Just 4 years ago, ESPN voted the Blackhawks as the worst franchise in professional sports. Today, Rocky Wirtz is the one laughing. For the first time in memory, the young and exciting Blackhawks squad will have all 82 games televised on local TV, but more importantly, for the first time since the early 2000′s, the Hawks will be in the playoff hunt. There’s really just no other word to describe this team than “youth.” The team’s top point-getter, Patrick Kane, is only 19, while captain Jonathan Toews, who pundits are expecting to follow in the footsteps of Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic, is 20. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, the two stalwart blueliners, are also only 25 and 23 respectively. The sky is the limit for this young squad, and don’t expect a sophomore slump from this squad – they’re just way too talented.
Kane and Toews exceeded all expectations last year and were both in the running for the Calder until Toews got injured. The dynamic duo simply took over the team, and the team’s veterans were more than happy to oblige. Patrick Sharp was the clear beneficiary on their line, posting a 16-goal improvement over last year’s total. After that it’s the equally talented yet oft-injured Martin Havlat, who has game-breaking ability but needs to stay healthy if the Hawks want to go far. However, it’ll be interesting to see who gets to centre Havlat, after Dale Tallon traded away Robert Lang and Jason Williams left via free agency. Goal-scoring should not be a problem for the Hawks, having scored 239 goals, third in the West and 10th overall in the league. Toews and Kane are expected to improve their respective goal totals and even if Havlat goes down with injury again the Hawks have plenty of other weapons in Brian Campbell and Dustin Byfuglien. Also don’t forget about Jack Skille, the Hawks’ 1st round pick in 2005 who had been forgotten after the arrival of Toews and Kane. Skille was a late season call-up last year and was impressive in his professional debut, and is expected to be on the Opening Night squad. One area the Hawks want to improve in is on the powerplay, where it clicked for only 15.9%, ranked a mediocre 24th in the league. It’s perplexing that a team that can score 239 goals can have such difficulty on the powerplay, but don’t expect that to happen again with a premier powerplay quarterback in Campbell.
Defense is where some question marks arise. The West is known for its more physical play, and the Hawks defense isn’t built to play that kind of game. The Hawks’ top 4 of Campbell, Keith, Seabrook, and Brent Sopel aren’t known for their physical or defensive play, although Seabrook has the ability to lay out a crushing check once in awhile. What the Hawks do have a lot of though, is mobility. The Hawks have such great puck-movers on their back end that they can cause turnovers and make the play go the other way in a heart beat. Interestingly enough, the Red Wings are one of the best teams in the league at doing that. Their forwards may be able to pitch in once in a while with their gritty play, especially from Ben Eager, but none of them will be contending for the Selke anytime soon. The Blackhawks’ defense will remain mediocre without a clear stay-at-home type, and will be hard-pressed to improve on their 20th ranked defense, although that shouldn’t be a major problem considering their offense.
In net, despite persistent rumours of Nikolai Khabibulin moving to Los Angeles, the Hawks seem ready to enter the season with two able number one goalies, the other of course being Cristobal Huet. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out, as Khabibulin is not expected to finish the season a Hawk, regardless of how well he plays. He will be the subject of rumours throughout the year, but after trading away Lang’s salary the Hawks have some flexibility and are willing to be patient and wait for the right deal.
Denis Savard is absolutely crazy about the type of offensive talent he gets to play around with. The Hawks can easily put out two number one powerplay units, either quarterbacked by Campbell, Keith, or Seabrook. Cam Barker has the ability to man the point as well, but consistency has been a major problem for the former junior standout. But like any young team, the Hawks have to remain consistent. Their longest winning streak last year lasted 4 games, while their losing streak was double that at 8 games. If the Hawks want to improve and find themselves in the postseason they need to avoid the up-and-down months that young teams are prone to having.
As mentioned before, the Hawks have some cap room but it’s definitely not enough to add another body. The Hawks will find themselves in a tight spot if one of their key players goes down with injury early in the season, and in all likelihood it may be Havlat and his $6m salary. Tallon will be hard-pressed to replace Havlat’s production with call-ups unless Havlat hits the long-term injury list. Khabibulin will be dealt, and it’s just more of a question of when. Right now only the Kings are in a dire need of a goalie, but as the season goes on there may be more and more spots opening up. It’s not sure who’s penciled into to be the starter, but no matter what expect the two goalies to push each other – Huet needs to show that he’s worth $5.625m/year and Khabibulin will be looking to cash in on another free agent contract.
Patrick Sharp – Jonathan Toews – Patrick Kane
Martin Havlat – Dave Bolland – Dustin Byfuglien
Andrew Ladd – Petri Kontiola – Jack Skille
Ben Eager – Adam Burish – Craig Adams
Brian Campbell – Brent Seabrook
Duncan Keith – Brent Sopel
James Wisniewski – Cam Barker
Cristobal Huet – Nikolai Khabibulin
scratches: Jake Dowell, Jordan Hendry, Kris Versteeg
Coach: Denis Savard
GM: Dale Tallon
Predicted finish: 2nd Central, 6th West