Chicago Blackhawks season preview: Stanley Cup champs set to defend title
Plus: The reigning Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks remain top-heavy at both forward and defense as captain Jonathan Toews, winger Patrick Kane and veteran Marian Hossa lead the offense while 2015 Conn Smythe Trophy winner Duncan Keith, veteran Brent Seabrook and Swede Niklas Hjalmarsson log considerable minutes on the back end. Corey Crawford doesn't receive the fanfare of several higher-profile goaltenders, but his two Stanley Cup titles and two William Jennings trophies hold distinction on his resume. Coach Joel Quenneville, who has recorded 754 regular-season coaching wins and 115 playoff victories, guided the Blackhawks to three Stanley Cup titles in six years.
Minus: While Chicago is no stranger to change after capturing the Cup, the team likely will find chemistry an issue after seeing a mass exodus of talent shortly after the conclusion of the Cup parade. Brandon Saad (Columbus), former alternate captain Patrick Sharp (Dallas) and Kris Versteeg (Florida) were traded, while Brad Richards (Detroit), Antoine Vermette (Arizona) and Johnny Oduya (Dallas) left via free agency. Promising forwards Marko Dano and Artem Anisimov were acquired in a blockbuster seven-player deal for Saad, but it's uncertain if those players are a perfect fit for a Blackhawks puzzle with sizable holes.
X-Factor: Patrick Kane
The NHL's biggest offseason story has yet to be resolved as Kane remains the subject of an ongoing sexual assault investigation. While Kane has not been charged with a crime, his status remains in question pending the legal investigation. The 2013 Conn Smythe Trophy winner was in the early Hart Trophy consideration last season prior to breaking his clavicle in February, but returned with a flourish by recording 23 points in as many postseason games.
Prediction: Although quiet by nature, Toews leads by example and should have strong command of the locker room as the Blackhawks deal with matters on and off the ice. Chicago has enough top-tier skill to remain in contention for the Central Division title, but a lengthy trip in the postseason is not in the cards.