This once proud Chicago Blackhawk franchise has seen a lot of troubling times lately. They have not made the 2002 edition of the Stanley Cup playoffs and they were quickly dispatched by the St. Louis Blues. Since then, the Blackhawks have been an example of how an unsuccessful team plays in the NHL. Once again the ‘Hawks would have a subpar season in 2006-2007. But with another offseason of wheeling and dealing the team looked poised to try to take a significant step back to the kind of hockey that the once-proud Blackhawks can once again be proud of, can they be successful or will they fall flat on their face once again?
2006 Record (W-L-OTL-PTS): 31-42-9-71; Last in Central Division
2006 Postseason (if applicable): n/a
Coach Name (record w/team): Denis Savard; 24-30-7 (.444)
Key Additions: C Robert Lang (Detroit); C Yanic Perreault (Toronto); RW Sergei Samsonov; D Andrei Zyuzin (Calgary)
Key Subtractions: Michal Handzus (Los Angeles); RW Radim Vrbata (Phoenix); Adrian Aucoin (Calgary)
Offense: Some of the free-agent signings will be expected to give the team some added offensive punch. Veteran centers Robert Lang (Detroit) and Yanic Perreault (Toronto) will be expected to make plays in the offensive third of the ice, whether it’s setting up the plays of putting the puck in the net themselves.
Lang especially is big and strong and the Blackhawks want him to cause problems in the middle of the ice in front of the goaltender. They are not as fast as they once were, though, and this could affect the overall speed of the team. Martin Havlat disappointed a bit in his first season with the Blackhawks but the franchise believes it was an aberration and not the norm.
They expect Havlat to get closer to the 35 goal range while being the one of the top playmakers on this team. They are also still very young despite the added veteran presence. Tuomo Ruutu and Denis Arkhipov will need to provide more of an offensive punch for this team. Michael Handzus was a bust for the Blackhawks and he is long gone; only the youth remains and the need to step up and provide the production they expected from Handzus. From the blueline, Duncan Keith was their leading scorer with 29 assists. He’s got some good eyes and knows how to be a playmaker in transition and in offensive sets. The Blackhawks really get minimal production offensively from the defense.
Defense: Keith will be paired more than likely with another young defender, Brent Seabrook. They might be one of the younger top defensive pairings in the entire NHL. Both have upside defensively and provide a lot of potential on both sides of the ice, but their youth could also provide them a bit of a disadvantage when some plays happen and they are not sure how to react. However, these guys will learn well as the season goes on and they should be better as they move towards the end of the season. They are definitely the future of the ‘Hawks defense. The Blackhawks will rely on some youth throughout the defense though, and that could be interesting as the grind of the long season goes on. Their elder statesman on the blue line could be Andrei Zyuzin, a free-agent acquisition from Calgary. The youth of this squad allows them some room to grow, but it could be a little questionable as to how well they get through the season without making some big mistakes. Do not sleep on the abilities of their offensive forwards to get back, though. Guys like Lang and Perreault are veterans and know the importance of getting back on defense. Keep an eye on Cam Barker, another youngster that has the potential to be great in the near future.
Goaltending: This is not the goaltending situation the Blackhawks had in mind when they signed Nikolai Khabibulin as a free-agent after four seasons in Tampa Bay. It really was not all his fault because of the youth and the ineffectiveness of the team in front of him, but he does have to have some accountability. Khabibulin is only 34 years old and really should be ready to come in and perform very well with the young team, but instead he’s really struggled. When on his game Khabibulin is nearly unbeatable. His glove hand is quick and makes some spectacular plays and there is almost no room for you to get the puck into the net around his blockers when they are on the ice. His backup, Patrick Lalime, is the model of inconsistent ability. Lalime is incredibly talented, but he has never been able to consistently put it together for a sustained period of time. Combined, they are solid but will need to play better more often for this team.
Coaching: Denis Savard was a mid-season replacement but the team felt that its former star on the ice would be an adequate leader on the bench. Savard has been a coaching member of the organization since 1997 when he retired from the NHL as a player and he became the coach when Trent Yawney was fired during the last season. Savard is not far removed from his playing days and he knows how it is to play in a wide open league, something that is definitely relevant in today’s league. Savard will have the team ready to play; whether he has enough talent to win now is a different story.
Points/Conference Standing: 65-75 points; 10th – 15th in conference
Team MVP: Martin Havlat
Prediction Notes: This is a young team with a lot of talent. Some of the veterans on the team will help them grow, but this will be probably a ‘growing’ season, where the team does show signs of improvement. It will be tough in the very competitive Western Conference and in the Central Division where the Red Wings reign supreme. The Blackhawks will make mistakes on defense and might not have enough offensive power to win shootouts. They will be better, but not playoff better.