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Chicago Blackhawks should be factor once again in loaded Central Division

NHL.com @NHL

CHICAGO - All those talented forwards are back. Same for Duncan Keith and the bulk of Chicago's solid defence. There is even a group of intriguing prospects waiting in the wings.

The Blackhawks are one confident bunch of the eve of a new NHL season.

"We feel we're deep in a lot of areas," coach Joel Quenneville said. "Our guys are at a relatively young age and they should be getting better in their individual games and collectively we should be looking to be better than we were."

And they have been really good for years.

Led by Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010 and again in 2013. They made it all the way to the Western Conference final a year ago, where they dropped a classic seven-game series to the eventual champion Los Angeles Kings.

The price of that success reached a new level in July, when Toews and Kane each finalized an $84 million, eight-year contract extension that kicks in for the 2015-16 season. The twin deals could force general manager Stan Bowman to make some difficult decisions down the road, adding to the pressure on the current group of Blackhawks for this year.

Bowman still has to make at least one more move to pare about $2 million from this year's payroll before the Oct. 9 season opener at Dallas.

Even with the sticky salary-cap situation, the Blackhawks did manage to sign veteran Brad Richards to a $2 million, one-year contract over the summer. The team is hoping Richards can centre the second line ??? a longtime issue for Chicago ??? and the combination of Richards, Kane and Brandon Saad looked good in the preseason.

Here are other things to watch this year for the Blackhawks:

THAT THIRD LINE: The top two lines should be among the best in the league, but it's the third line that really could separate the Blackhawks from the rest of the NHL. Bryan Bickell was noticeably lighter when he showed up to training camp this year. The bruising winger is hoping for a better start than last season, when he had just one assist in his first seven games and finished with 11 goals and four assists for the year. Kris Versteeg also looked sharp in the preseason, and pesky centre Andrew Shaw set career highs with 20 goals and 19 assists last season. Versteeg "prepared himself for this year to get back on track where he's a top forward," Quenneville said. "He's been good for us."

THAT POWER PLAY: Chicago converted 19.5 per cent of its power-play opportunities last season, an improvement from 16.7 per cent for the shortened 2012-13 campaign and good enough for 10th in the NHL. New assistant coach Kevin Dineen, who played with Quenneville on the Hartford Whalers and was hired to replace Jamie Kompon in July, is expected to play a prominent role in this year's power play. Richards also could help the efficiency of the unit, where any increase in scoring for the already potent Blackhawks could pay huge dividends.

FORK IN THE ROAD: It's a pivotal year for defenceman Nick Leddy, who begins the season with 258 regular-season games and another 54 post-season appearances ??? at just 23 years old. Leddy is one of the fastest skating defencemen on the team, but he's also an occasional visitor to Quenneville's doghouse. He was benched for a playoff game last season against Minnesota. The Kings' winning goal in Game 7 in June went off Leddy's upper body and then past goaltender Corey Crawford. Leddy could blossom into one of the team's top defencemen, or the Blackhawks could decide to trade him away for salary-cap space.

BOSS HOSS: Marian Hossa shows no signs of slowing down heading into his 17th NHL season. The rugged winger had 30 goals and 30 assists in 72 games last season, in addition to his terrific defence. But Hossa missed a couple weeks in March with an upper-body injury and turns 36 in January. Any significant injury for the forward could hurt the Blackhawks in the competitive Central Division.

ANTTI MATTERS: Backup goaltender Antti Raanta is heading into his first full NHL season. He made his debut last November and went 13-5 with a 2.71 goals-against average in 25 games, including 22 starts. Raanta played sparingly in the last part of the season, and Crawford figures to get the lion's share of the action once again. How Quenneville divides the time in goal will provide an indication of how he feels about the 25-year-old Raanta's development.

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AP freelancer Matt Carlson contributed to this report.

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Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap

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