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updated: 9/15/2011 9:06 PM

Ten key questions for Blackhawks as camp opens

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  • The longer off-season can do nothing but help Blackhawks veteran Marian Hossa.

      The longer off-season can do nothing but help Blackhawks veteran Marian Hossa.
    Associated Press

 
 

An off-season that seemed to drag on forever comes to an end Friday when the Blackhawks report to the United Center for physicals and the start of training camp.

Their first practices and scrimmages are Saturday, with the preseason opener happening already Tuesday against the Edmonton Oilers in Saskatoon.

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On paper the Hawks appear to be a serious contender to win their second Stanley Cup in three years, although a lot can happen between now and June.

But as talented and deep as the Hawks look to be, there are questions heading into training camp. There are always questions. Some will be answered in the next few weeks, while some won't be answered for months.

Here are 10 key questions facing the Hawks heading into the new season.

1. How much with Brian Campbell be missed?

Of course, there will be times when the Hawks miss Campbell's ability to skate the puck out of danger and get it down the ice as a defenseman.

But trading his $7.1 million cap hit to Florida gave general manager Stan Bowman a lot of financial freedom to pursue free agents and re-sign Patrick Sharp.

As important as Campbell was at times, he did have only 27 points in 65 games. Summer acquisition Steve Montador had 26 points with Buffalo.

If second-year defenseman Nick Leddy continues to develop, the Hawks will miss Campbell even less.

2. Will the toughness added during the off-season make a difference?

Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Sharp all have talked about how nice it will be to have more protection in the lineup.

"I think our core players will be comfortable out there," coach Joel Quenneville said.

The Hawks were one of the easiest teams to play against last season because they lacked a physical presence.

That won't be the case this year. Montador, Daniel Carcillo, Sean O'Donnell and Jamal Mayers bring toughness, and they should have an effect on holdovers such as Bryan Bickell and Viktor Stalberg playing tougher.

The Hawks absolutely need to be more difficult to play against in the United Center, where they were just 24-17-0.

3. Is Corey Crawford the real deal?

There's no reason to think he is not. Crawford won 33 games as a rookie, showing strong technique and fundamentals. Nobody should expect him to take a step back.

4. Who will be the backup goalie?

Veteran Ray Emery comes to camp on a tryout basis and could be the front-runner to be No. 2 based on his experience.

However, the Hawks are high on Swedish rookie Alexander Salak, who needs to have a great camp to beat out Emery.

One thing to remember about Salak is he signed a two-year, one-way contract, which means he would receive his salary of $612,500 even if plays at Rockford. That could factor into a final decision.

5. Will Marian Hossa stay healthy?

Probably nobody on the Hawks needed this long off-season more than Hossa, who had played on teams that went to the Stanley Cup Finals the previous three springs.

Hossa missed 17 games last season with an assortment of injuries, which kept setting him back to square one.

Hossa is 32 now but still can be one of the most dangerous offensive players in the game when he is healthy. He did score 25 goals last season in 65 games, but if he can play a full year there's no reason to think he can't be a 40-goal guy again.

Hossa has a history of durability, so the Hawks are hoping last year was just a fluke.

6. Should there be any reason to worry about Duncan Keith?

Absolutely not.

Keith admitted he lost focus last year and certainly there was a fatigue factor involved in him having a subpar year by his standards.

But Keith remains one of the game's elite defensemen, as in top 10, and it's not as if he was truly awful in 2010-11. He did have 45 points and was minus-1 while averaging more than 26 minutes of ice time.

Keith got tired of being asked what was wrong last season and certainly will be motivated to take his place again among Norris Trophy candidates.

7. Does Ben Smith have a job to lose?

Let's say yes.

But if Smith plays in the preseason as well as he did late last year and in the playoffs he should be a top-six forward.

Smith's grittiness was a breath of fresh air down the stretch, and he showed the ability to get to the tough scoring areas around the net and finish his chances. The kid is a gamer.

8. Is Marcus Kruger ready?

The Hawks love his smarts and reliability defensively, and they need a No. 2 center, but Kruger doesn't have the size or offensive ability to fill that role. He's more of a third-line center, but Quenneville said the Hawks are a better team with Dave Bolland in that role, which is true.

Maybe Kruger will be the Hawks' fourth-line center, a guy who can play up in the lineup when needed and kill penalties. Then again, a little time in Rockford might not be the worst thing for him.

9. Who is the second-line center?

It's Sharp for now, assuming he is healthy to start the regular season after undergoing an emergency appendectomy Monday.

While the Hawks might be a better team with Sharp playing wing, having him at center on the second line does help spread around the offense.

You can be sure Bowman will be looking for a legitimate second center all season and right up to the trade deadline and should be able to get one of the better ones available with $3.4 million in cap space to work with.

10. Can Patrick Kane go to another level?

Kane is noticeably bigger and stronger and has talked several times this summer of his desire to be one of the top scorers in the NHL.

Kane had 73 points in 73 games last season, including 27 goals. Not too shabby. Many believe Kane has a huge breakout year in his future where he approaches 40 goals and 100 points.

The skill level certainly is there. The rest is up to him.

tsassone@dailyherald.com

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