2008-09 Team Preview: Chicago Blackhawks
AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
OUR EXPERT'S TAKE
By Scott BurnsideIt's hard to think of a more dramatic turnaround of a pro sports franchise, let alone one with such a long history, than the one currently being enjoyed by the Chicago Blackhawks. Games on television, season-ticket sales through the roof, top free-agent talent coming to town, dynamic young franchise players, including the defending rookie of the year. Gee, now all the Blackhawks have to do is put it all together and actually make the playoffs.
Despite injuries to key personnel, including rookie Jonathan Toews, the Blackhawks finished just three points out of the playoffs in 2007-08. GM Dale Tallon added puck-moving specialist Brian Campbell to the back end and solid goaltender Cristobal Huet to close two gaps in the Blackhawks lineup. Defending rookie of the year Patrick Kane has bulked up, and Toews, now team captain, is ready to roll. In short, it will be a major setback if the Blackhawks don't make the postseason for the first time since 2001-02. You can bet everyone, from the NHL offices and beyond, will be watching.
The Blackhawks were a respectable 10th overall in goals per game, and that was without Toews for six weeks and without ever-brittle Martin Havlat, who played just 35 games. If Toews stays healthy, Havlat can stick around for most of the year and Campbell can chip in 50 to 60 points from the back end, the Blackhawks have the ability to become a top-five offensive producer this season. Kane looks more like a man than the stick boy he was before the 2007-08 season, so at least matching the 72 points he put up last season isn't out of the question. Robert Lang is gone, but his foot speed or lack thereof won't be missed, and there are a handful of youngsters, including Jack Skille and reformed defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, who will more than make up for the veteran's departure. The Hawks aren't particularly deep down the middle, and coach Denis Savard is toying with the idea of moving Kane from the wing to the middle. Havlat likely will start the season playing with Toews and maybe Patrick Sharp, while Kane and Byfuglien form a tandem.
The Blackhawks were 20th overall in goals allowed per game last season. Some of that was spotty goaltending from Nikolai Khabibulin, especially in the first half of the season, but it was also the mark of a very young team learning to play good defense. In the second half, the Hawks improved overall, dropping their goals-against from 2.98 to 2.75. All four of the team's shutouts were recorded in the second half. The future looks exceedingly bright along the blue line with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook both maturing nicely. Cam Barker, the third overall pick in 2004, started to show signs he gets it as an NHL defenseman and should take a big step forward, perhaps playing alongside Campbell, who should help the Hawks in moving the puck out to their skilled forwards.
It wasn't that Khabibulin was awful every night, just often enough to keep Chicago chasing the playoff pack. Khabibulin recently cleared waivers, and Tallon is weighing his options, looking to move the goalie's $6.75 million salary. Given that the GM has more than $12 million tied up in goaltending this season, it probably makes sense. It's not a top priority, however, as Tallon will want to make sure his second big coup of the free-agent season, Huet, pans out. The former Montreal netminder was sensational in Washington, where he went 11-2 after the Caps picked him up at the trade deadline. Huet was a key part of the Caps' unlikely postseason run, and if he can deliver the consistency he did late last season, the Blackhawks should be in the playoffs.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
FROM INSIDE THE GM'S BRAIN ...
By Jay FeasterImprovements continue to come in waves for the Blackhawks. A new No. 1 goalie (Cristobal Huet), a new No. 1 defenseman (Brian Campbell), a new team president (John McDonough), a new senior advisor (Scotty Bowman), a new pro scout (Joel Quennville) and home games on television. There is a real buzz in the air for this season's Hawks.
Chicago also boasts two of the best young players in the game in Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, and both are only scratching the surface in terms of their immense talents. The blue line is young and talented and should be a strength for years to come. This year's top draft pick, Kyle Beach, could be a grand slam if he keeps his head about him and worries simply about being the best player possible. Jack Skille, the first-round pick in 2005, has all the tools necessary to become an impact player.
The Hawks will be a playoff team if they get anything approaching a full season out of Martin Havlat. Few players in the game are as breathtaking and capable of dominating as Havlat, but injuries continue to plague his career.
Jay Feaster served as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning from 2001-02 season before resigning last season. He is a contributor to ESPN.com.
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• Record: 40-34-8
• Division: Third in the Central
• Conference: Ninth in the West
• Playoffs: Did not qualify
• Starting Jan. 28, the Blackhawks play eight straight games on the road. Just for fun, they finish with a game on Friday the 13th (of February) in St. Louis and one at home the next night against Dallas. Yikes.
Experience: 2 years
Stanley Cup titles: 0
• Last season, Denis Savard proved he has head-coaching stuff as he kept the injury-riddled, inexperienced Blackhawks in the playoff race until the final days of the regular season. Now, Savard will face a different, more difficult challenge in getting an emerging power to the next level. One has to imagine Savard will have to have the Hawks solidly in the playoff mix from the get-go to maintain job security.
STARTING FIVE ... AS WE SEE ITF -- Patrick Kane
Kane has packed on more pounds and should be more mentally tough. He told ESPN.com before the season that he hit a wall midway through 2007-08 and wasn't exactly sure how to respond. This season, he said he is determined to avoid long goalless stretches that wore on him (at one point between late December and mid-February, Kane scored just twice in 19 games).
F -- Dave Bolland
Tallon said he thinks Bolland might end up being one of the team's best two-way players. The 22-year-old had 17 points in 39 games for the Hawks and was a plus-6 in 2007-08.
F -- Dustin Byfuglien
One of the most interesting players on this roster, Byfuglien came to the big club as a defenseman and ended up playing on the top two lines as a forward. He is a monster at 6-foot-3, but he'll be a slimmed-down monster this year as he has come to camp at 247 pounds, down from 256. Byfuglien has terrific hands and a whopper shot and could improve dramatically on the 19 goals he had a year ago.
D -- Brent Seabrook
Seabrook emerged as a leader on the blue line, tying for the team lead among defensemen with 32 points and averaging 21:29 a night in ice time, second on the team. At 6-foot-3, Seabrook is evolving into the complete defensive package. Although he could see some time playing with newcomer Campbell, he played most of last season with former roommate Keith.
D -- Duncan Keith
Although not quite as physically imposing as Seabrook, Keith is heart and soul and an integral part of the team's defensive identity. He has played every game for the Hawks the past two seasons and was an impressive plus-30 in 2007-08, second among NHL defensemen.
Answer: Yes. It won't be easy, but if there's anyone who was born to wear the "C," it's Toews. Last season, former captain Martin Lapointe said the team should just put it on the young center and be done with it. Now, it's done, and Toews seems impossibly mature and able to handle the responsibilities while continuing to produce on the ice. The one thing, Seabrook said recently, is Toews has to know when to turn off the seriousness. A collection of young teammates should help make it easier to turn that switch off.
Bust: Duncan Keith, D: The offseason addition of Brian Campbell may take away some power-play opportunities for Keith, and he could be stuck on the second pairing all season.Fantasy outlook: The Blackhawks finished 2007-08 as the 10th-best team in the league with 2.85 goals per game, and were fourth in penalty minutes. Offensively, the franchise took the league a little by surprise, paced by all-rookie team members Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. In net, Cristobal Huet has already become the regular starter in Chicago and ranks among the second tier of goaltenders, meaning he would make a great No. 1 for any team. -- Tim Kavanagh