09/11/2009 2:57 PM - From chicagoblackhawks.com: (link)
There's not a lot to look forward to in September -- kids go back to school, swimming pools start closing, the weather turns cooler and white clothes head back into the closets. But here's one positive, fans: hockey season is back.
This Sunday, the Blackhawks will lace up their skates and hit the ice for the first time as a team since last May.
The good news for Hawks fans is that there won’t be too many new faces to get to know; most of the 2008-09 squad – 19 players in all – returns for the 2009-10 season. Added to the talent that brought the Blackhawks to the 2009 Western Conference Final are free agents signees Marian Hossa, Tomas Kopecky and former Selke Award winner John Madden.
However, there are still a few questions the team will have to answer before the puck drops on the regular season.
Here are the Blackhawks’ top five stories to watch heading into training camp:
1. Goalie Duel II
With the departure of Nikolai Khabibulin, Cristobal Huet is now the Blackhawks’ unquestioned starter in net. But who sits behind him on the depth chart is still up in the air and is the biggest competition heading into camp.
Much like their NHL counterparts, goalies Corey Crawford and Antti Niemi platooned for most of the 2008-09 season in Rockford, and each netminder had his moments; Niemi adapted quickly to the North American game and started the season hot, but Crawford rebounded and ended the year on a high note.
Whoever wins the competition will get the first shot at backing up Huet, and the 20-or-so starts that go with it.
2. The Forward Logjam
Before the signings this off-season, the Blackhawks could have dressed a talented group of forwards with what is just in the system. But because of the Hawks' overall depth and salary cap situation, it’s going to be hard for any young player to crack the team’s opening night roster.
Including each of the players on Chicago’s playoff roster and the two healthy free agent additions – Hossa will be out until November – the Blackhawks already have 13 forwards, not leaving much room for a top prospect such as Jack Skille, Kyle Beach or Akim Aliu. Still, those three probably have the greatest shot of making the squad out of camp until Hossa returns.
Bottom line: tough choices are going to have to be made at forward and there will be plenty of players in Rockford if someone on the Hawks doesn’t produce.
3. Camp Q
Hired four games into last season, the 2009-10 training camp will be Joel Quenneville’s first as Blackhawks head coach. Though they’ve practiced with him for almost a year, it will be interesting to see how the players respond to a full pre-season under Coach Q.
4. The Defense Never Rests
While not at hotly contested as the forward position, the Blackhawks have more NHL-ready defenseman than available roster spots. The Hawks have five players set, as Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Brian Campbell, Cam Barker and Niklas Hjalmarsson are all but assured to make the team. Aaron Johnson and Jordan Hendry seem to be the leading candidates for the sixth position. Brent Sopel, fully-healed from surgery which kept him out of all but 23 games last year, will also be in serious contention.
But the biggest wild card in camp could be Shawn Lalonde, the Blackhawks’ third-round pick in the 2008 Entry Draft. The 19-year-old blueliner had a strong 2008-09 campaign with Belleville in the OHL and might be ready to take the leap to the NHL.
5. European Vacation
Complicating matters is the Hawks’ trip to Europe, which cuts into the pre-season work that the coaching staff can get through. Although Chicago will play two exhibition games in Zurich, the team that skates in those two games will most likely be the same one that takes on Florida to begin the season October 2. How successful the Blackhawks are early in the season may depend on how quickly they can solidify their roster and get down to business.