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Center depth, goaltending could be keys to success for Blackhawks

by Brian Hedger / Chicago Blackhawks
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The Chicago Blackhawks make no secret about their goal for this season and beyond.

They're out to add a sixth Stanley Cup championship banner to the rafters at United Center, and they have a roster with enough talent to do it. After falling one goal short of playing for the Cup in back-to-back seasons, the Blackhawks are rejuvenated and ready for another season to begin.

In order to achieve their goal this season, they'll need to make sure these three things happen:

1. Continue to keep aging players fresh -- When they won the Stanley Cup in 2010, the Blackhawks were comprised mostly of players in their early- to mid-20s. A couple of them, like left wing Patrick Sharp (32) and Duncan Keith (31), are now in their 30s; right wing Marian Hossa is 35.

Defenseman Johnny Oduya, who was a contributor to the 2013 Cup championship, is 32; defenseman Brent Seabrook is 29; and center Brad Richards, who signed as a free agent in July, is 34.

The good news is they're all in great physical shape. Their advanced conditioning should mitigate some of the effects of aging, but it doesn't stop aches and pains associated with years of contact and the overall grind of the schedule.

Like Hossa has learned to do with his back, the Blackhawks' veterans will have to stay proactive in health maintenance and the training staff will have to monitor things even more closely than before.

If Hossa, Sharp and Richards can stay healthy and keep their legs, the Blackhawks might have the best group of top-six forwards in the League. There is organizational depth behind them should the veterans need some time off, but it's still a significant step down in talent and championship experience.

2. Corey Crawford needs to bounce back -- There's no question the defense last season let Crawford down at some key times, particularly in the Western Conference Final loss to the Los Angeles Kings.

The Blackhawks' inability to clear some loose pucks around the net directly led to some critical goals that Crawford shouldn't be blamed for, but Chicago's top goalie needs to be better.

The disparity between his goals-against average and save percentage from 2012-13 to 2013-14 were striking, in the regular season and Stanley Cup Playoffs. His 2.53 GAA and .913 save percentage in the 2014 postseason were particularly troublesome, and his struggles were most noticeable against the Kings.

Crawford is starting the first season of a six-year contract extension worth a reported $36 million, so the scrutiny will be even higher than usual. His goal for the season boils down to one thing.

"Win hockey games," he said. "You can't get ahead of yourself in this League. You get yourself in trouble doing that. There's always that fire [to win], whether you win a Stanley Cup or you come up just short."

3. Be stronger down the middle -- Richards is no longer a No. 1 center, but he's out to prove that he can still be a solid No. 2 option. The Blackhawks' lack of a viable second-line center finally caught up to them last season.

After winning championships in 2010 and 2013 without a steady second-line center, they were overmatched down the middle by the Kings in the conference final. It wasn't by a huge margin, but it was enough to make Chicago's lack of center depth stand out.

Bringing in Richards on a one-year, $2 million contract appears to have remedied the problem, at least on paper. His presence allows the grittier Andrew Shaw to center the top checking line again, with power forward Bryan Bickell and whomever coach Joel Quenneville puts with them.

It also keeps the ever-improving Marcus Kruger in the middle of the fourth line. General manager Stan Bowman also re-signed forward Peter Regin, who has experience at center, and forwards Ben Smith and Joakim Nordstrom have proven they can play there too.

Finnish rookie Teuvo Teravainen, who has high-end offensive skills and is No. 5 on the NHL.com Top 60 prospect ranking, is waiting in the wings, but missed time in training camp with an upper-body injury. Prospects Phillip Danault and Mark McNeill also have experience as centers.

The Blackhawks are aiming to be better than ever down the middle, and their success likely depends on it.

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