Patrick Kane hesitated for just a moment after the Chicago Blackhawks called his name as the first player selected in the 2007 Entry Draft, seemingly caught in a flashback.
It was early January. Kane was playing for the United States at the World Junior Championship and he was remembering just how good Jonathan Toews was in Canada’s 2-1 victory over the U.S.
”It just dawned on me that Jonathan and I could be linemates in Chicago,” he said, with a wide smile. “I’ll never forget how good he was in that game, especially the three shootout goals that won the game for them. Maybe ...”
It was almost like Kane was thinking that he and Toews could energize all of Blackhawks Nation the way Denis Savard
and Steve Larmer
did in Chicago after Savard was picked third overall in the 1980 Draft.
”I remember how good Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were for the Bulls, and who doesn’t know about Brian Urlacher and the Bears?” Kane said. “Maybe Jonathan and I could re-energize Blackhawk fans the way Savard and Larmer did in the 1980s and Jeremy Roenick did later.”
Rarely have two young players on the same NHL team drawn as much attention as these two former first-round selections. Toews, 19, was picked third overall in 2006 and had 18 goals and 28 assists and was plus-18 in 34 games for the University of North Dakota. Kane, 18, became the Hawks' first-ever No. 1 overall pick last June after scoring 145 points in 58 games for London in the Ontario Hockey League.
The talented youngsters are a long way from being Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull or Savard and Larmer, but this might be the best chance at seeing rookie magic on United Center ice since Savard and Darryl Sutter played their first full seasons in the NHL in 1980-81.
”All I know is we’re going to be young and exciting,” GM Dale Tallon said after selecting Kane. “I think Toews plays so smart that someday real soon he’s going to be our captain. He’s as solid both offensively and defensively as anybody his age I’ve ever seen.
”And Kane ... he's got great hands, great eyes, and makes the players around him better. He can really pass. He can also shoot and score. Guys his size that play the perimeter — you have concerns about moving up to the next level, but Pat gets his nose dirty, gets into the traffic areas and he doesn't get knocked down.”
Toews and Kane will have a chance to refine some of the immense skills they bring to Chicago under Savard, who guided the Blackhawks to a 24-30-7 record after he took over for Trent Yawney last November — thought the Blackhawks could start the season without Toews, who broke a finger in a preseason game on Sept. 20.
From the start, Savard wanted to run a quicker-paced offense — but he didn’t have the talent to do it.
The Blackhawks were flying after going 7-1 in preseason games. Martin Havlat was starring, just as Tallon hoped he would after acquiring him from Ottawa in a summer trade. But the optimism waned when Havlat’s center, Michal Handzus, injured his knee in the eighth game and was lost for the season.
”It seemed like I was on the phone following the lead on one center after another after the Handzus injury,” Tallon said, shaking his head.
The Blackhawks enter this season with Robert Lang to center Havlat on a line that likely will include Sergei Samsonov, who was acquired from Montreal in another deal. Toews is paired with Kane on a line that could have Tuomo Ruutu or Jack Skille on the wing. But Chicago’s strength up the middle doesn’t stop there. Tallon signed faceoff whiz Yanic Perreault as a free agent and traded for Kevyn Adams from Phoenix.
"It's a fresh start for everybody, even for me," Savard said. "It's time for us to be accountable here, all of us. Everybody goes into camp thinking they're going to win the Stanley Cup. We're no different. I strongly believe our team has improved that much."
The Blackhawks scored just 201 goals last season, tied with Columbus for 28th in the NHL, and were last on the power play. That should change now that Havlat, who had 25 goals and 32 assists in just 56 games, has a supporting cast around him.
Patrick Sharp, with 20 goals, was the only other Hawk to reach the 20-goal mark. But with more strength up the middle, Savard is right to expect Toews, Kane, Samsonov, Perreault, Ruutu and Jason Williams (who had 21 goals with Detroit in 2005-06) to close in on that level.
"Looking around at the youngsters we have in camp, I see the same kind of talent I saw in Ottawa when we had Marian Hossa, Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley trying to learn about the NHL," Havlat said. "I really believe we're going to score more goals. We have to."
But the young nucleus Tallon has assembled doesn’t end with Toews, Kane and 2005 first-rounder Skille. The Blackhawks’ defense includes fast-rising players like Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith, both of whom averaged more than 20 minutes a game last season, plus Cam Barker, James Wisniewski and Jim Vandermeer, as well as veteran Andrei Zyuzin, who was acquired from Calgary. Seabrook, Keith, Barker and Wisniewski are all under the age of 24.
But for the Blackhawks to make the playoffs for the first time since 2002, they have to get consistently good goaltending from Nikolai Khabibulin.
Khabibulin is halfway through his four-year, $27 million contract, the richest in team history, and hasn't lived up to expectations. But mistakes from a young defense and no goals to work with could have a lot to do with his 25-26-5 record last season with a 2.86 goals-against average.
"There were times early in the season when he kept us in there and gave us a chance on most nights," Savard said. "You can’t help your goalie when you average two goals or less in most games."
"We haven't seen the best of him yet. I really believe it," said Tallon. "We saw glimpses of that brilliance that helped him win a Stanley Cup in Tampa in 2004. We just need more consistently good performance from Nik."
Backing up Khabibulin is Patrick Lalime, who has been the starting goaltender in Pittsburgh, Ottawa and St. Louis. The combination of Nikolai and Patrick is the best the Blackhawks have had in years.
But all the buzz starts with the youngsters.
"We've got guys who have been in the League 14 years elbowing each other on the bench, saying, 'Did you see that?'" Tallon said of watching the moves on display by Toews, Kane and Skille. "The guys in the locker room know what we have now. And I think the fans are starting to see what we have as well. Our ticket sales are starting to increase. There's a bit of a buzz about Kane and Toews and Skille. But people are also talking about the veterans like Havlat, Lang, Perreault, Adams and Samsonov. It’s exciting.
"But I’m not going to lie to you, the buzz starts with the kids. We all saw what Pittsburgh did with their young guys and how most of their young guys like Sidney Crosby, Jordan Staal, Evgeni Malkin, Ryan Whitney and Marc-Andre Fleury excelled quickly. We're hopeful that can happen with our guys."
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