We're finally getting there.
After countless glasses of scotch, cartons of cigarettes, and an endless supply of people approaching my front door saying, "If I could just have a few minutes of your time just to talk to you about the savior," I'm one team away from finishing the Central division—the second-last on this misguided journey.
Speaking of which, I may or may not have an idea what I'm complaining about anymore because this week has been the most fun. I got to talk about Kanye West, female escorts, complain about Beyonce's video, and I openly pursued Taylor Swift.
Is this seriously what the NHL's about? Probably not. But I like my version better.
2008-'09 Record: 46-24-12, 104 points, fourth in West—lost to Detroit Red Wings in five games in conference final.
Additions: Marian Hossa—F (12 years/$62.8 mil), Tomas Kopecky—F (2 years/$2.4 mil), John Madden—F (1 year/$2.75 mil), Richard Petiot—D (FA).
Subtractions: Martin Havlat—F (FA), Samuel Pahlsson—F (FA), Nikolai Khabibulin—G (FA), Matt Walker—D (FA).
Tumultuous is one word you could use to describe the Chicago Blackhawks’ offseason.
Confusing is another.
A forgotten physical, a few failed faxes (or mailings...but we're fans of alliteration here), and the firing of long-time GM Dale Tallon and the ‘Hawks have a bit of a different look after a very busy offseason.
While many feel that Dale Tallon set this franchise back a few steps with the too soon big money deals given to Kris Versteeg and Cam Barker, that depends on who you’d ask.
Specifically? I’d ask Martin Havlat. Something tells me that he knows something.
The Cabbie Who Walks with a Kane
Ouch. Too soon? I hope so.
Despite the fact that he’s now out a whole lot more than 17 cents after abusing a cabbie in the club section of downtown Buffalo (seriously, people don’t ask enough questions), Patrick Kane could be eyeing his first 30-goal season this year.
If a sophomore slump for Kane constitutes a four-goal improvement and only a two-point drop off (originally I had point...Freudian slip or am I a raging alcoholic?), then I’m sure that the ‘Hawks are giddy at the prospects of this season for the speedy, shot-happy right winger, especially playing alongside Jonathan Toews.
Toews was also immune to the “sophomore slump” as he increased his goal output by 10 and his points by 15 this past season. An increase in strength and experience can only help the North Dakota alum as he could be on his way to his first 75+ point year if everything stays status quo in Chicago.
While Marian Hossa could have helped both Kane and Toews from the outset with their improvements, it’ll be a few months before we get to see Hossa’s bid to take his third straight team to the Cup finals.
Alright, so maybe it’s more like Hossa could be “following” his third straight team to the Cup finals, but when healthy, Hossa brings a dynamic regular season presence that can do magical things with the puck and wonderful things with the variety of players Chicago has.
Then again, for a "full" regular season presence, the 'Hawks will have to wait until next year. At least if Hossa comes out flat after his return, he's got an excuse that isn't "doesn't this month start with the letters 'M' or 'A?'"
Sidenote: So I figure its time for the first sidenote of these previews. The way I see it, playing (and scoring) alongside Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the playoffs is like being in a movie with Al Pacino and Meryl Streep—you’re so shrouded by talent that something has to rub off on you. Hence his 2008 "breakout" in the playoffs.
I’m sold on the fact that the same thing would have happened if Pavel Datsyuk were healthy last playoffs.
Speaking of that variety, Patrick Sharp is still a Blackhawk after a summer of hot and cold rumors and if he’s healthy (he missed 16 games with a knee sprain last year), Sharp may finally break the 40-goal plateau, although he’ll be good for at least 30 no matter what.
Along the wings, Andrew Ladd garnered a career year for himself in 2008-'09 and could be a good two-way presence for the ‘Hawks capable of 50 points. Dustin Byfuglien hits like a truck and can put up some points as well after deciding between forward and defense.
Then there’s also Calder runner-up Kris Versteeg, whose 20-goal/50-point rookie season certainly looks to tack a ‘W’ up with regards to the Brandon Bochenski deal.
After that, there are two interesting trends among Blackhawks forwards. One trend is the promising upcoming youth, while the other is former London Knights.
In some cases the two even cross over.
Under the heading of “former London Knights” there’s not only Kane, but David Bolland (who could turn into a solid 17-23 goal scorer over his career), the gritty Danny Bois (he’ll provide quality low-line depth if/when called up), and the promising youngster Akim Aliu, who’ll be a great power presence for this team once he matures and settles in.
On the youth side, Kyle Beech is coming along, but he’s still not strong enough in general or on his skates (according to ‘Hawks management) to be an NHL force. Along with him, Jack Skille could be in for a big rookie year so long as he’s allowed to use his speed to open up holes for him to use his shot.
There are also youngsters who may fly a little bit under the radar in Colin Fraser, Adam Burish, and Troy Brouwer that simply shine in complimentary checking roles, with great role models to learn from in the penalty-killing John Madden and the two-way Tomas Kopecky.
Hu Plays between the Pipes? Hu? Well Huet of Course!
Coming in to last season, the Blackhawks had all but handed the starting job to Christobel Huet.
Nikolai Khabibulin was placed on waivers as whispers suggested a possible return to Russia or a list of NHL-caliber teams that were interested.
Now Khabibulin is officially gone (at least someone wants to go to Edmonton) and Huet has his shot.
By all accounts, last year was an off-year for Huet, punctuated by a career-low .909 save percentage for the 20-game winner.
The biggest worry that anyone might have with Huet is that the most he’s ever played in the NHL is 52 games in a season split between Washington and Montreal ('07-'08). With Khabibulin backing him up, that wasn’t a problem as Huet had someone to rely on while he found his consistency.
With Antti Niemi or Corey Crawford behind Huet, you don’t know what you’re getting because they simply haven’t seen that level of competition continuously.
If one of them can step up and provide the Blackhawks with a solid 20 games and Huet stays steady between the pipes for his 60, Chicago will be fine. If Huet slips up or Chicago can’t rely on any of their backups, then you’re getting into a sticky situation.
Campbell’s Soup and the Baker Man—Or the “Soup and Sandwich” Combo…
The defense for the ‘Hawks is set.
Brian Campbell, although lacking defensively, is getting paid to be a wizard with the puck and he did just that last season. If a 52-point season isn’t proof enough of that, improving the power play’s efficiency by four percent and vaulting it into the top half of the league has to help his cause.
After all, that is what Chicago is paying for—and they’re paying a lot for it.
Offensively, Brent Seabrook is a poor man’s Dion Phaneuf right now, but his big body and his ability to log big minutes in the Windy City more than make up for that.
Former all-star Duncan Keith saw a drop off in his goal totals, but upped his points last year. His skating and smarts make him the go-to guy on this back end, as he averaged more than 25 minutes per game for the second straight year, his fourth leading the team in time on ice.
Cam Barker was another player, like Khabibulin, rumored to be on his way out of Chiago last season. The word was he needed to have a big season and he chose the right year to put it all together and rounds out a very balanced top four with Niklas Hjalmarsson as a great number five/top four fill in defender.
Then there’s depth with Aaron Johnson (Though Johnson could use a bigger role to fully develop) and the now healthy Brent Sopel, while Jordan Hendry will have to battle for a spot that could very well be occupied by Shawn Lalonde if Chicago sees what they want out of the Belleville Bull.
So What’s It All Mean…
Martin Havlat’s production won’t be missed in Chicago as they have plenty of young players with the talents to step up along with a productive (eventually) Marian Hossa.
The Blackhawks also have a great top four presence on their defense with some good depth and the key pieces from last year's 216 goals allowed season (third-best in the West) are back.
Helping that out will be John Madden and Samuel Pahlsson, instilling a bit more responsiblity amongst the forward ranks.
The big question, strangely enough like Detroit, is goaltending.
Christobel Huet simply needs to be a good starter (not necessarily a great one) for Chicago and combine that with a consistent showing from whoever wins the backup job.
If Huet can outplay Chris Osgood over the course of the season, this gives the 'Hawks their best chance at the division. If not, Detroit can jump back into first, even with an ineffective Ozzy.
Due to contract statuses and the necessity to resign some big stars within the next few years, the ‘Hawks' time to strike may be now. This could be their best chance to do it, but they've got to be ready.
Predicted Finish: First in Central
Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer and an NHL Community Leader for Bleacher Report. If you want to get in contact with Bryan you can do so through his profile, and you can also email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also, be sure to check out all of his previous work in his archives.