bowman and company will be relying on youngsters to fill those roles in their quest of repeating as champs.

Here are three reasons why Chicago will and won’t raise a third Stanley Cup banner in five years:

Why the Blackhawks can win it all

1. Toews and Kane lead prolific arsenal

Bowman has not received enough credit for keeping the main pieces of Chicago’s nucleus together in this salary cap era, and that nucleus is why they will be contenders every season as long as they are together. Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa, along with defencemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, are vital to the Blackhawks’ success. However, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane make the offense tick.

Toews is the kind of individual every general manager would want to start his franchise with. He does it all on the ice; he’s a leader off the ice. At the age of 25, it’s only a matter of time before Toews wins a Hart Trophy. His partner in crime isn’t too shabby, either. Kane won the Conn Smythe this past postseason and is coming off arguably his best season to date, tallying 55 points in 47 regular season contests.

When the Blackhawks are on their A-game, they are incredibly tough to play against because of their weaponry on offense.

2. Winning mentality

The NHL may have the most parity among the four major sports, but there’s something to be said for teams knowing how to get the job done when games matter the most. The Blackhawks are one of those clubs.

They are the only team in the league to win two Cups since the 2004-05 lockout, doing so twice in four years with the same core. Head coach Joel Quenneville, who experienced playoff failures early in his coaching career, has been an integral part of Chicago’s pair of Cup runs. If they win another one soon, they will become this era’s version of the Detroit Red Wings.

This past season was a great example of the ‘Hawks possessing a will to win. When it was winning time, particularly in the playoffs, they rose to the occasion. Doing whatever it takes to win can separate a good team from being a great team. Chicago is a great team.

3. Emergence of Brandon Saad

With so much money tied into their core, the Blackhawks will need their younger and cheaper options to perform well beyond their salary. One of those players is undoubtedly Brandon Saad, a Calder Trophy finalist last season.

Saad finished tied for fifth in rookie scoring and had a strong finish to the season, recording 23 points in the final 27 games. He saw time alongside Toews and figures to be slotted somewhere in Chicago’s top-six in 2013-14. Saad, who turns 21 in October, must prove himself over a full season. He also slipped down the depth chart as the playoffs went along. But he’s young and talented, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t continue to progress. If that is the case, he could eventually be mentioned as a member of Chicago’s nucleus.

Why the Blackhawks can’t win it all

1. The hangover

Some people believe the Stanley Cup hangover is legit. Others scoff at that theory. Yet it’s impossible to ignore.

Due to the lockout pushing the Cup final into late June and the Olympics forcing the NHL to start the 2013-14 campaign earlier than usual, the Blackhawks’ off-season will be short-lived. They will have less than three months between their Cup victory and the start of training camp, and in between is a lot of celebrating and a lot of recuperating. Also, at the start of every season the defending champs gaze up the mountain and realize how hard of a climb it was to get to the top.

2. Uncertainties with forward depth

We mentioned at the top that the Blackhawks have seen Bolland, Frolik and Stalberg – essentially their entire third line from a season ago – all move on. Those subtractions aren’t as impactful as when they lost Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and Kris Versteeg in 2010, but the ‘Hawks will still have to effectively replace them. They will be counting on the likes of Jimmy Hayes, Jeremy Morin and Brandon Pirri, who have a combined 63 games of NHL experience, to fill in.

Bickell, their most important depth forward, was great in the postseason. He had 17 points in 23 games, earning himself a $16 million deal. But will that success – or even his career-best 0.48 regular-season points per game average in 2012-13 – carry over? Bickell and Saad will be key to the team’s secondary production, especially at even strength.

3. Gaping hole at No. 2 centre

As a continuation to the team’s question marks related to the depth behind the big guns, who will be the second-line centre behind Toews?

Michal Handzus, re-signed for one year, was used wisely by Coach Quenneville despite being a depth addition at last year’s trade deadline. At 36 years old and out of place as a No. 2 pivot, how much can really be expected from Handzus? Will the ‘Hawks keep him as their second-line centre all season long? If he happens to regress or get injured, the other options aren’t great. Kane has experience at centre but is better on the wing. Marcus Kruger is nothing more than a third-line centre at this point in his career. Others are unproven.

With Bolland now in Toronto, Chicago’s depth at centre behind Toews is shaky. Other than good goaltending, quality depth down the middle is essential to playoff success.

Prediction: Toews and company should still be considered favourites to win the new-look Central Division, but they will have a tougher time than expected holding off the likes of St. Louis, Nashville, Minnesota and Dallas, who all own up-and-coming talent that will push the ‘Hawks in the future. In the end, it is too tough in the NHL to win back-to-back titles and they will be ripe for the picking early on next spring.

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