Of course, the Blackhawks weren't far from becoming the first team to win the Cup three times in five years since 1990, but the Los Angeles Kings scored in overtime at United Center during Game 7 of the Western Conference Final. The Kings and Blackhawks have won four of the past six NHL titles, and appear to have ignited a rivalry akin to the Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche in the 1990s -- sans the line brawls.
The Western Conference remains loaded, so it is not just the Kings and Blackhawks in 2014-15, but they'll be the favorites to meet in the conference final for a third straight season. Chicago's biggest addition, Brad Richards, is a response to the disadvantage the Blackhawks had down the middle against Los Angeles in May.
Chicago is still loaded, and the expectations remain the same. Either the Blackhawks conclude the 2014-15 season with a party in Grant Park, or it is a disappointment.
Here's a look at the projected 2014-15 lineup for the Blackhawks:
The Blackhawks won the Cup twice without an established No. 2 center, but neither of those teams faced Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Jarret Stoll and Mike Richards in a seven-game series (Richards, along with several other Kings players, was not available or near 100 percent in 2013). Brad Richards could be that guy for the Blackhawks.
Andrew Shaw had a nice few games near the end of the conference final with Brandon Saad and Patrick Kane, and could still get another chance there if Richards falters. The long-term solution is still likely Teuvo Teravainen, who might not have a place on the roster on opening night.
Bryan Bickell did not have a lot of goals and points last season, but he was a very strong possession player and could still fit on the top line next to Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa. Saad took a huge step forward last season, and the quartet of him, Kane, Hossa and Patrick Sharp is unmatched on the wings in the NHL.
The player to watch for a Saad-like leap this season might be Jeremy Morin, who played well in limited duty last season but seemed to struggle when it came to earning Joel Quenneville's trust. Another to watch is Kris Versteeg, who was not good last season and could become a salary cap casualty. He might not be one of Chicago's 12 best forwards if he does stay.
If Teravainen and Morin succeed enough to earn regular roles, this might be the best forward corps of the NHL's salary-cap era.
Analytics in hockey is not just about shot attempts and Corsi and Fenwick, and the Blackhawks are a great example of this on the blue line. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are one of the best defense parings in the NHL, but Quenneville uses Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya against opposing team's top lines when he can to allow Keith and Seabrook's offensive abilities to flourish.
Quenneville didn't just shelter Nick Leddy at times near the end of the 2013 and 2014 playoff runs, he benched him and went with five defensemen. The Blackhawks have been adamant they are still high on Leddy's long-term prospects, and with Sheldon Brookbank gone and Michal Rozsival progressing deep into his 30s, Chicago needs to be able to trust Leddy more at the end of this season.
If David Rundblad or one of the prospects like Adam Clendening or Stephen Johns can prove ready for regular NHL duty, that would also open up a lot of options not only for Quenneville but for general manager Stan Bowman.
There have been 40 goaltenders to play at least 100 games in the past four seasons. Corey Crawford's .914 save percentage during his tenure as Chicago's No. 1 goaltender is 24th in that group. Now, in three of those four seasons he checked in with at least a .917 save percentage, and that is enough to win a lot of games with the firepower the Blackhawks possess.
He also played very well for nearly all of the 2013 Cup run, and had a strong series against the Minnesota Wild in the second round of 2014. The issue for the Blackhawks is his contract, which makes him the joint sixth-highest paid goalie in the League. Chicago doesn't just need him to be better than his .912 save percentage overall during the 2014 playoffs to have a better chance to win more championships, it also needs more value out of that contract. Paying $6 million a year for League-average goaltending given the salary cap constraints in the Windy City is not ideal.
Follow Corey Masisak on Twitter: @cmasisak22
2014-15 FANTASY PREVIEW: BLACKHAWKS
Undervalued: Brandon Saad -- The 21-year-old left wing made strides in five of the six standard-league categories (goals, assists, plus-minus, power-play points, shots on goal) in his second full season and posted five multipoint games (T-2nd in NHL) in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He has cemented his spot among the top six but will be drafted well after teammates Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa. Saad isn't a top-100 asset yet, but it's realistic to expect 25-30 goals, 55-60 points and a plus-20 or better en route to that designation by the end of the season.
Overvalued: Nick Leddy -- Fantasy owners have waited for Leddy, 23, to break out, but he still hasn't built on his 37-point season in 2011-12. He has improved in the rating department and put forth decent power-play numbers based on the minutes he logs in those situations, but he doesn't produce penalty minutes, has a low career shots-on-goal average (1.24), and has fizzled in each of the past two postseasons. It's highly unlikely he'll steal minutes from Duncan Keith or Brent Seabrook, so consider Leddy a solid fourth or bench fantasy defenseman.
Sleeper: Brad Richards -- It remains to be seen whether Richards will beat out Andrew Shaw and/or Teuvo Teravainen for the second-line center job, but the veteran is in a much more favorable situation in Chicago with less pressure on him. He won't see the power-play time he logged last season with the New York Rangers (3:40 per game), but could be more productive in those situations with so many weapons around him. Richards can no longer be leaned on in the postseason, but he's still good for 20-plus goals, 45-plus points, 15-plus power-play points and 200-plus shots in the regular season.
Follow Pete Jensen on Twitter: @NHLJensen
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