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Blackhawks expect same success despite roster turnover

Need young players to step up after loss of Panarin, Hjalmarsson, Hossa to clinch 10th straight playoff berth

by Brian Hedger / NHL.com Correspondent

The Chicago Blackhawks haven't taken back-to-back losses in the Western Conference First Round lightly.

Despite leading the conference with 109 points last season, the Blackhawks shook up their roster after being swept by the Nashville Predators.

Left wing Artemi Panarin, defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, goalie Scott Darling and center Marcus Kruger were traded, and defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk was lost in the NHL Expansion Draft. Chicago also will not have forward Marian Hossa this season because of a skin disorder.

Forward Brandon Saad and defenseman Connor Murphy were the top players acquired in trades. Veteran forwards Patrick Sharp, Tommy Wingels and Lance Bouma were signed as free agents July 1.

"We're in the winning business," coach Joel Quenneville said. "Give Nashville credit, but we're in the winning business. As a coach, you're in the short-term business of finding ways to win, and that gets me motivated."

The Blackhawks will count on young players to handle important roles, led by forwards Nick Schmaltz and Ryan Hartman.

Here is a look at the five keys for the Blackhawks, the inside scoop on their roster questions and projected lines for the 2017-18 season:

 

5 KEYS

1. Saad and Toews reunion

Center Jonathan Toews' production dropped the past two seasons without Saad, who was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets on June 30, 2015. Toews, 29, had 58 points in each of the past two seasons and scored an NHL career-low 21 goals last season. He developed chemistry with right wing Richard Panik, but Saad's void was never truly filled. It took trading Panarin to get Saad back, which was a steep price. The Blackhawks are banking on it paying off.

2. Kane must remain the same

The other part of reacquiring Saad is what it did to the second line, which includes right wing Patrick Kane. Panarin and Kane were one of the NHL's most potent combinations the past two seasons, and that will be tough to replace. Kane was already one of the NHL's top scorers prior to Panarin's arrival, playing with a rotation of linemates, and he will be asked to do that again.

3. Spend wisely

The Blackhawks are expected to place Hossa on long-term injured reserve (LTIR) once the season begins. They might also place veteran defenseman Michal Rozsival on LTIR after he failed his physical because of an upper-body injury. Chicago will get enough relief against the $75 million NHL salary cap to add at least one player, but general manager Stan Bowman said he will take a patient approach.

"As far as the salary cap goes, I think it's something we've had a lot of experience dealing with," Bowman said. "We'll manage that as we go along."

4. Counting on 'Crow'

Goalie Corey Crawford has an untested backup behind him again, after Darling was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes on April 29. Anton Forsberg, acquired with Saad in the trade with Columbus, is expected to fill Darling's spot. Forsberg, 24, has played 10 NHL games in three seasons, including one last season. Until he gains Quenneville's trust, Crawford must play well and remain healthy.

Video: Crawford's big save at Training Camp Festival

5. Improvement on special teams

Chicago finished 19th in the NHL on the power play (18.0 percent) and 24th in penalty killing (77.7 percent) last season. The Blackhawks improved their kill in the final two months but were last in the NHL for a long stretch. It will be difficult to improve the kill without Hossa, Hjalmarsson and Kruger.

 

ROSTER RUNDOWN

Biggest lock

Look for Kane to have another strong season despite losing Panarin. Kane, 28, has averaged more than a point per game in each of the past five seasons. He also hasn't missed a game the past two.

Biggest battle

The Blackhawks have competitions at forward and defense, but the one that's most intriguing is whether rookie forward Alex DeBrincat can make the roster. DeBrincat (5-foot-7, 165 pounds) has high-end skill and a knack for scoring, which he showed with Erie of the Ontario Hockey League. He is competing for a roster spot with Vinnie Hinostrozaand rookie John Hayden.

Video: CHI@CBJ: Hinostroza snipes home wrister to pad lead

Most intriguing addition

Sharp, 35, said last season with the Dallas Stars was his toughest in the NHL. He missed extended time with a concussion, battled through a nagging hip injury, and had 18 points (eight goals, 10 assists) in 48 games. He had surgery to repair the hip and has looked good in early scrimmages. If Sharp has a bounce-back season, he will be a big bargain. His one-year contract has a salary-cap charge of $800,000, according to CapFriendly.com.

"I feel good," Sharp said. "Physically, I'm strong, fast and ready to rock. It doesn't matter how old you are."

Biggest potential surprise

Schmaltz spent the offseason working on faceoffs, which were an issue last season as a rookie. If he can win enough of them to suit Quenneville, he will likely supplant Artem Anisimov as Kane's center on the second line. That was not expected prior to training camp.

 

PROJECTED LINEUP

Brandon Saad -- Jonathan Toews -- Richard Panik

Patrick Sharp -- Nick Schmaltz -- Patrick Kane

Ryan Hartman -- Artem Anisimov - Tommy Wingels

Lance Bouma -- Tanner Kero -- John Hayden

Duncan Keith -- Connor Murphy

Gustav Forsling -- Brent Seabrook 

Michal Kempny -- Jan Rutta

Corey Crawford

Anton Forsberg

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