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2014 Camp Preview: Trio of forwards look to answer questions in 2014-15

by Emerald Gao / Chicago Blackhawks

With Blackhawks training camp opening on Sept. 18, chicagoblackhawks.com is previewing the season with stories, interviews and more to get you ready.

With just one free agent signing joining the Blackhawks over the summer, the 2014-15 team is largely made up of known quantities. Members of the core, including Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa, have long been established as the team’s primary source of offense. Behind them is another group of forwards—some entering their prime—who will be expected to improve their games and contribute even more on the scoresheet.

As the coaching staff and hockey ops departments whittle down the candidates to make the opening night roster, here are the players who are poised to step into a bigger role and the questions surrounding them as they enter training camp.

Brandon Saad: How high can he go?

The “Man-Child” has grown by leaps and bounds since stepping into a Blackhawks sweater for the first time in 2011. Not only did Saad tally 19 goals as a 21-year-old last season, but his point-per-game rate also increased to .603 in the 2013-14 regular campaign, up from .587 the previous year—all while seeing roughly the same ice time.

Saad’s 17.6 on-ice Corsi rate was fourth-highest among team forwards and ranked 14th among league forwards last season.

The Pittsburgh native has found early success in his NHL career because his speed and power on the forecheck form the basis of a strong possession game, making him a valuable piece among the top six forwards. Saad’s 17.6 on-ice Corsi rate was fourth-highest among team forwards and ranked 14th among league forwards last season (courtesy behindthenet.ca), and his tenacious style of play led to a +13 penalty differential, best on the team.

If Saad’s first two seasons are any indication, the 2011 second-round pick is showing no signs of slowing down. He displayed good chemistry playing on Kane’s opposite wing, and the expectation is for him to start there again, this time with Richards as his center; the hope is that Saad, who is still a long way from hitting his prime, can parlay the opportunities he’s given into even more consistent production.

Bryan Bickell: Can he return to form?

Bickell’s 2013-14 was marked by injury and, as a result, inconsistency; he did score 11 goals, the second-best total of his NHL career, but totaled just 15 points in 59 regular-season games. His ice time also dropped to 10:16 per game, his lowest average in four full seasons. When Bickell was on the ice, however, he was one of the team’s top possession players, ranking fifth on the team with a 16.7% on-ice Corsi share. Some of his misfortune can be explained with poor luck, as he had the worst PDO among Blackhawks players with at least 40 regular-season appearances.

The 2014-15 season represents a prime opportunity for the 28-year-old to get back to the form that saw him net a career-high 17 goals and 37 points in 2010-11 and 17 points in the 2013 Stanley Cup run. Bickell’s game exhibits a unique blend of size, physicality and net-front presence that no other forward on the roster has, but with Sharp and Saad ahead of him on the depth chart at left wing, he must take advantage of power-play and bottom-six ice time.

Given Bickell’s style of play, his success may depend on how well he gels with his linemates. While Head Coach Joel Quenneville is no stranger to switching up his lines over the course of a season, the most likely scenario is that Bickell will be put on a line with other disruptors, including Andrew Shaw; he’s spent the majority of his even-strength ice time with the pesky Shaw in each of the last two seasons.

Ben Smith: What’s his ceiling?

Ben Smith
Ben Smith
Right Wing  - CHI
Goals: 14 | Assists: 12 | Pts: 26
FO%: 50.8 | +/-: +3
Smith successfully completed his first full NHL season while seeing the majority of his ice time on the third and fourth lines, but his production—14 goals and 12 assists in 75 regular-season games—suggests that the former Boston College standout could be utilized in more offense-heavy roles. Though he’s on the smaller side, Smith’s on- and off-ice work ethic allows him to keep up whether he’s playing a checking role or filling a hole in the top six, and his faceoff abilities (50.8 percent on 394 total draws) make him a versatile piece of the puzzle.

The departure for Michal Handzus could mean more penalty-killing time for Smith, who averaged 1:16 per game last season as a fifth forward option while shorthanded. He was often slotted on the fourth line alongside Marcus Kruger and Brandon Bollig, starting just 26.4 of his even-strength shifts in the offensive zone while facing the sixth-highest quality of competition among team forwards. Because the Blackhawks have a logjam at the right wing position, Smith may not see his role elevated beyond the bottom six, but his speed, tenacity and offensive skill set could come in handy in a pinch.

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