Are The Chicago Blackhawks Better Or Worse Than Last Year?

Rob Grabowski-US PRESSWIRE

This time last year, there was a great deal of buzz around the Chicago Blackhawks. That same buzz doesn’t exist anymore, granted the looming NHL lockout hasn’t helped their case too much.

Last summer, Stan Bowman and the Chicago front office thought the answer to their first round exit was some veteran depth and some extra sandpaper. They went out and added the likes of Andrew BrunetteSteve MontadorSean O’DonnellJamal Mayers, and Daniel Carcillo.

That experiment failed. Brunette and O’Donnell proved essentially useless and are now gone, and Montador could be headed out the door someday soon as well. Instead, the Blackhawks will be leaning on some young talent to fill those depth spots. The only additions made to this point in the summer have been Sheldon Brookbank and Michal Rozsival.

With this roster right now, are the Chicago Blackhawks in store for a better year this season, whenever it actually begins? Or will they once again be fighting for a playoff spot in the final days of the season? The short answer is that they actually are better, even if it may not be on paper.

Up front, on the forward lines, injuries and players out of position led to a very inconsistent offense. That should change this year. The top six could be among the league’s best, assuming everyone is healthy and Marcus Kruger takes a step forward. Playing between Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa should make his life pretty easy. Viktor Stalberg is a much better option next to Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane than Brunette was.

In the bottom six, Dave Bolland was finally healthy (knock on wood), and Bryan Bickell had a very nice playoffs. If Andrew Shaw performs like he did last year, this is a terrific checking line. The only question is who will make up the fourth line (Carcillo, Mayers, Jimmy HayesMichael FrolikBrandon PirriBen Smith, etc.). But bottom line, young forwards should prove to be more effective than the old, slow veterans of last season.

There is no secret to the fact that defense was this team’s Achilles heel the last two years. But I like what theyve done this summer in adding Brookbank and Rozsival, as inconsequential as the additions may seem.

You can’t bet against Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith, who are still one of the best, if not the best, defensive pairing in the league. Nick Leddy was much better after the addition of Johnny Oduya, though I’m wary about the size of the two. A mix of Brookbank, Rozsival, Montador (?), and Dylan Olsen on the bottom should be a nice defensive pairing. Niklas Hjalmarsson is as good as gone. On paper, they may not look as good, but I like this group.

The big question is going to be the goaltending. The Hawks are rolling with the same pairing of Corey Crawford and Ray Emery, hoping to bank on the chance that Crawford’s ’11-’12 struggles were a sophomore slump. Goaltending is still the biggest wild card on this team, but if Crawford bounces back, you have to love the Hawks’ chances this season, if there is one.

It isn’t by a landslide, but this is a team improved for the new season. That becomes even more true if they can spin Hjalmarsson for an asset and/or Brandon Saad shows some Calder Trophy form, as many are hoping. It may not look like it on paper, and they may not be a surefire Stanley Cup contender, but I do like this group just a bit more than the one we saw go into the season last year.

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