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By Scott Burnside
So much has been said and written about the Blackhawks' wild and wooly offseason, you can't wait for them to hit the ice in Helsinki to start the season just so you can see how this is all going to turn out.
The firing of GM Dale Tallon, the investigation into Marian Hossa's contract (and the fact he won't be able to play until November after shoulder surgery), the arrest of former rookie of the year Patrick Kane after an altercation with a Buffalo cab driver -- all of that has tended to distort the real view of a team that advanced to its first Western Conference finals since 1995 and looks, on paper, to have the most talent since its last Stanley Cup final appearance three years before that.
Expectations are high and they should be. Now it's time to find out if they are well-placed.
"We've got a lot of good things going for us," Kane recently told ESPN.com. "It's going to be fun this year, to see what happens. We have so much positives going for our team, it's going to be fun to put it all together and see what really happens."
Here are 10 things you need to know about the Blackhawks this season:
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1. Can the kid bounce back?
Let's start with the lurid headlines and Kane's sordid summer. The incident with the cab driver concluded with Kane's pleading guilty to a noncriminal charge of disorderly conduct and won't or shouldn't be a blight on Kane's career. In an interview with ESPN.com before the season, he seemed genuinely contrite and prepared to accept his responsibility for the tawdry incident that has caused more than a few people to question his character.
"It wasn't a good situation, but at the same time, I think maybe it's better it happened sooner in your life rather than later, when it could be worse," Kane said. "I mean, look at the situation. It could have been way worse than what actually happened.
"It was tough. Even to this day, I keep hoping I'm going to wake up from the dream and just go back to the next day, but you know you've got to realize that it happened. There's nothing you can do about it now. You can revamp your personal image, you can do different things to create another image of yourself that's better than that, but it happened. What are you going to do?"
Let's assume Kane's head is in the right place for his third NHL season. How is he physically? He joked that when he first came to the Blackhawks out of junior hockey, he treated workouts rather haphazardly.
"I remember the workouts I was doing that summer [before my rookie year] and I look at the workouts that Chicago has me doing now, like wow, it's just a total different thing," Kane said. "I would go in the gym and, well, if I liked the machine, I would do that workout. Now they've got me on a totally different program."
Kane weighed less than 170 pounds before his rookie season, but said he is now up to about 184 pounds.
2. So who's got the offense?
The Blackhawks were tied with Philadelphia for fourth in goals per game last season, but they will be without leading point-producer Martin Havlat (77 points), who signed with Minnesota. Havlat's replacement, Hossa, won't be ready to go until November thanks to offseason surgery. That means the kids are going to have to hold the fort, including Kane and rookie of the year candidate Kris Versteeg, who surprised with 22 goals last season.
Captain Jonathan Toews was the team's only 30-goal man (34), but look for Patrick Sharp to be a big contributor once again as he had 26 goals but missed 21 games to injury. Dave Bolland, one of the team's best players in the postseason, had 19 and should take another step forward. Jack Skille, another of the Hawks' top draft picks, will be looking for playing time, as well. Coach Joel Quenneville said one of the reasons for Chicago's success last season was his ability to roll three, sometimes four, lines with scoring punch. That's something he is hoping will again be the case.
3. "Captain Serious"
Some of the guys started calling Toews that at the world championships two years ago. Don't worry ... it doesn't bug the thoughtful Hawks captain.
"I can't let it bug me because that's who I am, that's the way it is," Toews said in a recent interview with ESPN.com. "You have to accept who you are as a person. If I'm a serious person, that's the way it is, I guess. It's gotten me to where I am right now. I'm not going to change that."
Toews was made the third-youngest captain in NHL history during the summer of 2008, and he acknowledged he probably tried to do too much early last season and it hurt his production.
"I think I was putting a lot of pressure on myself every game trying to be the hero," he said. "Eventually I just learned what it took to bring my game to the top every single game."
Was there an epiphany?
"Yeah, I mean, kind of. When you don't score a goal for the first 14 games of the year, you've got to maybe start doing the opposite of everything you're doing," Toews said with a laugh. "If you just kind of say, 'You know what, I'm just going to go out there and play, have fun,' if I don't have the best game of my life, then it's not the end of the world. You're still going to do good things, help your team. Sometimes you've just got to have that attitude.
"I'm not saying don't give a hoot, but just enjoy it and let loose a little bit, and I think that's when you start playing well and things start coming back a little bit."
4. The Pittsburgh model
Although it is difficult not to compare players to uber-stars like Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, there are some obvious parallels between the evolution of the Blackhawks and the Penguins.
Both teams endured tough times that allowed them to stockpile young talent. Both took unexpected steps forward in their evolution. Now the question is whether the Blackhawks can take the kind of steps we've seen the Penguins take over the past two seasons.
"Obviously, you can't really compare, but you can say Malkin and Crosby are kind of like myself and Jonathan, and I think one of the things we have going for us is we have a great defensive corps where maybe Pittsburgh really doesn't," Kane said.
Toews said there was a great lesson learned in losing to Detroit, something the Pens went through in the 2008 Cup finals.
"I don't think there's a better team to lose to in the league than Detroit. They play the game the way it's meant to be played in a lot of regards," Toews said. "We got through Calgary, we got through Vancouver, I wouldn't say on pure skill, but we worked hard and we battled and we played physical. But it just came down to tiny little details as far as playing defense and giving away momentum in key situations."
5. Speaking of the D ...
One of the most impressive elements of the Blackhawks' surge last season was the rapid evolution of the team's defensive game. Often young teams struggle to see team defense evolve at the same pace as their offensive game. Yet, under Quenneville, who came in just four games into the regular season, the Blackhawks became a dominant team at both ends of the ice and ranked fifth overall in goals allowed per game. Led by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, both of whom were invited to the Canadian Olympic orientation camp, the Hawks are as good along the blue line as any team in the league, especially when you factor in Cam Barker, Brian Campbell and the underappreciated Niklas Hjalmarsson, whose play has prompted comparisons to Detroit's hard-hitting Niklas Kronwall. Another season of maturity suggests the best is yet to come from this group.
6. More special teams
One area the Hawks will look to improve is the penalty kill, where they ranked 18th in the league. The addition of John Madden, a former Frank J. Selke Trophy winner as the league's best defensive forward, should help, as will the addition of Hossa, who is one of the game's best two-way forwards.
Speaking of special teams, the Hawks would also like to see their power play improve (12th overall despite their firepower). Hossa should help that number, as will the improved confidence of Toews up front. Quenneville told ESPN.com the power play really tailed off toward the end of the regular season and he'd like to address that.
On an up note, the Hawks did score 19 times on the man advantage in 17 postseason games, the most efficient power play in the postseason.
7. Playing with pressure
Quenneville isn't too worried that his young Hawks will rest on their laurels. Even with many folks picking them to finish atop the Western Conference, Quenneville doesn't expect any complacency.
"I don't think we should feel satisfied," he said. "We haven't come anything close to what we have to accomplish. We know the challenges are going to be even greater this season."
The focus will remain the same, he said: winning each game, each shift.
"Looking further down the road can only lead to trouble," Quenneville said.
8. Oui, Mr. Huet
The Hawks made a splash in July 2008 when they signed the top free-agent defenseman Brian Campbell and top free-agent netminder Cristobal Huet to expensive long-term contracts. Both players seemed to struggle under the weight of expectations, but it was Huet who eventually lost his starting job to Nikolai Khabibulin after turning in an ordinary 20-15-4 record in the regular season.
The Bulin Wall, the main man in the postseason, signed with Edmonton, and Huet now is essentially playing without a safety net, if you'll pardon the pun, as the Hawks are prepared to go with youth in terms of a backup to Huet.
Either Corey Crawford or Antti Niemi will be in the No. 2 spot. If one of them gets sustained playing time, it will either be a great feel-good story or the story of how the Hawks' goaltending has gone off the rails. Stay tuned.
9. A scheduling note
Counting the one "home" game in Helsinki, the Blackhawks will enjoy nine of their first 13 games at home. For a team that now enjoys one of the most raucous NHL crowds, that's a pretty good way to get back on track in a hurry.
10. Olympic exposure
Look for both Kane (USA) and Toews (Canada) to be in Vancouver for the Winter Olympics, along with Duncan Keith (Canada) and Hossa, who will be a key part of the Slovak team assuming his recovery from surgery. Dustin Byfuglien has an outside shot at the U.S. team, while Seabrook and Sharp will be long shots to make the Canadian team. Tomas Kopecky will get a shot with the Slovaks and Hjalmarsson will be considered for Sweden.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
• Record: 46-24-12
• Division: Second in the Central
• Conference: Fourth in the West
• Playoffs: Ousted in West finals by Detroit
• The Blackhawks will take that next step forward, easing ahead of Detroit for the Central Division crown en route to their first Stanley Cup finals appearance since 1992.
• Joel Quenneville stepped into a possible minefield after taking over the team four games into last season from Hawks legend Denis Savard. But the veteran coach didn't miss a beat and introduced a top defensive system without stifling the Hawks' youthful talent.
Former rookie of the year Patrick Kane told us Quenneville has made players accountable.
"Whether it was taking a dumb penalty in the offensive zone or missing your guy in the defensive zone, Joel wasn't afraid to sit you," Kane said. "I think throughout the year, you kind of see that, where he sits some of his top guys, where maybe Savvy [Savard] wouldn't do that."
F -- Jonathan Toews
• After he stopped worrying about being all things to the Hawks, Toews became the elite player he is.
F -- Patrick Kane
• Hoping to put offseason scrape with the law behind him.
F -- Patrick Sharp
• If he stays healthy, Sharp has 40-goal potential.
D -- Brent Seabrook
• Stellar playoff performance has Seabrook's stock at all-time high.
D -- Duncan Keith
• Are Olympics and maybe a Norris nomination in his future?
Best Bet: Jonathan Toews, F: Chicago's young captain made strides in every ESPN standard category in his sophomore season and there is no reason not to expect improvements in all of them for his junior campaign. This Chicago club is quickly becoming a Western Conference powerhouse, and Toews is its leader on the ice. Enter Marian Hossa (shoulder) partway through the season and Toews won't disappoint should you select him as one of your top forwards. Even if the legal woes for Patrick Kane keep him off the ice, Toews has more than enough talent around him to keep budding.
Risky Move: Cristobal Huet, G: The rosy outlook we had for Huet last season never came to be as Nikolai Khabibulin showed he still had something left in the tank and took more than his share of the starts. But with Khabibulin out of town, no real competition for the starting job and a winning team all to himself, Huet is poised to prove he can be a true No. 1 NHL goaltender. Try to forget the images of the goalie who was never able to settle into a rhythm last season, and try to remember the goalie who won 11 of 13 games for Washington after the 2007-08 trade deadline on the strength of a 1.63 goals-against average.• Player projections | 2009-10 Fantasy Draft Kit
Puck Prospectus uses its VUKOTA projection system to evaluate every NHL team in pivotal categories, while Will Carroll and E.J. Hradek weigh in on injuries and intangibles, respectively. Get an in-depth look at a new category every weekday leading up to the unveiling of The Mag's full rankings.
Where will the Chicago Blackhawks finish this season in Central Division?
Make your 2009-10 picks here.