NHL Central Preview: Chicago Blackhawks
After making it all the way to the Conference Finals last season, the Chicago Blackhawks made some major moves to try and push themselves into the Stanly Cup Finals this year.
The Blackhawks reached the Conference Finals for the first time since 1994-95, a year in which they also lost to the Detroit Red Wings. Chicago finished the regular season with a 46-24-12 record, which was good for fourth place in the Western Conference. Jonathan Toews led the Hawks with 34 goals while Martin Havlet was the overall points leader with 77 points (29 goals, 48 assists). Cristobal Huet and Nikolai Khabibulin split time in net, but it was Khabibulin who shined brighter. Khabibulin went 25-8-7 with 2.33 goals against during his 42 games played.
After a stellar season, the offseason went very differently than most people expected. Within hours of the opening of the free agent signing period, the Hawks had signed the top prize in Marian Hossa to a 12-year deal and John Madden to a one-year deal. This quick signing signaled the end of Martin Havlet's time in Chicago, and he left for Minnesota.
With all the money flying around for the forwards, Chicago had to make some sacrifices. Those included the loss of defensman Matt Walker and also Kahbibulin. Many people believed the Hawks would try and trade Huet so they could re-sign Khabibulin, but with Huet's contract it was nearly impossible.
But the crazy offseason didn't end there. The NHLPA came after the Hawks after their submissions of restricted free agent paperwork was misfiled, which almost lead to the loss of a number of key players. Than it was discovered that Marian Hossa had a shoulder injury that would require surgery. This surgery will keep Hossa out until at least December. Due to all these mishaps, GM Dave Tallon was demoted and Stan Bowman was promoted to GM.
The Blackhawks open the season in Helsinki, Finland, in a matchup with the Florida Panthers on October 2 and 3. After playing in last season's Winter Classic, this is another huge step in getting the team back into the national media attention.
December 13 through 22 is a key time for the Hawks, as they play five straight home games against Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Boston, Detroit and San Jose. This is a crucial stretch against projected playoff teams.
The toughest part of the schedule this year is January 16 through 30, as the Hawks embark on a cross-country eight-game road trip. This trip takes them from Columbus and Detroit to Vancouver and Calgary and back to Carolina—it could make or break the season for Chicago.
Finally, on March 14 Chicago welcomes Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals to town in what should be a high-scoring duel.
Players to Watch:
Jonathan Toews - Toews led the club with 34 goals last season and played very well in his first full year as the captain. Look for Toews to up his assist total when Hossa comes back as he shifts away from having to be the top player on his team.
Kris Versteeg - Versteeg was a very pleasant surprise for Chicago last year as he netted 19 goals and added 28 assists. A line of Versteeg, Dave Bolland, and Ben Eager could allow the Hawks to have three deep scoring lines and give any team fits.
Brian Campbell - Campbell has to play up to his contract or he find himself in a different jersey next year. Campbell is a force on offense, but his +/- rating of +5 shows he doens't get back to help as often as he jumps into the play on offense. If he can improve on that aspect of his game, Chicago will have a very formidable defensive corps.
Cristobal Huet - Huet will have to start off better than he did last year, or youngster Antti Niemi could unseat him as the starter. Huet never really played well, trading wins and losses for most of the season. Chicago may end up realizing the mistake they made by letting Khabibulin go very early on this year.
There are many questions in Chicago this year that could make or break the season for the Hawks. Will Marian Hossa come back quickly and healthy? Will Cristobal Huet become a steady headline goalie? Will Toews, Kane and Sharp be the top three forwards in the Western Conference?
In the end, I believe the Blackhawks will finish at 42-21-19, which will put them third in the Western Conference and give them the Central Division crown.
Any way this season plays out, though, this will be one heck of a division to play in.
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