There were so many familiar faces gone from the Chicago Blackhawks' run to capture the Stanley Cup in 2010 that there was plenty of mystery about the 2010-11 edition.
As the regular season progressed, it was clear the Blackhawks weren't the same consistently excellent team that had won the Cup the previous spring. The hope was just to get into the playoffs and see if some of that Cup-winning experience would have a residual effect. Chicago almost didn't make it -- the Blackhawks needed Dallas to lose on the final day of the season just to back into the eighth seed in the Western Conference.
After dropping the first three games to rival Vancouver in the opening round, the Blackhawks rallied to force a Game 7 and pushed the eventual conference champs to the limit before losing in overtime.
Interesting fact: The Chicago Blackhawks will host the first road game in the new incarnation of the Winnipeg Jets. Chicago played with the old Winnipeg Jets in the same division for just one season, 1981-82, before the Jets moved from the Norris Division to the Smythe Division.
A few players took key steps forward in 2010-11 -- most notably goaltender Corey Crawford. After years of waiting, Crawford finally became Chicago's No. 1 guy and went 33-18-6 with a 2.30 goals-against average.
Nick Leddy didn't turn 20 until March, but he proved he belonged at the NHL level and could be a fine No. 3 defenseman behind the top duo of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook before too long.
There were several forwards to replace, and Bryan Bickell's 17 goals and 37 points were a welcome addition to the lineup. A midseason trade for Michael Frolik could pay bigger dividends this coming season.
The emergence of Leddy and Bickell allowed Chicago general manager Stan Bowman to trade defenseman Brian Campbell and forward Troy Brouwer at the draft to open up more salary cap space. Brouwer was a restricted free agent and Bowman received a first-round pick from Washington for the rugged forward. Removing Campbell's huge contract in a deal with Florida allowed Bowman to make several moves to improve the club's depth.
HAWKS: 3 QUESTIONS FOR 2011-2012
1. How will the loss of Brian Campbell affect the Blackhawks? Although some may have deemed his $7.1-million cap hit too expensive, Campbell was still more than just a serviceable defenseman. Remember, he led Chicago with a plus-28 rating. By trading him to Florida however, the Blackhawks look to improve by augmenting the team's depth with lower-priced signings.
2. Can Chicago reclaim its spot atop the Central Division? When the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010, they claimed division crown for the first time since 1992-93, when it was still named the Norris Division. It's always be difficult to win the division with the Red Wings in the mix, however the Blackhawks still have most of the core that won the Stanley Cup just two years ago, so there is no reason to believe they can't win the Central Division.
3. How will the added toughness impact the Blackhawks? Although a team typically likes to be shorthanded as little as possible, the Blackhawks will happily trade a few more trips to the penalty box in exchange for some added team toughness. By adding Daniel Carcillo and his 127 PIM last season, the Blackhawks become much more difficult to deal with on a nightly basis. John Scott's penalty minutes were the most on the Blackhawks last season. For comparison's sake, last season the Flyers, who finished second in the Eastern Conference, had five players with more penalty minutes than Scott.
-- Greg Picker
Free-agent forward Tomas Kopecky joined Campbell with the Panthers, while center Jake Dowell signed with Dallas. Defenseman Chris Campoli was a restricted free agent but the Blackhawks walked away from his arbitration decision.
The two guys who could be responsible for replacing Brouwer and Kopecky are Andrew Brunette, signed from Minnesota on a one-year pact, and Rostislav Olesz, who was the return in the Campbell deal. Brunette's goal total dipped from 25 two years ago to 18 last season and he will be 38 years old, but the Blackhawks are banking on him being rejuvenated by playing with Chicago's talented forwards.
The Hawks also added forward Jamal Mayers and defenseman Sami Lepisto on one-year contracts. Bowman did a good job of adding role players without making long-term commitments.
Bowman's latest move was also a low-risk but potentially high-reward maneuver. He added goaltender Ray Emery on a tryout contract. Alexander Salak was expected to be Crawford's backup, but Emery could prove to be a more reliable insurance policy.
UP-AND-COMING: 3 PLAYERS TO WATCH
Nick Leddy -- Leddy played in 46 games last season and averaged a little less than 15 minutes of ice time per night. There is an opening in the top four on the blue line with Brian Campbell gone to Florida, but Leddy will have competition for that spot from free-agent addition Steve Montador. Improvement from Leddy could be the difference between the Blackhawks having a really good defense corps and a great one.
Michael Frolik -- Frolik wore out his welcome a bit in Florida, but he is a talented, young forward who scored 21 goals in each of his first two seasons. With Troy Brouwer gone and 37-year-old Andrew Brunette no sure thing, the Blackhawks could use a return to form from Frolik. He could rack up a lot of points if he earns a spot on the second line with Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa.
Ray Emery -- Bowman did well to get not only Frolik in a trade for young forward Jack Skille, but to get the Panthers to throw in goaltending prospect Alexander Salak. After a solid year in Sweden, Salak looked primed to replace Turco as Corey Crawford's backup. Adding Emery on a tryout contract for training camp could throw a wrinkle into those plans. Emery was very good for Anaheim late last season after returning from a serious injury, and he could win himself a job with a good camp.
A few of the other prospects Chicago has added in recent years besides Leddy could also find roles on the Blackhawks, but the roster is crowded. Jeremy Morin played nine games for the big club last season and could be ready for full-time duty. Marcus Kruger and Ben Smith were late-season additions who could also carve out more permanent roles.
The Blackhawks should show up for training camp hungry to return to contender status, and being able to rationalize last season as both a transition year because of all the new faces and at least partially a product of a Stanley Cup hangover.
Regardless of the changes made by Bowman, whether the Blackhawks are Cup contenders again is in the hands of the team's stars. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp had great seasons for the Blackhawks in 2010-11, but a few others will be looking to have bounce-back campaigns.
Marian Hossa had at least 35 goals in five of the six seasons before coming to Chicago, and he has only 49 in his two seasons (while also missing 42 games). Patrick Kane's numbers dipped a bit. Keith's production fell off dramatically.
The Blackhawks can match firepower with any team in the League, and Crawford proved to be a dependable No. 1 goaltender. Being deeper and tougher will likely help, but having the big guns all firing at optimal levels would go a lot further in helping Chicago back into the NHL elite.