5 Blackhawks story lines to keep an eye on

BY MARK LAZERUS Staff Reporter

September 10, 2013 5:10PM

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Updated: September 24, 2013 11:37PM

It very well might be the shortest offseason in the history of the four major North American pro sports leagues. A mere 79 days after the Blackhawks skated around Boston’s TD Garden with the Stanley Cup held high — barely enough time for each player and front-office type to have his day with the Cup — the defending champions already are returning to the rink, reporting for training camp in South Bend on Wednesday and hitting the ice on Thursday.

The team is largely intact. The expectations are higher than ever. But there are always question marks. With the preseason opening Tuesday against Detroit, and the season opening on Oct. 1 against Washington, here are five story lines to keep an eye on during Hawks camp.

1. Focus and freshness

There’s no rest for the weary Hawks. While some teams have been off since late April, the Hawks didn’t scatter until mid-July, an exhilarating summer capping an exhausting sprint season. And while the NHL returns to a full, 82-game slate this season, it will be nearly as compressed as the lockout-shortened one was. Last year, the Hawks played 48 games in 99 days. This year, thanks to a three-week Olympic break in February, they play 45 games in the first 99 days. Plus, the Hawks could have as many as a dozen players participating in the Olympics.

Then there’s the Stanley Cup hangover effect. No team has repeated as champion since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings. How focused will the Hawks be? How motivated will the Hawks be? A complacent, weary preseason could lead to a sluggish start to the season.

2. Second-line center

The Hawks won the Stanley Cup in 2010 with Patrick Sharp — a natural left wing — at second-line center. They won the Cup in 2013 with Michal Handzus — a supposedly washed-up trade-deadline acquisition — at second-line center. But obviously, the Hawks eventually need to find a long-term solution — any solution, really — for one of the few glaring holes in the lineup. Handzus was re-signed to a one-year deal, but the 36-year-old likely will start the season as a fourth-liner or a role player. Rookie Brandon Pirri — the AHL’s leading scorer last year with 22 goals and 53 assists in 76 games — is a leading candidate to get the job. Marcus Kruger is another option. Brandon Saad, last year’s Calder Trophy finalist, is an intriguing possibility, as well. While he’s a natural winger, he’s got the size, skill, savvy and defensive game to make the conversion.

3. Are the kids all right?

The Hawks traded away Dave Bolland and Michael Frolik, and let Viktor Stalberg leave to clear roster space as much as salary cap space. General manager Stan Bowman is high on several players who spent most or all of last season in Rockford. With just a few spots open — second-line center, third-line right wing and one or two spots on the fourth line (the top seven defensemen all return) — there should be a good camp battle between Pirri, Jimmy Hayes, Drew LeBlanc, Jeremy Morin and Ben Smith, each of whom has a realistic chance of being in the lineup on Oct. 1.

“They are ready for the job,” Bowman said. “The important thing for us is, we’re going to put these guys in positions to succeed. Our top players are back, and we’re not going to ask these young players to carry the team. We’re going to ask them to fit in and do what they can.”

But even those guys are relatively known commodities at this point. Perhaps even more intriguing will be watching the next wave of young players — including highly touted first-round picks Philip Danault, Mark McNeill and Teuvo Teravainen.

4. Whither Bickell?

The Hawks likely wouldn’t have won the Cup last season had Joel Quenneville not put Bryan Bickell on the top line with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. And Bickell’s breakout playoff performance — nine goals and eight assists — earned him a four-year, $16-million contract. But Quenneville prefers to keep Toews and Kane on separate lines to boost the lineup’s depth, and Saad spent most of the year on the top line with Toews and Marian Hossa.

Does Bickell stay on the top line? Does he move back to his successful third-line role? And what of Toews and Kane? The mad line-scientist Quenneville will have three weeks to find the right formula.

5. Something special

Frolik scored just three goals last season, but played a huge role in the Hawks’ success. His expert penalty-killing — paired with Kruger — not only kept opponents off the scoreboard, it kept Toews and Hossa fresh. Quenneville plunked Frolik and Kruger into that role in last year’s abbreviated camp, and it worked immediately. Can he catch lightning in a bottle a second time? He’d better, because the Hawks’ power play offered no indication at any point last season that it can shoulder the special-teams load.

“You’ve got to find a guy,” senior advisor Scotty Bowman told the Sun-Times this week. “The penalty kill was huge for the Hawks last year because the power play was not where it should be. If you go sour on both, you can’t win. If you have greatness in both, or even one or the other, that can be enough. The Hawks showed that last year. They were able to do it.”

And with the short summer over, the process of doing it again begins now.

EMAIL: mlazerus@suntimes.com

TWITTER: @marklazerus

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