Welcome to the NHL FanHouse 2008-09 season preview. While other sites are previewing "30 teams in 30 days," we decided to take advantage of the extra time off before the start of the season to bring you all 30 previews over the next three weeks. We're counting down in reverse order of finish from last season in each conference every weekday from now until October 3. Look for an Eastern Conference preview every morning and a Western Conference preview every afternoon. Click here to read them all.
Who's In: Brian Campbell, D (FA-SJ); Cristobal Huet, G (FA-WSH); Matt Walker, D (FA-StL)
Who's Out: Rene Bourque, F (Trade-CGY); Patrick Lalime, G (FA-BUF); Jason Williams, F (FA-ATL)
What's Changed: For starters, attitude. The Blackhawks were mired in the muck for years. Bad ownership decisions led to low attendance, television blackouts of home games, no significant free-agent signings or trades, and poor public relations. Over the course of a decade, Chicago went from having one of the strongest franchises in the league to one of the worst.
Oh, my, have things changed. Quickly.
With the death of owner Bill Wirtz last year came a 180-degree shift in the image of this organization. Suddenly, management opened their eyes and listened to the local fans. They built a dynamic, exciting young team that was fun to watch. They put butts in the seats with improved fan relations. They put home games on television, providing necessary exposure to the Chicago area.
Oh, and this team of kids almost made the playoffs. A poor January was damaging, but the Blackhawks posted a pretty respectable 17-10-4 record over their last 31 games. Not good enough to overcome a 4-9-1 January, but good enough to inject more excitement into the city over this team.
Management then went and made a pretty significant addition to the team. Campbell won't be mistaken for Scott Niedermayer anytime soon. He's just not terribly strong in his own zone. However, Campbell is capable of eating large amounts of ice time (25-plus minute average last season), and he presents a super addition to the Blackhawks' power play. Five of Campbell's eight goals last year came with the man advantage, as did 33 of his 62 total points. The price was high, but for a team that was 24th in the NHL on the power play last year, it's a huge and meaningful investment. Campbell won't embarrass himself defensively, and pairing him with Duncan Keith gives Chicago an elite defensive pairing that will consistently see the ice against the opposition's top forward lines.
The trade of Lang means Chicago has room for another young player up front, and the personnel shuffle could mean more ice time for a kid like Jack Skille, who posted three goals in 16 games for the big club a year ago. Of the group of rookies Chicago has in camp, Skille stands the best chance to make the club.
Outside of someone replacing Lang, there isn't much new among the Chicago forwards. Patrick Kane and newly-anointed captain Jonathan Toews will lead the way, and everyone will forget about the effective Patrick Sharp, who led the team with 36 goals last year. Then again, if Toews is healthy for 82 games this season, Sharp isn't likely to repeat that feat. Toews has "40-goal season" written all over him.
Also new is starting goalie Huet, signed from the Capitals. He was a huge piece on Washington's late division title run, and at the very least, it's expected that he'll split time with Nikolai Khabibulin.
Who's On The Hook: The Blackhawks signed Khabibulin in 2005, but they haven't gotten much out of the investment. Since winning a Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay, he's been prone to soft goals and injuries. With Huet on board, this is probably Khabibulin's last shot at making an impact in Chicago.
Pressure will be on Campbell to improve the power play, and Kane and Toews have higher expectations of any young duo in the league outside of Crosby-Malkin.
Martin Havlat has struggled since arriving in Chicago from Ottawa. He hasn't developed into the star the Blackhawks thought they were getting, and he's also had problems with injuries. Havlat scored just 10 goals in 35 games last year, and much more is needed from him. Now that Lang is done, Havlat is the oldest player expected to see regular playing time in Chicago his season.
While the rebirth of the Blackhawks has been a team effort, general manager Dale Tallon has done his fair share of the grunt work. Good drafting and player development has played a huge role in what is going on now in Chicago. However, Tallon's contract is up after the 2009-2010 season, as is the deal with head coach Denis Savard. No, firings aren't imminent, even if the team gets off to a bit of a slow start. It's just something worth watching if things don't go well this year.
Where They'll Finish: There's no doubt that Chicago is expected to make the playoffs. Can they?
Absolutely. The Blackhawks have speed up front, one of the top defensive pairs in the Western Conference, and if Huet is on his game, they have the goaltending to contend. Nashville is going to be tough to pass up in the Central, and Detroit is probably out of reach (unless they really get hit by the Stanley Cup hangover). Chicago should be able to gain the fourth or fifth position in the West.
The hockey spotlight will shine on this team New Year's Day at Wrigley Field, when they play the Red Wings in the Winter Classic. With any luck, fans will get a glimpse at an emerging Stanley Cup threat.