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Blackhawks eager to feel the chill of the ice

Wednesday, 09.16.2009 / 3:00 AM / 2009-2010 Season Preview

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

Training camp couldn't arrive fast enough for the Chicago Blackhawks after a summer filled with controversy and turmoil.

Just think of all that went on after the Hawks were knocked out of the playoffs by the Detroit Red Wings in five games:

* Qualifying offers to some restricted free agents were not mailed on time, creating a stir throughout the hockey world. Eventually all were signed at what the Hawks say is market value, but some pundits say they had to overpay. As a result, Dale Tallon, who had been GM since 2005 and acquired 60 percent of the current roster, was reassigned within the organization so the man with the famous last name and a finance background, Stan Bowman, could take over as general manager. Bowman was Tallon's assistant.

* Marian Hossa, a 40-goal scorer who Tallon lured to Chicago with a lucrative 12-year contract on July 1, learned weeks later he needs shoulder surgery and will be out until at least November.
 
* To top it off, Patrick Kane had his now infamous brush with the law in Buffalo. The 21-year-old came away having to only issue an apology to the cab driver he and his cousin allegedly roughed up, but his image took some hits.

"For years nobody really talked about the Hawks, so maybe this type of attention is a good thing," Chicago captain Jonathan Toews joked to NHL.com.

The attention the Hawks actually crave has to do with their on-ice performance, and to that end you won't find an NHL personality or pundit who believes Chicago can't be the team to beat out West.

The Blackhawks surprisingly reached the Western Conference Finals last season. They return both a year older and a lot deeper with the additions of Hossa, John Madden and Tomas Kopecky.

But how will the Hawks handle being the favorite instead of the underdog? Will their goaltending stand up? Is Hossa's shoulder going to be a season-long problem? Can they knock the Detroit Red Wings from their pedestal? Will Kane avoid a midseason slump?

Chicago fans want answers.

"Not everything is going to stay the same every single year, but we're excited about the new guys we have in our locker room and we have the same core group of players as well," Toews said. "We know our chances to get back to where we were last year are very good, but it starts with hard work and going at it on Day One and not looking too far ahead."


 
Even with Hossa out until November at the earliest, the Hawks don't figure to starve for goals thanks to the depth they have up front.

Kane should be ready for his first 30-goal season in the NHL, and there's no reason to think that Toews, who scored 34 goals after a slow start last season, should slow down in any way. Patrick Sharp and Kris Versteeg could also be in line for at least 25 goals.

Plus, once Hossa returns, Chicago's offense will only get better. Remember, he scored 40 goals for the Wings last season.

Outside of the star power, the Blackhawks have remarkable depth.

Versteeg, who scored 22 goals last season as a rookie, needs to avoid the sophomore slump. If he plays with Toews again, the chances are good that he will.

Dave Bolland, Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien each scored at least 15 goals last season. Bolland and Ladd played mostly on a checking line with Martin Havlat, who is now in Minnesota. Bolland, though, is a fast riser with a multimillion-dollar five-year contract to live up to. Byfuglien is on USA Hockey's radar for the Olympic team.

Madden could potentially turn into one of the most underrated offseason acquisitions in the League. He has been winning faceoffs and shutting down the opposition's best forwards in New Jersey for years. The Hawks were 23rd in the NHL in faceoffs last season. Toews was the only regular that won more than 50 percent of his draws.

Kopecky is an interesting case. He was plagued by injuries and inconsistency during his three seasons in Detroit, but he's fighting for a spot on the Slovak Olympic team and could fit in nicely in a bottom-six role with the Hawks. Right now he's just the guy that tags along with fellow countryman Hossa, but he could turn into a key player this season.

Troy Brouwer, Ben Eager, Adam Burish and Colin Fraser all can provide some punch, with their sticks and their fists. Based on his entry-level salary, Jack Skille could also play a role in the offense after spending most of last season in the AHL.

Prized prospects Kyle Beach and Akim Aliu are on Bowman's radar as well.
 

 
Chicago could put its top four blueliners up against anyone's and feel good about it.

Duncan Keith is a burner who gets involved in the offense, but he also may be the most polished defender the team has. Brent Seabrook, who is 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, is a force. Remember, he was the guy that knocked Dan Cleary head over skates into the Hawks' bench early in the Winter Classic game at Wrigley Field.

Seabrook, though, also moves the puck well and seems to be the perfect complement to Keith, his good friend off the ice as well.

"Obviously he's a big guy and he can probably be a little more physical than me, but he moves the puck well, skates well and makes good plays," Keith said of Seabrook. "As a D-man, it's nice to have a partner that is good at getting open and supporting."

Brian Campbell may not be as prolific in the defensive zone as others on the team, but he makes up for that and more with his play through the neutral zone and in the offensive zone.

He was signed last summer to be a guy who gets the puck up the ice fast and make the power play better. He earned his salary with 52 points, nearly half of which (24) came on the power play.

Still, you would think that with Keith and Campbell, one of them would have led the Hawks D-men in power-play points last season. Well, you'd be wrong because it was Barker and his 29 assists that did the trick.

Cam Barker is as physical as anybody and obviously adept in the offensive game as well.

Success or lack thereof in camp will determine the rest of the defense, but figure Niklas Hjalmarsson, Aaron Johnson, Jordan Hendry and Brent Sopel to be in the mix.

Hjalmarsson is likely a lock considering he was solid while playing all 17 playoff games last season. Johnson could replace the grit the Hawks lost when Matt Walker bolted for Tampa Bay. Sopel has the experience.

With the depth the Hawks have up front, it's likely they will carry seven defensemen.
 

 
One year later, it's Cristobal Huet's show. That was, after all, the plan when Tallon signed the 34-year-old French goalie to a four-year contract last summer.

Though Huet never could supplant Nikolai Khabibulin as the starter last season, he still played in 41 games and posted 20 wins with a 2.53 goals-against average and .909 save percentage.

Bowman believes Huet will be at his best this season because history suggests that he's most successful when he doesn't have another goalie breathing down his neck. That was the case for the last 13 games in Washington at the end of the 2007-08 season and for a stretch late last season when Khabibulin was injured.

The Hawks don't have much in the way of experience behind Huet, but they have liked Corey Crawford for years and believe he's now ready to move into a full-time NHL backup role after spending four seasons in the AHL.

Finnish goalie Antti Niemi will push Crawford in camp.

Contact Dan Rosen at drosen@nhl.com




Quote of the Day

When we started our journey we made a commitment to our fans to be relevant and to see the Chicago Blackhawks become the best professional hockey organization. There are not two finer symbols of that than Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. The commitment we have made to these incredible young men is equal to the commitment they have made to our team, our fans, our entire organization and the city of Chicago.

— Chicago Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz on signing Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane to contract extensions