Good Enough to Win The Central? Chicago Blackhawks PreSeason Snapshot

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Good Enough to Win The Central? Chicago Blackhawks PreSeason Snapshot

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS CENTRAL DIVISION PRESEASON PREVIEW

The 2008-09 Blackhawks soared from 88 to 104 points: their best finish since 1992-93, first playoff spot since 2002, and first Western Final since 1995. Led by former first round picks like Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, the Hawks, while deep in ways teams envy, still have some growing up to do. Discipline often trumps talent: that may prove the determining factor if they are to meet and exceed expectations.

 

In 2009-10, Coach Joel Quenneville must maintain momentum while improving Chicago’s game further. They were 5th in the league defensively, but only average on PPs and PK, prone to losing ‘gimme’ contests to weaker teams, and too often reliant on late game comebacks by their explosive offense (2nd in the West only to Detroit). Marian Hossa, their most dramatic addition, is sidelined until late 2009. Cristobal Huet is number one in net now, and has to be. Premium-priced d-man Brian Campbell is remembered more for his giveaways than his contributions. Even Campbell admits that needs to change.

 

Additions – Marian Hossa (Detroit), Tomas Kopecky (Detroit), John Madden (New Jersey). Subtractions – Nikolai Khabibulin (Edmonton), Martin Havlat (Minnesota), Matt Walker (Tampa Bay), Samuel Pahlsson (Columbus).

 

Top forward – Jonathan Toews. Like Eric Staal and Sidney Crosby, Toews is ‘the straw that stirs the drink’.  His skill and determination combine with humility and focus. That equals authentic leadership. ‘Almost’ isn’t enough for Toews, who vows to take the Blackhawks even higher this season.

 

Top defenseman – Duncan Keith. His name with the words ‘Norris Trophy’ were bandied about last year. Keith is a 21st century Pierre Pilote: while not a big man, his puck management is invaluable. Paired with Brent Seabrook, he is the foundation of the blueline corps. When Keith falters, as he did after being concussed in January, it gets ugly. The Hawks must re-sign this impending RFA, a challenge for new GM Stan Bowman given his lack of cap room and abundance of big contracts. 

 

Unsung hero – Niklas Hjalmarsson. In the AHL early on for cap reasons, the 22-year old Swede was big (6’2”, 196), and smart enough when he arrived, becoming the ‘responsible partner’ for Campbell. His skill set includes solid craft, timely crunch, and precise passes.

 

Breakout player – Dustin Byfuglien. A converted defenseman, linebacker-sized ‘Big Buf’ (6’3”, 246) began to look like Tomas Holmstrom in the playoffs, and showed a cruise missile of a shot from the slot. But Quenneville wants more than 15 goals and 31 points from him, citing consistent work ethic as mission-critical.

 

Divisional finish: 1st. Chicago has the talent to overtake Detroit. Does their will match their skill? Huet’s presumed backups, Corey Crawford and Antti Niemi, have almost no NHL experience. They have to be rookie revelations if Cristobal cracks under the pressure of being “l’homme de confiance”. But as the Penguins and Wings demonstrated, you don’t need a Vezina winner to make it to the top.

(Photo: Corey Crawford resists the Red Wings during his 2009 Conference Finals appearance.)

 

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