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All eyes on resurgent Blackhawks

Wednesday, 09.03.2008 / 9:00 AM / Season Preview

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

The renaissance of the Chicago Blackhawks is scoring the Windy City's hockey club front-page headlines across North America.

Patrick Kane winning the Calder Trophy. The NHL Winter Classic. Brian Campbell. Cristobal Huet. Scotty Bowman.

It's been a summer of fun in Chicago after a season of change that saw youngsters such as Kane and new team captain Jonathan Toews turn into superstars, while defenseman Duncan Keith developed into an All-Star and veterans like Patrick Sharp and Robert Lang supremely played supporting roles. Lang has since been traded to Montreal.

Now it's time to kick it up a notch.

With the additions of Campbell and Huet, the most coveted defenseman and goalie in this year's bumper crop of talented, unrestricted free agents, anything but a playoff berth, and probably a high seed to boot, will be considered a disappointment.

The Hawks gave it a run last season, but eventually fell three points shy of scoring their first playoff berth since 2002.

"They told us they would do everything on the management side to make Chicago a contender and the best place to play in the NHL," Sharp told NHL.com. "They've definitely given us the best chance to win. As a player, that's all you can ask for."

Goalies

Huet and incumbent starter Nikolai Khabibulin will push each other for playing time while Corey Crawford, who signed a three-year extension this summer, still waits in the wings.

Huet surprisingly came to the Blackhawks on July 1, the opening day of the free agent shopping market, on a four-year contract. Clearly, the Hawks view him as the goalie of their immediate future, but for at least a year he'll have to compete with Khabibulin, who is entering the final year of his deal.

 

Huet comes to the Hawks after playing the best stretch of hockey in his career for the Washington Capitals last season.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
2007-08 SEASON STATS

Category Rank (Conference)
2007-08 Points 88
(10th West/20th NHL)
Change from 2006-07 +17
Home Points 48
(9th West/15th NHL)
Away Points 40
(11th West/23rd NHL)

The Montreal Canadiens traded him to D.C. in a stunning deadline deal, and Huet wrestled the No. 1 job away from Olaf Kolzig by going 11-2 with a 1.63 goals-against average down the stretch to not only get the Caps into the playoffs, but help them grab the third seed as Southeast Division champions.

Khabibulin, who won the Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay in 2004, did his part in the Blackhawks' resurgent season. Over 50 appearances, Khabibulin was 23-20-6 with a 2.63 GAA and two shutouts.

Crawford is ready to assume a bigger role with the Hawks, but there is just no room for him right now.

Forwards

When GM Dale Tallon talks about his young team scoring goals, you'd have to be a hockey fan living in a box to not realize he's talking about the ever-popular duo of Kane and Toews.

Their names are starting to go together like Gretzky and Messier, Magic and Kareem, Mantle and Maris or Montana and Rice -- just without all the records and championships, of course.

Kane and Toews -- get used to it, if you haven't done so already -- are the faces of the franchise and two of the best-known youngsters in the NHL today.

Kane, 19 and the No. 1 pick just 14 and a half months ago, led the Hawks last season with 51 assists and 72 points. Toews, 20, and considered more the grinder of the two, was named the 34th captain in team history this summer.

Toews had 24 goals and 30 assists to go along with a plus-11 rating over 64 games last season. He missed 16-straight games with a knee injury midway through the campaign, and the Hawks went 5-9-2 without him.

The presence of Kane and Toews helped Sharp, the third man on the top line last season, put together a career year. Sharp led the Hawks with 36 goals and was second in assists (62) and plus-minus rating (plus-23).

Kane and Toews aren't the only young forwards looking to build on breakout seasons. Adam Burish and Dustin Byfuglien were each impact players as rookies, but for different reasons. Byfuglien, a converted defenseman, could turn into one of the top power forwards in the Western Conference this season after scoring 19 goals and dishing out 17 assists last season. Look for him to reprise his role on the power play after playing close to four minutes per game there last season. Burish is not much of a scorer -- he had only 8 points -- but he wracked up 214 penalty minutes in a fourth-line role. He led Hawks' forwards with 230-plus minutes on the penalty kill.

If you're looking for a youngster to make an impact this season, that could be Jack Skille, a former first-round pick who saw time in 16 games last season and scored three goals. The Hawks love his speed and his ability to be a physical player, too.

Petri Kontiola is another prospect who could find his way onto the roster. The Finnish center played 12 games in Chicago this past season and registered five assists and a plus-5 rating. He played 66 games with the Rockford IceHogs of the AHL and had 68 points on 18 goals and 50 assists. He was also a plus-17.

If Martin Havlat can stay healthy -- he hasn't played in at least 60 games since 2003-04 -- the Hawks should get plenty of offense from their second line as well.

Andrew Ladd, who was acquired from Carolina at the trade deadline last season, will look to build off his strong finish. The former first-round pick had 12 points in 20 games with Chicago.

Craig Adams and Ben Eager are veterans at coach Denis Savard's disposal and Dave Bolland is also in the mix. But there are a slew of prospects that could make the team out of training camp, including first-round draft pick Kyle Beach, who was selected to be the power forward that plays with Kane and Toews in years to come.

Defensemen

Campbell found his home in Chicago and now he's tasked with being the team's power-play quarterback and top defenseman. The slick puck-rusher is exactly what the Blackhawks were missing last season.

Combined with the Buffalo Sabres and San Jose Sharks, Campbell put together the finest season of his career with 62 points over 83 regular season games. He was the only player in the League last season to play in 83 games.

Campbell is usually the fastest skater on his team, but in Chicago he's got quite a challenge on his hands with Keith, who finished last season with 32 points and a plus-30 rating while playing in all 82 games.

It will be interesting to see if Savard plays Keith and Campbell together on a regular basis. Both will be keys to the Hawks' power play, but with Brent Sopel and Brent Seabrook, Savard may choose to separate his speed skaters while at even strength.

Seabrook tied Keith last season for most points among Hawks' defensemen with 32, though his came on nine goals and 23 assists. He was a plus-13 after playing to a minus-6 in 2006-07, his second season in the NHL.

Sopel is more of a stay-at-home guy, though he has some offensive upside to him as he has registered at least 20 points in each of the last six seasons. Similarly, James Wisniewski is probably more geared toward the defensive side, but can join the rush.

Cam Barker is an offensive threat coming off the blue line, and should be in line to play his first full NHL season. Barker played 35 games with Chicago in 2006-07 and 45 last season after being called up in late December. He has 26 career points. Even though Barker played just over half the games, he still finished third behind Keith and Seabrook among power-play ice time for defensemen. He led the group by playing 2:55 on the power play per game.

While there are others that could play among the top six defensemen, including Jordan Hendry and former St. Louis blueliner Matt Walker, look for Niklas Hjalmarsson, a 21-year-old Swede, to make a push for a roster spot out of training camp. Hjalmarsson played 13 games for the Hawks last season and had an assist and a minus-2 rating. In 47 games with Rockford he had four goals, nine assists and a minus-8 rating. It was his first season in North America.

Three reasons for optimism

* Kane and Toews are a year older and will no longer be surprised by the grind of the NHL season, the travel, new buildings, their stardom and the amount of emphasis the opposition puts on stopping them.

* Campbell and Huet proved Chicago is a place where coveted free agents want to play. It will only enhance the attention the Blackhawks get this season, and that should fill their long-time (and somewhat long-suffering) fans with pride. The NHL Winter Classic, which takes place New Year's Day at Wrigley Field, will put Chicago on display.

* More kids are coming, including Skille, Beach and Hjalmarsson, which means the Hawks shouldn't just be a good team now, but for a long, long time.

Contact Dan Rosen at drosen@nhl.com

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Quote of the Day

Right now I'm just happy to be back and get through this season and make sure I do my job. I've never had an issue with having to prove myself again and I'll try to do it again. We'll see where it takes me.

— Defenseman Torey Krug on signing with the Boston Bruins
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