X-FACTORS: With Toews, Patrick Kane, Sharp and Hossa, the Blackhawks know what to expect pretty much every night. Same for top defenseman Duncan Keith.
The biggest variable could be Brandon Saad, who was a finalist for the Calder Trophy last season awarded to the NHL’s top rookie. The 20-year-old Saad, who had 10 goals and 17 assists in 46 games, got a tryout at second-line center during training camp before he was moved back to left wing. Wherever he plays, the Pittsburgh native is strong with the puck and could better his numbers from a year ago now that he’s got more experience under his belt.
Bickell, who is expected to play with Toews and Kane on the top line, also could put together a big season. The 6-foot-4 Bickell had nine goals and eight assists in the playoffs, and the pressure is on to live up to his new contract.
THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT: While managing the salary cap over the summer, Bowman traded away key veterans Michael Frolik and Dave Bolland. Viktor Stalberg and goaltender Ray Emery left in free agency.
Bowman thinks some of Chicago’s prospects are ready for the NHL, and their development could be key to the Blackhawks’ season. Forwards Jimmy Hayes and Ben Smith looked good during training camp. Brandon Pirri led the AHL in scoring last season and is in the mix for second-line center, but missed part of the preseason with a lower-body injury.
“Whatever the role, we want to be here,” Smith said. “We want to be on this squad and part of this winning tradition that they’ve grown here over the last four, five, six years. Whatever role they ask me to do, I’ll be willing to do it.”
LOOK WHO’S BACK: Nikolai Khabibulin is beginning his second stint in Chicago after he signed a one-year deal to take Emery’s place as the backup for Corey Crawford. The 40-year-old Khabibulin also played for the Blackhawks from 2005-09. Crawford and Emery combined to win the William B. Jennings Trophy awarded to the team with the lowest goals-against average. Khabibulin will be hard-pressed to duplicate Emery’s 17-1 record from a year ago, but the Blackhawks are counting on him to spell Crawford enough to keep both players fresh.