NHL 2014-15 preview: Chicago Blackhawks

Heading into the season, the Blackhawks are the odds-on favourite to win the Stanley Cup. (Brian Kersey/AP)

Counting down the final 30 days to puck drop on the 2014-15 NHL season, Sportsnet previews all 30 NHL teams in reverse order of how we believe they will finish the regular season.

A dozen reporters and analysts from Sportsnet’s hockey brain trust — Doug MacLean, John Shannon, Chris Johnston, Damien Cox, Mark Spector, et al. — submitted a list ranking all the teams in order of how they think the NHL season will shake out. We crunched the numbers and will be unveiling our consensus standings prediction from worst to first.

Chicago is our top-ranked team.

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Chicago Blackhawks

Division: Central
2013-14 finish: 46-21-15, 107 points, seventh overall; lost in Game 7 (overtime) to Kings in Western Conference Final
Leading scorer: Patrick Sharp
General manager: Stan Bowman
Head coach: Joel Quenneville
Captain: Jonathan Toews
Opening night starter: Corey Crawford
Key acquisitions: Brad Richards, T.J. Brennan, Kevin Dineen (assistant coach), Jimmy Waite (goalie coach)
Key departures: Nick Leddy, Brandon Bollig, Michal Handzus, Nikolai Khabibulin

Off-season grade: B-. In part due to limited cap space, the Blackhawks’ off-season was quiet in terms of new faces coming into the fold, but in fairness they’re also a terrific team that didn’t require much tweaking.

Stan Bowman didn’t sit on his hands, though. Signing Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane to long-term contract extensions was far more important than anything they could’ve done in free agency or via trade. The identical eight-year, $84-million deals (which don’t kick in until next season) seem like a massive commitment—which they are—but a few years from now when the salary cap increases, their $10.5-million hits will be a bargain. The ‘Hawks also held on to leading scorer Patrick Sharp despite trade rumours.

Brad Richards is a player some hockey fans have disparaged in recent years because he didn’t live up to a ridiculous, nine-year contract he signed with the Rangers in 2011—he was bought out in June—but the veteran centre can still get it done. Bowman landing him on a one-year, $2-million deal could prove to be one of the better off-season signings because Richards is an intelligent player who will take pressure off Toews and Andrew Shaw down the middle.

A few days before the start of the season the Blackhawks traded defenceman Nick Leddy to the New York Islanders for defenceman T.J. Brennan, prospect Ville Pokka and the rights to restricted free agent goaltender Anders Nilsson in order to free up cap space.

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Greatest strength: Consistency. The Blackhawks have registered at least 44 wins in each season since the 2008-09 campaign (excluding the shortened 2012-13 season, when they finished an NHL-best 36-7-5 and won the Cup). They’re consistent in the standings but also get consistent production throughout their lineup. Kane, Toews, Sharp and Marian Hossa won’t lead the league in scoring, but they can each net around a point per game. Corey Crawford isn’t going to steal many games or win the Vezina, but he gives them a chance to win every night.

A lot of credit here can go to the head coach because Quenneville is also a model of consistency. In 17 seasons as a head coach in the NHL, Quenneville has missed the playoffs just once and has only been fired once. During his time in Chicago, his .634 regular-season points percentage is the best in franchise history.

Greatest weakness: Special teams. Despite having some of the most talented forwards in the league, the Blackhawks’ power play has struggled in recent years, and they were inconsistent with the man advantage last season. Losing Leddy and the 10 power-play points he generated hurts, although Brad Richards on the point could make things interesting. Also, Chicago’s penalty kill has ranked in the bottom half of the league in three of the last four seasons.

Biggest storyline to watch: Will cap flexibility curb how active the Blackhawks can be during the season and at the trade deadline if they need to make a move? Right now, they don’t have enough space to add any player of significance without giving up salary in return. Before their Cup run in 2013 they were able to land Michal Handzus, who came up big for them in the playoffs. The Blackhawks didn’t make any major moves last year and fell short to a Kings team that had the room to add a player like Marian Gaborik, whose 14 goals were the most scored in the playoffs. Having the space to make a move like that could be the difference between a third Stanley Cup in five years, or an early exit from the playoffs.

2014-15 prediction: Niklas Hjalmarsson registers at least 40 points and averages more than 22 minutes of ice-time per game in a breakout season, but the Blackhawks fail to advance to the Western Conference Final for the first time in three years.

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