The last time Chicago won the Stanley Cup, the team was dismantled during the offseason and a frustrating title defense ended in the first round of the playoffs.
Not so much this time. When the Blackhawks hit the ice next week for their opener against Washington, it will be a very familiar group.
Jonathan Toews and Co. are all set to go for their second consecutive NHL title and a historic third in five seasons. There was no salary-cap purge this summer, leaving the Blackhawks largely intact as they try to become the first team to repeat since the Detroit Red Wings won it all in 1997 and 1998.
Last year was a dream season for Chicago, which set an NHL record by recording at least one point in the first 24 games. It finished with the league’s best record in the regular season, and then beat the Boston Bruins in six games for the franchise’s fifth championship.
What followed was a productive offseason that eliminated any potential distractions before the Blackhawks reported for training camp. Physical winger Bryan Bickell returned with a four-year contract after he might have been able to grab a bigger deal in free agency. Goaltender Corey Crawford, defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, coach Joel Quenneville and general manager Stan Bowman agreed to extensions.
While Chicago appears to be in prime position for another great season, there are several potential roadblocks that could derail its title defense. Here are five areas to watch for the reigning champion:
HEALTH: The Blackhawks played an NHL-high 71 games last season, counting the playoffs. That’s less than the league’s usual 82-game schedule for just the regular season, but it also came with fewer off days after the lockout wreaked havoc on the calendar. Facing another grueling slate due to the Sochi Olympics, health is a major concern.
Marian Hossa, who turns 35 in January, was hampered by a back problem during the Stanley Cup and missed time during the preseason with an undisclosed upper-body injury. Toews’ preseason debut was delayed by an upper-body injury. Fellow forward Michal Handzus is coming back from two offseason surgeries.
The deep Blackhawks may be able to withstand an injury to one of their big stars — Patrick Sharp missed part of last season, and Chicago still finished with the league’s best record — but they will need everyone come playoff time if they hope to repeat. Look for Quenneville to keep a close watch on minutes and maybe employ a more cautious approach when it comes to aches.