Last season: For the second year in a row the Chicago Blackhawks were eliminated in the opening round of the playoffs, losing to the Phoenix Coyotes in the Western Conference Quarterfinal. The biggest reason for their early exit: Coyotes goalie Mike Smith outplayed Corey Crawford by a significant margin. The Blackhawks controlled most of the series, doing what they do in terms of dominating puck possession, but couldn't find a way to solve Smith. They're returning most of their core players and should once again be a force in the Western Conference playoff race.
Key offseason losses: Sami Lepisto, Andrew Brunnette, Brandon Morrison, Sean O'Donnell
Some veteran depth and bit players, but nothing to really to lose any sleep over. Brendan Morrison seemed like a solid gamble to pick up at the trade deadline but didn't record a single point in 11 games with the Blackhawks.
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Key offseason additions: Michal Rozsival, Sheldon Brookbank
Michal Rozsival was a really nice, cheap, under-the-radar signing to add even more depth to a blue line that's already pretty deep. He's a solid two-way defender that always seems to play better and provide more value than his box score numbers (one goal, 12 assists in 2011-12) would suggest.
Breakout player: Brandon Saad
A former second-round pick, Brandon Saad was able to get his first taste of NHL action last season, appearing in two games for the Blackhawks, and could get an even larger look in 2012. He's a potential power forward that seems to have a nose for the net.
Player on the hot seat: Corey Crawford
After the way he played in the postseason the Blackhawks need a bounceback from Crawford. It wasn't just the fact that he didn't play well in the postseason, he had a knack for giving up some really bad goals at the absolute worst time in the game and series.
Why they will succeed: If Marian Hossa is healthy and able to return from the concussion he received in last year's playoffs they're as deep as any team in the NHL at forward and have an excellent defense anchored by the top pairing of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Heck, even if Hossa isn't ready for the start of the season they're still loaded up front with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Dave Bolland, and youngsters like Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger. Goaltending is still a question mark, but the Blackhawks still do their part to limit how much their goalies have to do by holding a significant edge on the shot chart.
Why they won't succeed: But, there's still that goaltending issue that keeps creeping up for the Blackhawks. Crawford, entering his third your as a starter, had a strong rookie season in 2010-11, including a great performance in the playoffs against Vancouver, but regressed badly in his sophomore season.
Realistic expectations: Even with back-to-back first-round exits the Blackhawks are a Stanley Cup contender.