The scene at Johnny’s IceHouse was buzzing: slowly but surely, members of the Chicago Blackhawks trickled in this week for informal practices gearing up for the start of training camp on Sunday. As he did during the lockout, Jonathan Toews led the group in drills and scrimmages.
By all accounts, the team is looking good for not having been on the ice together since last April. Patrick Kane is in top form after his stint in Switzerland, and Bryan Bickell and Michael Frolik are in similar situations with their overseas play. Those three men have something to prove this season, and their time in Europe could very well be a positive factor in their performance.
Two men for whom the season will be vital are Toews and Marian Hossa. Both are hitting the ice after recovering from concussions, with Hossa returning for the first time since the Hawks’ playoff series against the Phoenix Coyotes. Toews had been poised to be at Selke Trophy contender at the least until he was benched in February. He admitted last fall that he wasn’t 100 percent symptom free when he played in the postseason, but now that he is, there should be no stopping him. For Hossa, this season will be critical, as those same little things that plagued Toews over the offseason could affect him if they haven’t been caught. But if they’re found and kept in check, he could be on track for another huge season.
The biggest worry going into this season is goaltending. With Corey Crawford in the starting position for the first time last season, he was incredibly shaky in net, and it became a never ending carousel between Crawford and Ray Emery – one would be on a hot streak for a while, fade for a few games and be replaced by the other, who would experience the same thing. They rotated quite a bit over the season, even to the point where they were switched out during games.
It wasn’t so much Emery’s game that was shaky as it was Crawford’s. He seemed unsure of himself all season, and it was perhaps the storied “sophomore slump” coupled with the pressure of being in the lead goaltending position after his rookie year. Crawford needs to find his groove and become a stable force in the crease, and that means finding the self-confidence in his abilities that he lacked last season.
If the Hawks want to be Stanley Cup contenders, they need to come out of the gate with a winning rush. Their fifth Cup will be won with Western Conference domination and a team that rivals the one that brought it back to Sweet Home Chicago three years ago. Do they have that? We’ll see soon enough.