Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Light At The End Of The Tunnel

I spent some time on my last article talking about why the Leafs have actually taken steps backwards in the last few years to the point where they will most likely miss the playoffs for the second straight year this season. Today brings another one of those articles. The focus today is on the Chicago Blackhawks and their struggles to reclaim some of their mystique as an Original Six team. The only problem is that reclaiming that mystique won't happen this season.

The Hawks have some very good talent up front. Martin Havlat, despite his injury woes, scored at a point-per-game pace last season. Radim Vrbata stepped up and finished second in scoring on the team. However, when Vrbata is your second-leading scorer with 41 points, you have trouble. Tuomo Ruutu and Patrick Sharp were solid contributors. Losing Michal Handzus for the season after only eight games hurt Chicago significantly.

The Hawks went out and signed talented young forward Jonathan Toews. He should provide some additional scoring help, and he has greatly benefitted from his experiences at the World Junior Championships and the Men's World Championships. The Blackhawks also swung a deal for the talented Sergei Samsonov, but it remains to be seen if Samsonov can score like he did for Boston before the strike. They also drafted Patrick Kane, a legitmate junior scoring threat, but his small size may cut down on his scoring in the NHL. However, if Kane delivers as promised, he may be the second-coming of Steve Sullivan in Chi-town. Michael Blunden also deserves a look for the big club.

The problem with the Hawks up front is that they are in need of three things: a talented first-line centerman and legitimate second-line wingers. Toews can probably play one of those wings, and Samsonov will help out. However, the Hawks should be looking to go after a guy like Drury or Gomez. Havlat needs someone who can feed him the puck, and the Hawks don't have someone like that right now. They freed up a pile of money in the Adrian Aucoin trade, so why not take a chance on a legitimate scoring threat?

In any case, the Blackhawks were tied for the second-worst goals-for total last season with 201. They were tied with the Columbus Blue Jackets, and were ahead of only the offensively-anemic Edmonton Oilers. The other problem? Stopping goals. The Hawks were 25th in goals-against last season, and that has to change if they want to make it back to the playoffs or, at least, respectability.

However, the Blackhawks are slightly ahead of the Maple Leafs in terms of letting the kids play. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are the Blackhawks' defensemen of today, and they are playing well. They will only get better. James Wisniewski played pretty well for a youngster last season, and should get a chance to prove himself in camp this season. Cam Barker, Jim Vandermeer and Dustin Byfuglien all deserve a chance to be full-time blueliners as well. The key to these six defensemen is that no one is over the age of 27. This could be a solid core of D-men for the foreseeable future if the Hawks keep them together. Danny Richmond and David Koci will also challenge for roster spots. The trade of Aucoin for Andrei Zyuzin gives the Blackhawks an average, 30 year-old defenseman with a few seasons of NHL experience under his belt. Zyuzin should not, in any form, be considered a first-line defenseman, even in this young defensive group.

The Leafs and Hawks are similar in their goaltending situation. Far too often, Nikolai Khabibulin was inconsistent last season. To help him out, the Hawks brought in Patrick Lalime who, for the most part, struggled in between the pipes. He showed flashes of brilliance, but never really controlled a game. Khabibulin ended up with a 25-26-5 record with a 2.86 GAA and a .902 save percentage. Those numbers are better than that of Toronto's Andrew Raycroft. However, Lalime finished with a 4-6-1 record with a 3.07 GAA and a .896 save percentage. Unlike Toskala, he is not a viable option in the new NHL with numbers like that.

Khabibulin's massive contract also hurts the team in that moving him will take a miracle. Khabibulin will be 35 this season. If he doesn't perform up to his potential this season, he will be an expensive mistake/project for the last two seasons. Cory Crawford should step in and be the Hawks' backup goaltender. The 22 year-old recorded a 38-20-2 record in the AHL last season with a 2.84 GAA and a .909 save percentage. Crawford is probably a better option than Lalime right now, both statistically and economically.

Taking this all into consideration, the fans in Chicago have suffered far too long in waiting for the Blackhawks to regain their elite status like they had in the early 1990s. However, I think that if Chicago stays the course they are on, they have a great young team that will only get better with time and experience. They have question marks after Havlat up front, their defence is young and relatively inexperienced, and their goaltending is inconsistent. Those aren't good ingredients for success.

However, if all these things start coming together over the next couple of seasons, the Blackhawks could be another Nashville Predators: strong, tough, young, fast, and exciting. The only questions that remain are (a) will the fans stick around, and (b) is management willing to stay the course?

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!


Anonymous said...

I've picked the Hawks as my "gonna surprise everyone and take a big step forward" team for the past two seasons now, and both times they've let me down (well, at least in terms of my being proven a CBJ fan, it's not like I really want the Hawks to do well).

But this year I insist Chicago is going to be better!

(And with that, I just guaranteed that at least Columbus won't be in the Central basement ;) )

Teebz said...

I like your enthusiasm, Sarah.

I think Chicago is on the right track, but they need everything to fall in place. Khabibulin has to be great, their defence has to be mobile and fast, and their forwards need to take huge strides.

I am planning a Columbus examination shortly. I'm sure you'll be interested in it. :o)