2007-08 Team Preview: Chicago Blackhawks

Updated: September 30, 2007, 4:08 PM ET

AP Photo/Jimmy Jeong

Martin Havlat missed 26 games, but still led the Blackhawks in scoring last season.

The Starting Line

Tom Petty once sang that the waiting was the hardest part. That riff pretty much sums up the situation for the Chicago Blackhawks and the remaining fans of the once-proud franchise. Well, the wait might not yet be over, but it's getting close. With a bevy of top draft picks preparing to make an impact this season, the Blackhawks will get a sense of just how close they are to returning to relevance, and the playoffs.

With an expected decline in Nashville, the Blackhawks could make life interesting if youngsters like Jonathan Toews, Jack Skille and Patrick Kane, the first overall pick in last June's draft, make contributions to the big club this season. A young and talented defense showed some signs of improvement and players like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Cam Barker and James Wisniewski will all be expected to take another step forward in their development. Throw in a handful of veterans like Sergei Samsonov, Robert Lang, Yanic Perreault and Kevyn Adams, and there are interesting things afoot in the Windy City.

OFFENSE
There simply wasn't much in the way of offense last season in Chicago. When star sniper Martin Havlat went down less than a month into the season with a high ankle sprain, the air went out of the team's scoring balloon and the Hawks tied with Columbus for 29th in goals scored. The squad will likely have to come up with 55-60 more goals to stay in the playoff hunt and improve on a league-worst power play. Having Havlat healthy will be a start. He missed 26 games in all and still led Chicago in scoring. Lang likely will start out as the team's No. 1 center, although the longtime scoring machine has lost a step, or two. Perreault adds further depth down the middle and is coming off a season that saw him named to the Western Conference All-Star squad. Samsonov has much to prove after a disastrous turn in Montreal, where he warred with coach Guy Carbonneau and was a healthy scratch for much of the last third of the season.

That's all window dressing, however, to the real show in Chicago -- Toews, the third overall pick in 2006, and Kane. Toews was a surprise addition to Canada's World Championships squad and was surprisingly good. Kane has added some bulk and will get every opportunity to stay with the big club even though he has another year of junior eligibility. It's possible the two could start out on the same line.

DEFENSE
It's a bit hard to assess how bad the Blackhawks defense was last season because most of the culprits are gone. Adrian Aucoin and Jassen Cullimore, who were supposed to lead the team, played just 59 and 65 games apiece. And when they did play, they didn't play well. That left a lot of the heavy lifting to players who are still learning the NHL game, primarily Keith, Barker, Seabrook and Wisniewski. Will such exposure, or overexposure as the case might be, stunt their growth or accelerate it? The answer is coming soon. That said, there is tremendous upside among the group, especially if Wisniewski can recover from an ACL injury that cost him the last month of the season. Andrei Zyuzin will add some puck-moving skill on the back end.

GOALTENDING
When GM Dale Tallon made Nikolai Khabibulin the top-paid goaltender in the game coming out of the lockout, he hoped to have solidified the position for years to come. It hasn't really worked out that way as Khabibulin has been injury-prone and at times inconsistent. Still, by the end of last season, he seemed back on track and finished with a 2.86 GAA and .902 save percentage in 60 games. Former Ottawa netminder Patrick Lalime was supposed to provide backup, but suffered a back injury last season and played in only 12 games. If he's healthy, he should offer much-needed depth. This position will be the pivotal factor in determining whether the Blackhawks can get back in the playoff hunt. With so many young players, the goaltending has to be solid. If it's not, confidence becomes an issue and the season could easily go off the rails.

COACHING
There was the requisite amount of snickering when longtime Chicago sniper Denis Savard was named coach midway through the season, replacing another former Chicago player Trent Yawney. To his credit, Savard did get the Hawks off to a great start under his tutelage. But injury and plain old gravity dragged the Backhawks to the bottom of the conference standings. Does Savard have the makings of an NHL coach? Like Wayne Gretzky in Phoenix, it's difficult to determine given the problems Savard inherited. But he'll have to prove he can nurture young talent in order to justify the contract extension he was handed this offseason.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.


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CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS

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LAST-SEASON REVIEW
• Record: 31-42-9
• Division: Fifth in the Central
• Conference: 13th in the West
• Playoffs: Did not qualify



PLAYERS TO WATCH

Khabibulin

Goalie: Nikolai Khabibulin
Khabibulin has averaged 55 appearances in the two seasons he's been a Blackhawk -- part-time work for a netminder once considered one of the game's best. If he's not playing in 65-plus, the Hawks will be buried once again.

Defenseman: Cam Barker
The third overall pick in 2004 played in 35 games as a rookie and was minus-12. He'll need to be better to justify his selection so high in the draft.

Forward: Jack Skille
He's the third member of Chicago's big three rookies up front. Injury has stunted his development, but he's got power forward potential the team is eager to see.

MORE FROM BURNSIDE

Buzz Cut
With the passing of longtime Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz, one wonders how long it will take before the ripple effect becomes evident in the day-to-day operations of the team.

Where They Will Finish
The Blackhawks will finish third in the Central Division and 10th in the Western Conference.

ESPN VIDEO

SPORTSNATION

Where do you think the Chicago Blackhawks will finish this time around? Who will lead the Blackhawks in scoring and what's your take on the man behind the bench? Vote now!

FANTASY TAKE

Ruutu

Jonathan Toews should be on your fantasy radar, just don't buy into the hype too much until we see what kind of role he plays. He should not be drafted as a full-time starter in shallower leagues. You know the rule of thumb with Martin Havlat and Tuomo Ruutu; they are terrific if they stay healthy, but they rarely do. Cam Barker should be a quality fantasy defenseman and leader for this club. Nikolai Khabibulin won't win enough games to get much fantasy love. -- Sean Allen

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