On the Blackhawks: Optimistically speaking - Los Angeles News | FOX 11 LA KTTV

On the Blackhawks: Optimistically speaking

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

It is difficult to really argue with those who believe this is basically the same Chicago Blackhawks team as last year and once again will have trouble making a long playoff run. Those that want to believe the root of all bad for the Hawks is goaltender Corey Crawford, go right ahead. No doubt Crawford has to stop letting up soft goals when the game is on the line but there have been other issues as well.

The Blackhawks have been built to score but they have trouble doing so when playing in close checking games. There is cause for concern this club will be hard-pressed to weather injuries and Joel Quenneville may be behind the bench for his final season. So there are reasons to not be so excited about the upcoming campaign and the chance of the Stanley Cup returning to Chicago.

To all of that I say not so fast.

Although it is a trite saying, there is a fine line between winning and losing. Don't be locked in just yet on all being so dismal. The Hawks still have young players on the roster that shouldn't be sold short. Some of the veterans could come back this year stronger than ever. Maybe GM Stan Bowman's confidence in his roster will be justified.

Just imagine if…

New addition Brandon Saad will find a role as top six forward and be a pleasant surprise. Neither Andrew Shaw nor Viktor Stalberg is a flash in the pan. Nick Leddy relishes slightly reduced playing time and finally gets a chance to be an effective power play performer. Dave Bolland will seamlessly step up and become a fine second line center. Daniel Carcillo will learn how to aggravate and stay out of the penalty box. Niklas Hjalmarsson will perform with the same confidence he had a few years ago. The concussion issues for Marian Hossa and Jonathan Toews will not resurface. Patrick Kane will be a point per game player. Michael Frolik and Bryan Bickell will perform their roles to a tee and become valuable contributors. Duncan Keith's shooting percentage will be much higher than the dismal 2.5 percent of last season which will lead to power play success. Crawford and Ray Emery will be solid in net and they will not be pointed to as weak links.

As we know, all of the above won't happen but enough may come about to help the Blackhawks become a much improved team. Who knows, maybe even someone besides Toews will be able to win an important faceoff. So now is the time to look ahead with some optimism as there will be plenty of time to be critical.

Schedule Woes

The first factor to consider which will affect all clubs, and maybe especially the Blackhawks, is the compacted schedule. All teams will be playing the same amount of contests in basically the same period of time, which works out to be almost a game every two days. What makes the Hawks schedule all the more problematic is its unbalanced nature, not to forget 12 back-to-back games.

The entire 48 game schedule this time centers on teams from the Central Division where the Hawks put up a 16-6-2 record. There will be no Eastern Conference opponents and on the bright side the Blackhawks went 33-23-8 in 2011-0212 versus the Western Conference.

No doubt playing ten of the first 12 games on the road is a burden. What could make it worse is that leads to a long seven game homestand in February. Those long runs at home that exceed three or four games can be problematic. It is easy for players to get a little too comfortable playing at home and games at the United Center are all important. The coaching staff will have to keep their troops focused.

The salvation is if the Hawks can come out of the first part of the season in good shape they will have more practice time at home in February. Quenneville can use the practices to work out the kinks just as long as the players have enough time off to repair their bodies.

The compacted schedule is what it is, and the Hawks are further disadvantaged because of the ice show coming to town. Maybe one day in the not so distant future the "Circus and Ice Shows" won't heavily impact the schedules of the Blackhawks and the Chicago Bulls. Rocky Wirtz has hinted those bookings have been long standing agreements which could change someday. When that happens extremely long road trips can be avoided.

So there isn't much good to say about the schedule but the Blackhawk defense, at least on paper, looks better than it has in recent memory.

Much of the workload will be placed squarely on the shoulders of Keith and Brent Seabrook. From recent remarks, Quenneville relishes the opportunity to take advantage of better overall depth on the blueline. Bowman may have done well by signing veteran defensemen Sheldon Brookbank and Michal Rozsival over the summer.

Brookbank might be a sleeper as he played heavier minutes for Anaheim as the season went on. He uses his size and will mix it up, although not a great fighter. If Brookbank can kill penalties the Hawks will be better off than in the past. One glaring issue since the departure of Brent Sopel is the minutes really pile on Keith and Seabrook during games when the Hawks are often shorthanded.

Rozsival is another veteran who could help out some on special teams but will probably be slotted in the number seven spot to begin the season. If nothing else Rozsival will give the Blackhawks a veteran to rely on in case of injuries.

Much of the success or failure of this year's defense may rest with Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya. If Oduya can be counted on to play significant minutes and Hjalmarsson returns to top form, Crawford may look a lot better in net.

The special teams need to be special once again.

The penalty killing unit could benefit from the added depth on defense. The power play will only improve if more pucks get to the net. Maybe the coaching staff will reward those who perform the best and won't keep playing the same veterans. Possibly Shaw, Stalberg, Saad, Bickell or even Bollig will emerge to set an effective screen and score some goals on the power play.

The most important penalty killer is the goaltender. Crawford wasn't awful last year but he failed at the worst possible times. Maybe that comes with the territory but he needs to hold his club in games so the offense doesn't have a big deficit to make up.

Crawford sounds confident but he knows management can't let him be the reason for another disappointing season. If he has a rough stretch, Bowman will be going to Plan B quickly and that will probably be to look for a trade. The most logical trade partner is the Ottawa Senators who are sitting on three well thought of goalkeepers.

Emery is the type of goalie that can get hot and win some games, the question is for how long. When opponents get Emery moving side to side, or they start plays from behind the net, trouble for the Hawks often follows. Emery is a fighter but probably shouldn't be counted on as more than a backup.

Al's Shots

Saturday afternoon, the Blackhawks square off against the Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings. The Hawks lost three of four meetings last year with their only win coming in LA.

The Hawks will be charged up to get going after the long lockout. Emotions will be running high for both clubs as the Stanley Cup Banner will be hoisted before the game.

LA star forward Anze Kopitar and defenseman Willie Mitchell will be out of the lineup due to injury.

The Hawks should be at full strength except for defenseman Steve Montador who failed his physical after suffering another concussion recently. Montador hasn't been able to stay healthy since coming to Chicago.

There is no telling how many concussions he has had over his career. Montador was never afraid of contact and one has to wonder if it is advisable for him to keep playing. In any event, I would hope he will not suffer any long lasting effects due to frequent head trauma.

Rockford Ice Hog winger Rusty Olesz also failed his training camp physical. The bad news is Olesz reinjured his right knee in a game on April 1. He underwent his second surgery on his right knee and will be out of action for awhile longer. The good news for Olesz is he suffered the injury before the lockout so he has been paid his full salary for this season.

Let's see how Coach Q. allocates the ice time versus the Kings.

I will be back with some thoughts on Sunday as the Hawks take on the Coyotes.

Follow me on Twitter @AlCimaglia

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