Last season the Blackhawks were relevant and competitive for the first time in a LONG time. Hockey is back in Chicago, baby! Last year was both the rookie campaign AND the breakout year for both Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. The two 1st round pick rookies made good with the big club and definitely rejuvenated the entire franchise on every level. Dustin Byfuglien was the other big new name for the franchise having a breakout year himself. This year will be a proving year for all three to cement their legacies as high caliber NHL talent.
The Defense has been fairly strong the last few years as Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook have been the anchors that the blueline strength has leaned on. With Brent Sopel coming in last season to lend a much needed veteran presence, the Defensive core got that much stronger on the depth chart. This season the highest rated free agent defenseman, Brian Campbell, signed a big contract to come be a Blackhawk. Whether Brian is the last piece of the puzzle or not is yet to be seen, but at $7.1 million per year expectations will be high. The depth at the #5/#6 spot was filled out last year nicely by James "Wiz" Wisniewski. But Wiz is out until probably December healing up from his 3rd knee surgery. While Cam Barker played defense for 45 games last season, he has been sent down to the AHL partner in Rockford. Rumors suggest Cam will return to the NHL as early as this weekend. The other surprise on the blueline is defensive specialist Niklas Hjalmarsson. With only 13 NHL games under his belt last season, Niklas will surprise in my opinion. I expect good things on the Blueline this year over all.
On the Free Agent Frenzy day (July 1st) Dale Tallon (Blackhawks GM)surprised and shocked the NHL by signing Christobel Huet while already having Nikolai Khabibulin under contract. With $13 mil worth of starting goaltending, it is most likely that one will be dealt. Rumors have abounded that Khabibulin will be traded, but no substantial action has taken place yet. Having two starting goaltenders has pushed back the promotion of either Corey Crawford or Antii Niemi for now. Look for Khabibulin to be dealt and both Crawford and Niemi to make appearances in the NHL. If it's Crawford, expect big things from the talented netminder who shut out the Ducks for his first NHL career win. But keep a close eye on camp stand out Niemi, as he has shown alot of promise.
Robert Lang being dealt left the veteran presence on the Forward lines thinner. Craig Adams is the oldest Forward on the team at a measely 30 years old. But don't let the youthfulness on the club fool you. Kane and Toews have already been mentioned at only 20 years old a piece. They might not be legal to buy beers, but they can still play. No doubt about that. Dustin Byfuglien switched up to Forward from Defenseman last season and has slowly developed into a more competent and able power forward. Martin Havlat claims he's ready to play 82+ games this season, but I wouldn't take that to Vegas. Though possibly the most talented forward on the team, his career has been plagued by a string of injuries. IF Havlat was to remain healthy he would no doubt lead the team in scoring and be a giant boost to the entire offense.
It will be a DO or DIE year for 2005 1st round pick Jack Skille. Many expect big things from him, but at this point in his career and contract, it's breakout or move on for him. Dave Bolland will make his first full season debut having made the NHL roster for this year. Kris Versteeg will also make his first full season debut this year with Colin Fraser. With question marks having over these players' heads it will make for an interesting season. Whether they will be up to the challenge is up to them.
Andrew Ladd was the surprise mid season addition last year when the Blackhawks unexpectedly traded energy player Tuomo Ruutu. After coming to Chicago his game caught fire and he clicked with the game style played in Chicago. Whether that was a fluke will be seen this season. I suspect him to come out ready to go and surprise.
Patrick Sharp was snubbed in All Star voting last year for I imagine the last time in his career. Every season has seen Patrick's play improve by leaps and bounds. With a penchant for stickhandling into and through traffic and a dangerous shot, Sharp earned himself an "A" on his sweater. This year he should get the respect and esteem he deserves after flying under the radar last season.
I could not possibly skip over either Adam Burrish or Ben Eager. Eager will begin the season with a 3 game suspension. If he doesn't step it up, he'll be playing Rockford before the season is over. While Adam Burrish also spends his share of time in the box, his super pest game and razor tongue get results without suspensions. I have a sneaking hunch that Adam will find the back of the net more than 4 times this year. Despite being a defensive specialist and a pest, he possesses a high level of skill for the game. My advice is to never take your eye of the guy when he's on the ice.
I expect the Blackhawks to come out hard and heavy from the word "Go!" this season. Having only missed the Playoffs by a measely 3 points last season, they'll be playing for blood this season. Finally having put the "C" on a player and giving a nod to leadership will be strong. Whether 20 year old Jonathan Toews is up for the challenge of being a Captain in the NHL is yet to be seen, but the players seem to be behind him all the way. Whether that unification will pay off is not known. At any rate I can assure you that Blackhawks hockey will be an exciting entertainment outlet for all Hockey afficiandos. Tune in Friday October 10th to see the Blackhawks kick their season off against fellow Original 6 franchise the New York Rangers.