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Season Preview: Chicago Blackhawks

Younger players Tyler Motte, Nick Schmaltz counted on to fill big roles

by Brian Hedger / NHL.com Correspondent

At a glance

2015-16 record: 47-26-9, 103 points, 3rd in Central Division, 3rd in Western Conference

2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Lost to St. Louis Blues in seven games in Western Conference First Round

Additions: F: Jordin Tootoo; D: Brian Campbell, Michal Kempny

Subtractions: F: Bryan Bickell, Andrew Shaw, Teuvo Teravainen

Projected opening night lineup

Forwards

Artemi Panarin -- Jonathan Toews -- Marian Hossa

Nick Schmaltz -- Artem Anisimov -- Patrick Kane

Tyler Motte -- Vincent Hinostroza -- Richard Panik

Andrew Desjardins -- Marcus Kruger -- Jordin Tootoo

Dennis Rasmussen

Defensemen

Duncan Keith -- Niklas Hjalmarsson

Brian Campbell -- Brent Seabrook

Michal Kempny -- Trevor van Riemsdyk

Michal Rozsival

Goalies

Corey Crawford

Scott Darling

Lars Johansson

The Chicago Blackhawks have remained competitive while surrounding their core group of elite talent with affordable, productive role players.

The strategy has worked with varying degrees of success. Since ending a 49-year drought by winning the Stanley Cup in 2010, the Blackhawks won the championship in 2013 and 2015 but failed to get past the first round of the playoffs in three other seasons (2011, 2012, 2016). After losing to the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference First Round last season, NHL salary-cap issues led to trades of forwards Teuvo Teravainen (Carolina Hurricanes) and Andrew Shaw (Montreal Canadiens).

There are more vacant forward spots than usual. Unrestricted free agent Jordin Tootoo, 33, was signed, but the other openings will be filled by rookies, with the first opportunities likely going to Tyler Motte, Vincent Hinostroza, Nick Schmaltz and Ryan Hartman.

That level of inexperience gives the Blackhawks a larger sense of uncertainty. Their core group of veterans could be asked to shoulder more of the scoring load than last season, when Shaw, Patrick Kane, Artemi Panarin, Jonathan Toews, Artem Anisimov and Marian Hossa combined for 55.2 percent of Chicago's 634 points and 64.5 percent of its 234 non-shootout goals.

Video: STL@CHI: Kane sets up Panarin for one-timer goal

Defensively it's a different story.

General manager Stan Bowman focused most of his offseason attention on bolstering the defense in front of goalies Corey Crawford and Scott Darling. Veteran Brian Campbell, 37, signed a one-year contract July 1 to return to Chicago, where he lives in the offseason, and Michal Kempny, 26, signed a one-year contract May 24 after playing for Avangard Omsk of the Kontinental Hockey League last season.

Campbell is expected to play on one of the top defense pairs and handle a special-teams role. Kempny will play the left side on the third pair with Trevor van Riemsdyk or Michal Rozsival.

Video: STL@CHI, Gm6: TVR puts home Toews' feed to tie it

The Blackhawks' inexperience might lead to some offensive difficulties early in the season. If so, the improved defense is expected to keep games close, low-scoring and winnable.

Why they should make the Stanley Cup Playoffs

They're still the Blackhawks. Qualifying for the playoffs has become the norm. They've lost a lot of talent, but still have Kane, Toews, Panarin, Hossa, Crawford and defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. They're well-rested too.

Video: CHI@STL, Gm7: Hossa uses screen to beat Elliott

Why they could miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs

After having an imbalanced scoring attack last season, things could get even more lopsided with as many as four rookie forwards in the lineup. If there's an extended struggle to score, or if a top veteran gets injured, the Blackhawks could find themselves outside the postseason.

Breakout Candidate

Tyler Motte. The fourth-round pick (No. 121) in the 2013 NHL Draft agreed to terms with the Blackhawks on April 6 after three seasons at the University of Michigan. The 5-foot-9, 192-pound forward had five points in five regular-season games with Rockford of the American Hockey League, and two goals in three AHL playoff games. Motte, 21, can play either wing. Though he was an offensive star in college, he's also a defensive asset who can kill penalties.

Video: STL@CHI: Motte knocks puck out of midair for 3-0 lead

On the hot seat

Seabrook. Coming off a season when he had NHL career highs in goals (14) and points (49), he's entering the first season of an eight-year contract with a reported average annual value of $6.875 million. That's a lot of payroll space reserved for a 31-year old defenseman on a team with salary-cap issues that must find room to give Panarin a raise.

Trophy candidates

Kane (Hart, Ross, Lindsay); Panarin (Richard, Lady Byng); Toews (Hart, Selke, Messier, Clancy); Keith (Norris); Crawford (Vezina, Jennings); Motte (Calder), Schmaltz (Calder), Hinostroza (Calder); Joel Quenneville (Jack Adams)

Quotable

"Watch the League. Every single game, everybody's fast. Pittsburgh last year is fast, quick. The teams that have four lines of speed, quickness, you can win races, you get to the areas quicker and you put pressure on the other team faster. To me that's the game. It's all about speed and quickness, and I think that's been the evolution of our game. Size is still a part of that, but speed is probably the No. 1 criteria." -- coach Joel Quenneville

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