By Brad Gardner
After two consecutive first-round playoff exits, the entire Blackhawks organization has a lot at stake heading into the abbreviated 2013 season. For better or worse, the club entered training camp with a roster that was very similar to the 45-win team from a season ago. The only new additions – defensemen Michal Rozsival and Sheldon Brookbank – do not figure to see huge roles during the upcoming season. If the Blackhawks are going to put the last two seasons behind them, they will need bigger contributions from the following groups of players with something to prove this season.
The last time the Blackhawks entered a season with the same goaltending tandem as they utilized the year before was 2007-08, when Nikolai Khabibulin and Patrick Lalime returned to the Chicago crease for a second season together. Both Corey Crawford and Ray Emery will be relied upon to secure wins this season, something that is even more important out of the gate as the skaters get back into game shape and adjust to the breakneck pace of the compacted schedule.
Crawford will be in the spotlight as the starter and look to rebound from a step back in his sophomore season. His unflappable mental game, once lauded as his strongest attribute, was called into question last season, and more than anything, the Hawks will be looking for him to return to the steady, consistent game that he displayed as a rookie.
The veteran Emery will also hope for better marks on the score sheet, but equally important will be his ability to stay healthy and provide a solid sub when Crawford is in need of a night off or the team is playing in back-to-back games. Emery’s experience is certainly valuable – next in line is Carter Hutton, whose previous NHL experience in San Jose did not extend past bench door mechanics – but more than a few eyebrows were raised by his re-signing early in the summer.
Several Blackhawks players suited up overseas during the labor dispute, including the likes of Bryan Bickell, Michael Frolik, and Viktor Stalberg. All three players have experienced some level of success in the Indianhead sweater, but Hawks fans would like to see each of them continue the level of play they displayed in Europe.
Bickell and Frolik both managed more points in short stints overseas than they did all of last season with the Blackhawks. Bickell racked up nine goals and 27 points in 28 games in Austria while Frolik managed 14 goals, 24 points in 32 games in the Czech Extraliga. Although both played much larger roles on their respective European teams than they are likely to play in Chicago, that confidence cannot hurt as they each try to make an impact on a more consistent basis.
In Stalberg’s case, the 2013 season will be all about maintaining the level of play from his 22-goal season, and opportunity permitting, maybe even make a bigger splash than that. He spent the lockout in Swedish Elitserien for 11 games, scoring seven goals and five assists, and then moved to the KHL, where he had another eight points in 14 games. He logged big minutes overseas – close to 18 minutes per game over the course of his two stops – and has already had a chance in Blackhawks camp to earn a spot on the power play, he may continue to receive prime opportunities.
A common theme in Rockford during the lockout was the need for the NHL players to step up. The IceHogs had some good stretches with players like Nick Leddy, Marcus Kruger, and Andrew Shaw making an impact, but the AHL stint for each player was inconsistent. They will face an entirely new challenge now that they are back with the Blackhawks.
Leddy was unable to take over many games in the AHL while Kruger, apart from his work on the power play, did not find the score sheet as much as might have been expected. Both are likely going to open the season in significant roles with the Hawks, but whether or not they can take a step forward in Chicago after a stuttering start in Rockford remains to be seen.
In closing, I’d just like to say that I am thrilled to be returning to The Third Man In for another season and look forward to providing Blackhawks recaps again for the site.