Becoming the highest paid player in a franchise's history might unsettle any athlete, but goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin exhibited the same composure talking to the media Friday afternoon that he has on the ice throughout his 10-year All-Star career.
"Being the highest paid player means having pressure," admitted Khabibulin, who will earn $27 million over four years. "But I like pressure and I'm ready for the challenge."
For general manager Dale Tallon, the Blackhawks' biggest challenge in free agency was to improve his club's defense, starting from the net out. Khabibulin, who will replace six-year starter Jocelyn Thibault, was the number one player on Tallon's wish list.
"We got the best goaltender we could -- a Stanley Cup winner," Tallon said. "It wasn't a reflection on Joce. We just wanted to get Khabibulin.
"We fought hard all week to get this done. Not only is Nik a great goaltender, but he's a great person. We've hired Rick Dudley [as director of player personnel] and Rick brought him to Tampa. He has nothing but high praise for Nik."
Although he had offers on the table from other clubs, including a significant multi-year deal from the Lightning hoping to retain him, Khabibulin said the Blackhawks were the best fit both financially and as a team on the rise.
"I really like the direction the team is going. It's an Original Six team and I'm very happy to be part of it," said Khabibulin, whose agent, Jay Grossman, represents other Blackhawk clients and had positive things to say about new head coach Trent Yawney.
"I like what the Blackhawks have done in the last five days or so. They have some young talent and I like the challenge. Winning the Stanley Cup felt so good, I want to do it again."
Tallon also coveted a top-line forward, but said an offer to Colorado center Paul Kariya was off the table following the signing of Khabibulin. The Hawks currently have about $31 million tied up in salaries, but expect to be closer to their target payroll of $34 million once bonuses kick in.
"Tuomo Ruutu achieved a lot of his bonuses last year," Tallon said, "and I look forward to him achieving all of his bonuses this year.
"We're happy where we're at right now. We're a good, solid hockey team with depth at all positions. The offense will come from every line. We've got quickness now, aggressiveness and a solid defensive unit with Jassen Cullimore, Adrian Aucoin, Jim Vandermeer, Jaroslav Spacek and Steve McCarthy, and now we can throw some kids in the lineup too. This is a good team, and that's what we're focused on -- team.
After signing right wing Martin Lapointe to a 3-year deal Thursday and adding center Jim Dowd to replace Scott Nichol Friday, the Blackhawks figure to have three open forward spots in training camp. The "kids" most likely to compete for these spots include wingers Rene Bourque, the AHL's Rookie of the Year last season, and fellow Norfolk Admirals Matt Ellison, Matt Keith and Pavel Vorobiev, plus potential enforcer Shawn Thornton. Center/left wing Mikael Holmqvist, acquired from Anaheim last Saturday for winger Travis Moen, is another strong candidate.
"We have to win. Winning is the byproduct of all this work," Tallon said. "That's our goal, to win the Stanley Cup. We're going to do what it takes to win the Stanley Cup.
"All of our players have called in today. People are excited. The Blackhawks are back!"