Suffering from a Stanley Cup hangover, and the gutting of their roster that followed, the Chicago Blackhawks struggled at times in 2010-2011, but were a better team than their place in the standings might suggest, closer to contenders than pretenders.
Unlike many of his teammates, Jonathan Toews simply continued his career ascent, setting career highs in goals, assists, points, plus-minus and time on ice. It could be asking a lot of Toews to set new career marks in his fifth NHL season, but even if he won't necessarily put up elite scoring numbers, he's so reliable and well-rounded (with a double digit plus rating in each of his four NHL seasons) that he's among the safest selections going into the season.
Toews' running mate, Patrick Kane, may be a little more volatile, and is recovering from a wrist injury suffered this summer, yet he's also the only right winger (depending which wing you assign to Martin St. Louis) in the league to have scored at least 70 points in each of the last four seasons. Kane has the ability to match the 88 points and plus-16 rating he registered in 2009-2010, but it's safer to expect his point total to fall in the 70-75 range.
Coming off a career-high 71-point seasoon, Patrick Sharp is working his way into a more prominent role. He's not at the level of Kane or Toews, but his value isn't that far off, particularly in leagues that give Sharp wing eligibility. Over the last four seasons, Sharp is one of 23 NHLers to have scored at least .40 goals per game.
Prior to signing in Chicago, Marian Hossa had been quite durable, playing at least 72 games in nine straight seasons, but he's missed 42 games over the last two seasons, cutting into his production. Even so, Hossa has scored at least 24 goals and 50 points for 11 straight seasons and that kind of reliability, combined with the possibility that he could have a reasonably healthy season, makes Hossa quite valuable.
After winning the Norris Trophy in 2009-2010, Duncan Keith struggled at times last season, finishing with an uncharacteristic minus rating. Keith still has the game to rank among the best blueliners in the league, and any kind of rebound effort from Keith will have his numbers close to the best at the position.
As Keith's value declined last year, Brent Seabrook rose to the challenge, putting in the best offensive season of his career, scoring 48 points. Maybe Seabrook isn't quite as offensively-inclined as some other defencemen, but his well-rounded game makes him a safe, reliable pick in all leagues.
It took nearly half a season for Corey Crawford to take over the starting job, but he impressed when he finally got his chance. With only one full NHL season under his belt, Crawford does present some risk, but his upside, as the clear starter on a contending team, will make him worthy of interest on draft day.
Ray Emery and Alexander Salak will battle for the backup job behind Crawford and either one of them could be an interesting deep sleeper. Crawford is the established number one, but he's been established in that role for less than half a season. If he falters or gets hurt, then one of the backups could see significant playing time.
If he could stay healthy, centre Dave Bolland might be primed for a move into the spotlight. After his sensational postseason play over the last three years (34 points in 43 playoff games), there is enough evidence that Bolland could be at least a 50-point centre, but he has to stay in the lineup. Bolland has missed 64 games over the last two regular seasons, so it's difficult to suddenly expect a full season out of him, but he is a factor when he plays.
With a strong core of forwards, the Blackhawks have complementary wingers that might provide some value, depending on how the playing time shakes out. Veteran Andrew Brunette never misses a game and, even if he's not the most fleet afoot, still has soft mitts down low in the offensive zone. He's averaged 57 points per season over the last 11 years, so despite low penalty minute totals, he's often useful depth at a shallow left wing position.
Bryan Bickell was a solid contributor in his rookie season and might produce more if given a more offensive role, but he may simply be a better fit in a third-line role with the Blackhawks, which could limit his offensive upside.
For leagues that reward penalty minutes newcomer Daniel Carcillo may have value. He'll have to score more than the six points in 57 games he managed for the Flyers last year, but he's had two seasons with at least 20 points and 200 penalty minutes and that combo would work in deep leagues.
Talented winger Michael Frolik saw his production drop in his third NHL season and it actually got worse in Chicago after he was acquired from Florida. The skilled 23-year-old is a classic sleeper who has already registered two 20-goal seasons and has the creativity to hit for 30 in the right circumstances. This year, a return to 20-plus is a reasonable target.
For those in deep leagues, consider Viktor Stalberg in later rounds. He had a modest 24 points last season, but played just 10:42 per game. If Stalberg happened to earn a spot among the top six forwards and played 15 minutes a night, he could have a breakthrough season.
Their strong core makes the Blackhawks a desirable team when it comes to fantasy, not only for the top level guys, but also picking around the edges to get value from the likes of Bolland, Frolik and others.
Depth Chart - Chicago Blackhawks
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy Sports on Facebook.