With the Blackhawks stuck in salary cap hell following a Stanley Cup win in 2010, the team took a couple of steps back and was forced to have some younger players fill in the roles of those sent off to places like Toronto and Atlanta (now Winnipeg), including the likes of Kris Versteeg and Dustin Byfuglien.
It was a mixed bag for Chicago as it obviously did not have the big year like in 2009-10, but the team fought hard against the Canucks in the playoffs, losing four games to three in the quarterfinal round of the playoffs.
General manager Stan Bowman was able to loosen up the salary cap this past offseason, so he picked up some veteran leaders and a few role players. Andrew Brunette, Jamal Mayers, and Daniel Carcillo are the most notable additions at the forward position, and the Blackhawks have also added some extra muscle on the blue line by acquiring Steve Montador, formerly with the Sabres. It will be interesting to see how these new pickups meld with some of the younger players like Dave Bolland, Bryan Bickell and Nick Leddy.
The Blackhawks still have a star-studded tandem in Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane on the ice, plus Marian Hossa, who finally was allowed an offseason breather - Hossa had skated in the previous three Stanley Cup Finals and also made an appearance with Slovakia in the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.
Another big part of the success for the Blackhawks in 2011-12 will be the continued development of goalie Corey Crawford. Chicago’s management would have to admit that Crawford has developed faster than they expected, and there is no battle for the top goalie spot heading into training camp.
THE BIG GUNS
Patrick Kane (RW): It’s unclear when he originally sustained the injury, but Kane expects to be fully recovered from surgery on his left wrist by the start of the regular season. The star winger saw a drop in his point total last season, but still managed a point-per-game average with 27 goals and 46 assists through 73 contests. As one of the best offensive producers at his position, Kane should quickly fly off draft boards in 2011-12.
Jonathan Toews (C): While the Blackhawks endured a down season by their standards in 2010-11, Toews had the best campaign of his short, four-year career. The captain tallied 32 goals and a career-high 44 assists. Additionally, he had the best plus/minus rating of his career at plus-25. Based on his young age and the talent around him, Toews is sure to continue as one of the best forwards in the league. Chicago has added some tough guys to the roster, including enforcer Daniel Carcillo, giving Toews some extra protection this coming season.
Marian Hossa (RW): Hossa saw a bump in the right direction last year, as he stayed healthy compared to his past seasons with the Blackhawks. By playing eight more games (65) than the previous campaign, Hossa’s point total increased to 57, with 25 goals and 32 assists to boot. His 100-point seasons might be over, but he will be well rested for 2011-12.
ON THE RISE
Brent Seabrook (D): While defensive teammate Duncan Keith took a dip in his numbers last year, Seabrook had the best season of his career with nine goals and 39 assists. For the third time in the last four seasons, he played every game. The Blackhawks will look for consistent scoring in 2011-12, and the hope is that Seabrook can replicate the aforementioned totals from the blue line en route to healthy win totals.
Dave Bolland (C): Bolland missed a significant amount of time in the second half of the season last year, but came back in the playoffs to spark the team. Entering his seventh season with the Blackhawks, Bolland will be counted on to be a major contributor for a ‘Hawks team that will have high expectations. Coming off a season in which he had 15 goals and 22 assists in 61 games, Bolland would like nothing more than to stay healthy for a full season and flourish on the second line.
Patrick Sharp (RW): One of the better trades that the Blackhawks ever made had Sharp coming from the Flyers during the 2005-06 season in exchange for Matt Ellison and a third-round draft choice. Sharp is fresh off his best season from a statistical standpoint, as he banked 34 goals -- 12 on the power play -- and 37 assists, leading to a five-year contract. But with team success dipping last year, his plus/minus dropped precipitously to minus-1. Even on the heels of a career season, fantasy owners shouldn’t expect Sharp to regress much following his big pay day because he’ll be working with a familiar supporting cast on a scoring line and his versatility is bound to keep him on the ice for close to 20 minutes per game.
TWO TO AVOID
Rostislav Olesz (LW): The Blackhawks are hoping that new scenery will bolster Olesz's career. He was the seventh overall pick by the Panthers in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft and has not lived up to his billing. Acquired by the Blackhawks as part of a trade sending away Brian Campbell, Olesz hit bottom with only six goals and 11 assists in 2010-11. He is also coming off knee surgery, so it's possible he could start in Rockford of the AHL.
Alexander Salak (G): Salak, acquired from the Panthers last May along with Michael Frolik, is the early favorite to back up Corey Crawford for the Blackhawks in 2011-12. Crawford blossomed last season, but if he falters then Salak could make a mark on the club. In 2010-11, he stopped pucks in the Swedish Elite League, appearing in 32 games with seven shutouts, a 1.97 goals-against average and .926 save percentage. Still, even if he wins the backup job in Chicago, Salak is not likely to see enough action between the pipes to warrant a serious look in fantasy leagues.
Nick Leddy (D): Leddy, an up-and-coming defenseman for the Blackhawks, just turned 20 years old last March. He benefited from the Blackhawks’ salary cap problems as he saw time with the NHL team in 2010-11, when he was originally expected to be a sophomore at the University of Minnesota. He skated in 46 games for the Blackhawks and registered four goals and three assists. With a year under his belt, the team is expecting him to be on the ice from the first game, seeing ice time as a defenseman on the power play.
Marcus Kruger (C): The 21-year-old Kruger had a cup of coffee with the Blackhawks, skating in seven games during the 2010-11 regular season after coming over from the Swedish Elite League. He led the Djurgardens team in scoring, but did not record a point in the U.S. for his first tour of the NHL. He arrived in the States after Bolland went down with an injury. He could see time as a center on one of the lower lines.
Jeremy Morin (LW): Acquired from Atlanta in June 2010 as part of a blockbuster deal that included Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager and Brent Sopel departing from Chicago, Morin was able to get some experience in the NHL last season, appearing in nine games with two goals and an assist. He skated well during stretches and was brought up with forward Ben Smith to provide some more scoring. Morin's youthful exuberance should propel him to greater heights with this year's Blackhawks.