Just two years removed from winning the Stanley Cup, the Chicago Blackhawks very well may find themselves at a crossroads during the upcoming season.
While the group of Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith, and Brent Seabrook give the 'Hawks a solid foundation with which to build upon, there are some huge question marks among the core.
Toews was Chicago's best player, scoring 29 goals and collecting 57 points in just 59 games. The problem for the captain was he missed significant time with a concussion, not playing a regular season contest after February 19 against the St. Louis Blues. Toews did return for the postseason and was the Blackhawks' best forward in the opening round loss, which included scoring a Game 5 overtime goal to keep Chicago's hopes alive.
Hossa easily led the team in scoring, like Toews netting 29 goals, and finishing with 77 points in 81 games. The solid winger's season ended in Game 3 against the Coyotes when he was blindsided by Raffi Torres, suffering a broken jaw and concussion. According to a report from ESPNChicago.com in late-July, the Slovakia-native indicated he is not showing any ill affects from the hit that saw him taken off the United Center ice surface on a stretcher, and he is aiming to be ready for training camp in September.
The fact that Hossa, who has tallied 78 goals in 203 games over the last three seasons, should be ready is great news for a 'Hawks club that had trouble scoring goals at numerous times over the course of last year.
The 2011-12 campaign was an interesting one for Kane, who was moved to center in an attempt to spread out the offense and had some alcohol-fueled off-ice exploits documented via photographs on the internet. The fifth-year forward was only able to score 23 goals -- even with finishing strong by netting 10 in the final 19 regular season games -- in accumulating his lowest goal-scoring total since his rookie year when he managed 21 in 2007-08.
Perhaps the most significant drop off in Kane's production has come in the playoffs, where he had been one of the most clutch players in the game early in his career. During his first two NHL springs, the 23-year-old Buffalo, New York-native scored 19 goals in 38 postseason contests -- including the most important in the last 40 years of the franchise's history when he scored the 2010 Cup-clincher in overtime of Game 6 to defeat the Philadelphia Flyers.
Over the last two playoff runs, Kane has scored just once in 13 games. It's believed the organization has spoken to Kane over the summer and conveyed the fact that he needs to re-concentrate his focus and once again become the go-to, big-time player the club had come to expect in the past -- especially with Chicago already hoping they can keep both Toews and Hossa healthy and productive.
There were murmurings in the hockey community that the 'Hawks were exploring the idea of shopping Kane, but the first-overall pick in the 2007 draft remains one of the most deadly snipers in the League.
But the biggest question mark for the club may be in goal, where Corey Crawford struggled mightily last season.
His potential and Antti Niemi's cap hit for a cash-strapped club made it necessary for Chicago to walk away from Cup-winning goaltender Niemi's arbitration award in the summer of 2010, thereby making Niemi -- a RFA at the time -- an UFA, and anointing Crawford as the number one in the Blackhawks' crease.
Crawford responded with a stellar 33-18-6 mark, with a 2.30 GAA and .917 save percentage and four shutouts in 2010-11. After nearly backstopping the 'Hawks to an incredible comeback from an 0-3 series deficit in the Western Conference Quarterfinal against the Presidents' Trophy winning Vancouver Canucks -- finally falling, 2-1, in overtime of game 7 -- the 27-year-old was wildly inconsistent during 2011-12. While his record of 30-17-7 mark wasn't far off from the previous season, his GAA jumped nearly half a goal per game (2.72) and his save percentage dropped to .903. He did not register a single shutout during the entire year, including playoffs.
As a matter of fact, Crawford's performance in the six-game loss to the Phoenix Coyotes -- 2-4 with a 2.58 GAA and .893 save percentage -- is pointed to by many as the key spot as the difference in the series, as Phoenix's Mike Smith yielded just 12 goals in the six games, five of which went to overtime.
All that being said, it's not all bad news in Chitown. Far from it.
The current roster barely resembles the one that brought Lord Stanley back to the Windy City for the first time since 1961 -- just nine players remain from the lineup of the 2010 champions -- but many of the young core is still in place.
Head coach Joel Quenneville has guided his squad to an average of more than 100 points in each of the last four seasons since taking over for Denis Savard after just four games into the 2008-09 campaign.
GM Stan Bowman appears to have taken the stance that he has a good enough roster as-is, and his lack of activity this offseason would seem to indicate that mindset.
That would seem to be a good indicator that some of the younger skaters will get a chance to become more of a factor in Chicago.
21-year-old Andrew Shaw netted 12 goals and 23 points in 37 contests, 6' 6", 221-pound winger Jimmy Hayes (22 years old) scored five goals and picked up nine points in 31 games, 22-year-old Marcus Kruger (nine goals, 26 points in 71 games), and 19-year-old Brandon Saad, the Blackhawks' second round draft pick in 2011, all could make a big impact up front this season.
On the back line, 21-year-old Dylan Olsen could take the vacant spot left by the departure of UFA defenseman Sean O'Donnell.
Goalie Ray Emery provided a nice job of backing up Crawford last year, and has one year left on his $1.15 million annual deal.
It should be more of the same in Chicago next year. Lots of wins, racking up a ton of points, and battling it out in a very tough Central Division -- a bracket that saw four of the five teams pick up 100 or more points.
While there weren't sweeping changes in the Blackhawks' lineup, there could very well be a rebuild in the offing during the course of the upcoming season.