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Reasons for optimism, questions facing Blackhawks

by Brian Hedger / Chicago Blackhawks

The goal for the Chicago Blackhawks never changes, no matter how much the roster does.

They continue to put faith in a core group of championship-caliber veterans, headlined by forwards Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, along with a front office annually tasked with replenishing talent in order to stay competitive under the NHL salary cap.

Andrew Shaw and Teuvo Teravainen were traded this offseason, along with Bryan Bickell, so there's a shortage of experienced forwards. Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman did manage to patch up the defense, signing 25-year-old Michal Kempny from the Kontinental Hockey League on May 24, and puck-moving veteran Brian Campbell on July 1.

Multiple forward roles will be in flux, but Chicago has championship aspirations. Losing to the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference First Round last season left a bad taste but provided a longer summer to rest and recharge.

Here are four reasons for optimism entering this season:

1. The best offense is a deeper defense

Hampered by inexperience, the bottom two defense pairs struggled to clear their zone last season and it caught up to the Blackhawks in the playoffs. Waning puck-possession placed young defensemen Trevor van Riemsdyk and Erik Gustafsson in situations they weren't ready to handle, and it proved costly.

Adding Kempny and Campbell, still an effective skater at age 37, should provide balance. Some variation of Campbell, Duncan Keith, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Seabrook is expected to make up the top two pairs, and Kempny and Van Riemsdyk are expected to be the third. Michal Rozsival, 37, was retained and three more NHL-ready defensemen (Gustafsson, Viktor Svedberg and Ville Pokka) likely will await a call-up from Rockford of the American Hockey League.

"You can never have too many defensemen," Bowman said. "I don't want to go into a year with just seven defensemen. You've got to go in with at least 10 to 12, knowing that there's never been a year when a team uses just seven defensemen all year long."

2. Patrick Kane makes everyone around him better

Kane and Toews could start out playing on the top line, but that would leave a vacancy on the second line for left wing Artemi Panarin and center Artem Anisimov.

Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville doesn't like to tinker with line combinations that mesh, and none worked better last season than Panarin, who had 77 points (30 goals, 47 assists); Anisimov, who had 42 (20 goals, 22 assists); and Kane, who had 106 (46 goals, 60 assists). Kane won the Hart Trophy as the NHL most valuable player, the Art Ross Trophy as the League's leading scorer, and the Ted Lindsay Award as most outstanding player voted by the NHL Players' Association.

Kane's chemistry with Panarin was a large factor, and the same can be said for Kane's effect on Panarin winning the Calder Trophy.

3. Corey Crawford is a big-time backstop

One area the Blackhawks rarely worry about is their goaltenders; Crawford quietly has become one of the NHL's best. He had a .924 save percentage in each of the past two seasons, has won the Stanley Cup twice (2013 and 2015), and managed to keep solid numbers the past two seasons despite a significant drop in Chicago's puck possession.

Crawford sustained an upper-body injury that kept him out the final month last season, but was headed for career-high numbers prior to it. There's no reason to believe that won't continue.

4. Coaching continuity

Quenneville, who has the second-most coaching wins in NHL history (801), is heading into his ninth season with the Blackhawks. Assistant Mike Kitchen has been in Chicago for the past six seasons, and assistant Kevin Dineen and goaltending coach Jimmy Waite each enters his third season.

They work well together as a staff and often give Chicago an X-factor opponents struggle to match, especially in the playoffs.

Here are three key questions facing the Blackhawks:

1. Who will play with Jonathan Toews?

Last season, the biggest question for the top line was left wing. This season, with Quenneville hinting he'd like to keep right wing Marian Hossa on the third line, it's unclear who will flank Toews on either side.

Richard Panik is a possibility, and there's a crop of rookies hoping to seize a coveted top-six role, including Nick Schmaltz, Vincent Hinostroza and Tyler Motte. It's possible Kane starts as Toews' right wing, but Quenneville likes to separate his top two forwards for balance, and the dynamic second-line combination of Panarin, Anisimov and Kane is a proven commodity.

2. Can Marian Hossa regain his scoring touch?

Hossa had 33 points (13 goals, 20 assists) in 64 games last season. He remains stuck on 499 NHL goals and had his second straight drop in goal-scoring since 2013-14, when he scored 30 goals in 72 games.

Hossa, 37, rediscovered his offense in the playoffs and flourished after being moved to the third line to help shadow Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko. Hossa had three goals and two assists in the seven-game series, and there's a chance he'll stay on the third line to start the season. If so, he'd likely be reunited with center Marcus Kruger, a defensive specialist.

"I won't say for sure they'll start together this year, but I'd like to see it," Quenneville said. "Maybe [Hossa] carves out a different niche."

3. Will Artemi Panarin re-sign?

Panarin is entering the final year of his two-year entry-level contract and can become a restricted free agent July 1.

The Blackhawks traded left wing Brandon Saad in 2015 under similar circumstances, and fans are concerned Panarin could be traded rather than signed.

"Hard to predict that one," Bowman said. "There's two parties involved. Obviously there's the team side and the agent side. We can't do a deal by ourselves, so a part of it's going to be what their outlook is on things. Obviously, we want to bring him back and keep him in Chicago."

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