Blackhawks camp: 10 things to watch
Just because there aren't a lot of jobs available doesn't mean the Blackhawks' training camp will be dull.
There's plenty to watch for, starting with the battle for the No. 2 center job that always seems to be an issue. But the Hawks have won two Stanley Cups in the last four seasons without a true second-line center, so how big a problem can it be?
General manager Stan Bowman has cleared the deck of any distractions going into camp by extending the contracts of goalie Corey Crawford and defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, who would have been the team's only unrestricted free agents after the season, so it's all about the hockey now.
Here are 10 things to watch as training camp begins Thursday at Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.
1. Brandon Pirri:
The 22-year-old comes to camp with an opportunity to show if he can handle the second-line center job.
There's not much left for Pirri to prove at Rockford after he led the American Hockey League in scoring with 75 points. If the skilled forward can win the No. 2 center job, it would allow Marcus Kruger to start the year on the third line and Michal Handzus to be the fourth-line center.
2. Nikolai Khabibulin:
Bowman said the 40-year-old Khabibulin has plenty of gas left in the tank and now he has to prove it by staying healthy enough to start approximately 25 games.
If Khabibulin can't handle the role or stay healthy, it would force the Hawks to rush Finnish rookie Antti Raanta to the NHL.
3. Teuvo Teravainen:
The Hawks' first-round pick from 2012 is ticketed to start the season again with Jokerit of the Swedish Elite League, but training camp will provide the opportunity to showcase his formidable offensive skills and let him know what he needs to work on going forward.
4. Bryan Bickell, and Michal Handzus:
Both players are coming off significant injuries that they played through in the Final against Boston.
Bickell needed left thumb surgery after the season while Handzus played with a broken left wrist and a sprained knee. Both are expected to be ready for the regular season opener on Oct. 1 against Washington.
Bickell has the added pressure of living up to his new $4 million contract that he earned after being the best power forward in the playoffs by scoring 9 goals and 17 points.
5. Steve Weeks:
With former goalie coach Stephane Waite now in Montreal with GM Marc Bergevin, Weeks, a Joel Quenneville pal from their days as teammates in Hartford, has some big shoes to fill. Waite helped turn Antti Niemi and Corey Crawford into Stanley Cup-winning goaltenders.
6. Ben Smith:
Somebody needs to replace Michael Frolik as a fourth-line penalty-killing specialist, and Smith could be the guy.
After knocking on the door for several seasons, it's time for the 25-year-old Smith to kick it down and win a job. He had 27 goals in 54 games at Rockford last season.
7. Jeremy Morin:
If it's not Smith winning a job on the fourth line, maybe it will be Morin. Finally fully recovered from concussion issues that slowed his progress, Morin had 30 goals last season at Rockford and plays with an edge the Hawks like.
8. Adam Clendening:
With all seven defensemen returning from last year's Cup-winning team, there doesn't appear to be room for Clendening -- unless he shows the Hawks they can't do without him on the power play.
Clendening had 46 points in Rockford last season, most of them coming on the power play, and we all know how the Hawks struggled in that special teams department last season. Maybe the Hawks keep eight defensemen. Maybe Sheldon Brookbank needs to have a great camp.
9. Mark McNeill and Phillip Danault:
The two rookie centers, drafted in the first round in 2011, might need at least a year of pro seasoning in Rockford unless they show at camp they are more than ready for the NHL. If their play is ordinary, it's off to Rockford for sure.
10. Marian Hossa:
The last few games that Hossa played for the Hawks in the Final against Boston, his right foot was numb from a disk problem in his back.
Hossa thought he might need surgery but avoided it. At age 34 and with a bad back, however, it could become a problem going forward. The Hawks need a healthy Hossa if they are going to repeat.
• Follow Tim's hockey reports on Twitter @TimSassone and check out his Between the Circles blog at dailyherald.com.