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Home Sports From 109 points to what? Test is tougher now

From 109 points to what? Test is tougher now

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USA TODAY Sports speaks with NHL Players and ask them about their offseason training.
USA TODAY Sports

When the Chicago Blackhawks won three Stanley Cups over six seasons from 2010-15, general manager Stan Bowman was constantly forced to shuffle his deck to comply with the salary cap constraints.

His skillful retooling of the Blackhawks every season was an important element of his team’s success.

The Blackhawks are an organization accustomed to thriving in the midst of constant change, but what happened this offseason will provide them their sternest challenge since Bowman took over as GM for the start of the 2009-10 season.

“This is a little bit different,” Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane told USA TODAY Sports. “We’ve moved on from some core players. It has a little bit of a different feel.  We need to come together quickly. There are so many new players coming in.”

The Blackhawks finished the regular season last April with a Western Conference-leading 109 points. But that feels like a long time ago.

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Since then, Marian Hossa announced he can’t play this season because of a skin condition, and top four defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson and dynamic 31-goal scorer Artemi Panarin were dealt to the Arizona Coyotes and Columbus Blue Jackets, respectively. Dependable role player Marcus Kruger is also gone.

Among the additions: The Blackhawks reacquired Brandon Saad from Columbus in the Panarin deal, and former Blackhawk Patrick Sharp, 35, was signed as a free agent.

“Even with them, we have to develop that chemistry again,” Kane said.

Saad likely will play with Jonathan Toews because they had success in the past. Richard Panik will play the other wing.

But a key for the Blackhawks this season will be replacing Panarin on the line with Artem Anisimov and Kane. Panarin and Kane played a comparable creative style.

It’s anyone’s guess whether it will be Patrick Sharp, Nick Schmaltz or even Ryan Hartman who ends up on that line.

“We’ve seen with Joel Quenneville before that it doesn’t really matter what the lines are at the beginning of season,” Kane said, chuckling. “He’s going to move people around and you are going to play with different players.”

Kane said before Panarin ended up with the Blackhawks, “I don’t know if I ever had a line.”

“I played with every different forward we had,” Kane said.

The loss of Hossa is significant because he is as effective defensively as he is offensively. He’s a complete player, and has been vital to the Blackhawks’ success.

Although the Blackhawks still boast Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, Hjalmarsson’s departure leaves their defense more unsettled than it has been in years. Hjalmarsson is a strong one-on-one defender.

Connor Murphy, acquired in the Hjalmarsson deal, will be expected to raise his level.

“I also think the (Michal) Kempny kid is pretty good,” Kane said. “I know he didn’t play much last year, but he is really strong, is a good skater and he’s got a great shot. He could be the guy.”

It seems absurd to believe that a team that registered 109 points last season would have difficulty qualifying for the playoffs now, but the Central Division doesn’t offer guarantees.

If you accept that the Dallas Stars may be the league’s most improved team and the Winnipeg Jets are close to becoming formidable, the Central now has six playoff-caliber teams competing for four playoff spots, with an outside shot at five.

That’s why the Blackhawks will view this season as a major challenge.

Maybe the key performer will be Quenneville. He is in charge of finding the right linemate for Kane and rebuilding the defensive corps. It’s also his job to empower Schmaltz to develop the consistency needed to be an NHL regular.

Quenneville will be fired up by this new test — molding this new-look squad into a consistent playoff winner again.

“Sometimes it’s not bad to have a little extra motivation,” Kane said. “Sometimes you come into training camp and you have a little more focus. … I think there will be a little more emphasis on training and they we are all dialed in ready to go.”

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