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30 in 15: Handzus, Leddy lead Hawks' minor concerns

by Dan Rosen continues its preview of the 2013-14 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.

Another Stanley Cup championship banner will go up to the rafters inside United Center on Tuesday night. That makes two in the past four Octobers. There could be more to come.

The Chicago Blackhawks have all the ingredients to become the first team since the Edmonton Oilers (1987-90) to win the Stanley Cup at least three times in five seasons. They have the offense, defense, goaltending and experience to become the first NHL team since the Detroit Red Wings (1997-98 to repeat as champions.

Sixteen of the 19 guys who played in Chicago's Stanley Cup-clinching Game 6 victory in Boston on June 24 are back. Everybody from the Blackhawks' group of top-six forwards has returned. All six of their regular defensemen are back. Their starting goalie is back.

The guys who Chicago either traded away (Dave Bolland and Michael Frolik) or lost in free agency (Viktor Stalberg) have been replaced by players who have been biding their time either as healthy scratches or in the American Hockey League, waiting for the opportunity that has finally come their way.

Nikolai Khabibulin is the only veteran replacement. He was signed to take over the backup goalie duties from Ray Emery.

"The will to win it again will definitely be in place because we know the character these guys have and what they bring," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville told during the summer.

Quenneville knows the difference between talking about winning another Cup and actually doing it. The latter rarely happens once in a player's career let alone three times, but that's what the core players on this team can accomplish this season.

To do it, though, the Blackhawks will have to overcome a few hurdles, not the least of which is being the group that will be targeted by 29 teams that want what they have.

Here are three areas of intrigue in Chicago heading into the season:

1. Second line center

Quenneville hopes it doesn't become a revolving door of guys centering Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp, but he was also hoping either Brandon Saad or Brandon Pirri would grab the job in training camp and run with it. That didn't happen, partly because of Saad's desire to be on the wing and partly because of an injury that cost Pirri the first half of training camp.

Quenneville is going with Michal Handzus in this spot to start the season. It's the safe move as Handzus had success playing between Hossa and Sharp in the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season. However, Handzus is 36 years old and coming off injuries to his wrist and knee. He wasn't acquired at the NHL trade deadline last season to be the No. 2 center, but that's what he's become and the Blackhawks have been no worse for it.

"He did such a good job for us last year in all those big games," Quenneville said. "The thing about Handzus, he can make plays, he can see plays, both sides of the puck his instincts are in the right spot. I think he quietly went about his business when he came here and his production was almost a point every other game, which [for the] role that he had was a very high number. He can take faceoffs, he's got a big body ... very useful."

If Handzus stays healthy and is playing well Quenneville will have no reason to replace him, but he hasn't ruled out trying out the Saad-to-center experiment again and there's a chance Pirri could get another chance to earn the No. 2 center job. Pirri led the American Hockey League in scoring last season with 75 points in 76 games. There's also a possibility that Andrew Shaw plays well enough in a third-line role to earn a promotion.

2. Nick Leddy's consistency, development and ice time

Chicago is carrying eight defensemen to start the season, but Leddy will be given every opportunity to earn all of his ice time back and probably more.

"Take advantage of the situation and show us that you deserve more and earn more," Quenneville said, "and I expect that."

Quenneville lost confidence in Leddy as the playoffs wore on last season to the point where he gave him less than five minutes of ice time per game over the final three games of the Stanley Cup Final. Leddy, who averaged more than 17 minutes of ice time per game in the regular season, was stapled to the bench as Michal Rozsival started playing 20 minutes a game -- and playing well.

Rozsival was in a platoon with Sheldon Brookbank as Chicago's sixth defenseman for most of the season.

The Blackhawks, though, gave Leddy (and Rozsival) a two-year contract during the summer because they think his struggles in the playoffs last season are simply a blip in what will otherwise turn out to be a long and strong NHL career. Leddy won't turn 23 until March and he's already played in a combined 212 regular season and Stanley Cup Playoff games.

He had 18 points and a plus-15 rating in 48 regular season games last season. He had 37 points, including 34 assists, in 82 games the prior season.

3. Bryan Bickell and the pressure of expectations

The Blackhawks are paying Bryan Bickell $16 million over the next four seasons because of what he did in the playoffs last spring, scoring nine goals in 23 games to become a bonafide top-six player.

Now Bickell has to pay back the Blackhawks by recreating his playoff success throughout an 82-game regular season.

Bickell, who also had nine goals in the regular season, will start the campaign on the top line with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. He doesn't need to be told that his job is to create space for them by driving the net so he can deflect pucks and score the so-called dirty goals. He did that for them in the playoffs last season and wound up the beneficiary.

"He's playing with a couple of guys that should be able to get him the puck too," Quenneville said. "We expect [Bickell's] production to be better than it's been."


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