Chicago Blackhawks season preview

Updated: October 2, 2006, 12:33 PM ET
ESPN.com

Chicago Blackhawks

STARTING LINE

By Scott Burnside, ESPN.com

The Blackhawks are in a similar position to the Blue Jackets. They came off a miserable season, but have reasons for significant optimism if not this season then in the not-too-distant future. The big difference is the Blackhawks are a storied franchise gone to seed with an owner who remains caught in an unfortunate time warp. That said, it's not beyond the realm of possibility that, if recent history reverses itself and the Blackhawks get a few breaks, they could sneak into the playoffs. That's a lot of "ifs" and they start with vastly improved play from netminder Nikolai Khabibulin, the biggest free-agent bust of last season. Still, with the arrival of Martin Havlat and Michal Handzus up front and the emergence of Brent Seabrook as a blue-chip defender last season, the Blackhawks are on the verge. Maybe.

Offense: Only the anemic St. Louis Blues scored fewer goals than Chicago's 211 last season, so it's a good thing this team has had an almost complete face-lift with its top two point producers, Kyle Calder and Mark Bell, both gone. Havlat will be the new face of what should be a more up-tempo offense. He's never been the go-to guy before, but has the tools and appears to have the chutzpah to accept such a role. Having become the team's highest-paid skater, Havlat will be expected to pull down 85 points minimum. Assuming Tuomo Ruutu can bounce back from his latest injury setback, he and Havlat will provide a dynamic pair of flankers. Expect Handzus, one of the best two-way centers in the game, to start out between the two talented wingers, although Bryan Smolinski, who came over from Ottawa in the Havlat deal, may also get a shot as a first-line center. Regardless, the team that last season boasted the worst power play in the league should be exponentially better this season. Watch for Denis Arkhipov, who returns from two seasons in Russia, to provide some depth. Tony Salmelainen, a former Oilers prospect, will also get a chance to chip in. Rene Bourque looked great in stretches for the Hawks as a rookie, scoring 16 goals, and his continued development would be an added bonus.

Defense: The Blackhawks were, not surprisingly, a mess on defense last season, ranking 27th overall and 14th in the Western Conference in goals allowed. Still, this is an area of considerable promise. Seabrook, the 14th pick in 2003, was impressive in his rookie campaign last season. Duncan Keith, another promising talent, signed a long-term deal this summer and is another part of a solid defensive foundation. Cam Barker, the third overall pick in 2004, will miss the first month or so with a fractured ankle and spend most of the season with Norfolk. If Adrian Aucoin and Jassen Cullimore, who played in just 87 games between them last season, can stay healthy and log the ice time, their salaries suggest the Blackhawks' defense should also improve dramatically. Watch for Jim Vandermeer, a former Flyers prospect, to continue to evolve as a skilled puck-moving defender. One key element of the Blackhawks' defensive posture will be their discipline. Unable to adjust to the new rules and enforcement standards, they were the most penalized team in the NHL (547 times shorthanded compared to 348 for the New Jersey Devils, the least-penalized team in the league). The penalty-killing unit was solid (ninth overall), but staying out of the box should be priority.

Goaltending: Who could blame Khabibulin when GM Dale Tallon offered to make him the league's highest-paid goalie prior to last season? No one. People may forget, however, that Khabibulin actually righted the ship before being injured at the tail end of the season. He'll need to build on that stretch if he's going to return to the form that saw him lead the Tampa Bay Lightning to the 2004 Stanley Cup. This season will go a long way toward determining whether Khabibulin is truly an elite netminder or one of those goalies who will be left in the wake of the new game. To add insurance (and speaking of goalies who've been left behind by the game), the Hawks brought in former Senators netminder Patrick Lalime, who won't be available until after Christmas after undergoing surgery to repair a herniated disc sustained working out before training camp. Typical Blackhawks luck -- they then had to scramble and sign Brian Boucher. Hawks fans better hope Khabibulin stays healthy.

Coaching: Former Blackhawks defenseman Trent Yawney had a true baptism by fire last season, his first as an NHL coach. But he appears to have the confidence and faith of both management and the players. One has to believe that a giant step forward will have to be taken to ensure his future in Chicago. And it might happen.

WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
13th It would be a nice story, especially for a tattered old Original Six franchise, if the Hawks could creep back to respectability, but it's asking a little too much. Chicago finishes fourth in the Central and 13th in the West.

BUZZ FACTOR
Stock Down
Stock down. Perhaps no professional sports team has squandered such a rich tradition and history the way the Blackhawks have. The Hawks ranked 29th in attendance last season and that figures to stay the same even in the face of significant additions.



FANTASY AND THE FUTURE
TRISTAN COCKCROFT'S FANTASY SPIN
THE HOCKEY NEWS' TOP PROSPECTS
Chicago's fortunes again rest on goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, who has yet to justify his four-year, $27-million contract. Season No. 2 should be better, but he doesn't have much more to work with this time around, keeping him a No. 3 fantasy goalie. It'll be interesting to see how Martin Havlat handles being a go-to guy; he'll receive more scoring chances, but his plus/minus will be a wash for fantasy. Still, Havlat could mean big dividends for Tuomo Ruutu, a potential point-per-game performer if healthy. The Hockey News' Top 5 Prospects for the Blackhawks:
1. Cam Barker, 20, D, Medicine Hat (WHL)
Statline: 26 GP, 5 G, 13 A, 63 PIM
2. Jack Skille, 19, RW, Wisconsin (WCHA)
Statline: 39 GP, 13 G, 7 A, 35 PIM
3. David Bolland, 20, C, London (OHL)
Statline: 59 GP, 57 G, 73 A, 104 PIM
4. Michael Blunden, 19, RW, Eric (OHL)
Statline: 60 GP, 46 G, 38 A, 63 PIM
5. Corey Crawford, 21, G, Norfolk (AHL)
Statline: 22-23-1 record, 2.94 GAA, .898 SV%
• Subscribe to The Hockey News

Chicago Blackhawks
When We Last Saw Them ...
Record26-43-13 (65 points)
DivisionFinished fourth in Central
ConferenceFinished 14th in West
PlayoffsDid not qualify

Who To Watch Now ...
Center: Michal Handzus
It cost the Blackhawks Kyle Calder, but Handzus brings a terrific two-way game to a team that lacked one last season.
Winger: Martin Havlat
Was he worth $6 million a year for the next three years? He'll be worth every penny if the Blackhawks defy critics and sneak into the playoffs.
Defense: Brent Seabrook
Trial by fire for the rookie D-man last season and he emerged unscathed. If he can take another step forward this season, the Blackhawks' playoff chances go way up.
Goalie: Nikolai Khabibulin
What more needs to be said about the game's highest-paid goalie? The biggest free-agent bust of last season is now looking for big-time redemption.

Key Moves
Adding a topflight scorer for the new, wide-open NHL in Havlat was crucial, but adding responsibility in Handzus and depth in Arkhipov may turn out to be just as important.

SportsNation
Rating the Blackhawks
The Chicago Blackhawks finished in next to last place in the Western Conference last season, but what is the team's outlook this time around? Who will lead the Blackhawks in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench?
Vote now, SportsNation!