'Hawks rely on grit for turnaround

Remember Alice falling down that hole? Now you know what it's like to be a Chicago Blackhawks fan.

The team boasting the NHL's longest Stanley Cup drought (anyone remember 1961? anyone?) has made alienating fans and confounding hockey observers a virtual science whether it's a refusal to broadcast home games on television or driving off their most popular players in spite of their desire to remain in Chicago.

Last season was no different as the Blackhawks stumbled to their second-worst point total in 47 years, a 59-point effort that was one point off the league-worst 58 turned in by the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Things started poorly and got worse. Workhorse netminder Jocelyn Thibault was sidelined 14 games into the campaign with a hip injury that required surgery. But instead of bringing in a proven goalie (there were several on the market), the Blackhawks relied on five minor-league and/or rookie netminders who led the team to the second-worst goaltending in the league.

Up front, injuries sidelined offensive leaders Eric Daze and Alexei Zhamnov for much of the season, and veteran scorers Steve Sullivan and Zhamnov were then dealt at the trade deadline. Off the ice, general manager Mike Smith -- who was responsible for the disastrous Theo Fleury signing, among others -- was dispatched in October and replaced by longtime broadcaster Dale Tallon, who assumed the assistant general manager's role behind Hawk-for-life Bob Pulford.

The team was further embarrassed when it tried to withhold money due Smith on his contract, money it eventually was forced by the league to pay. More recently, the team laid off staff, including quadriplegic scout Brad Hornung. Ouch.

But there are signs that the "Alice in Wonderland" Hawks are returning to a style of play that will be more in keeping with that demanded by coach Brian Sutter and the few remaining Chicago fans.

Tallon, a former NHL All-Star and more recently a professional golfer, signed hulking 6-foot-5 defenseman Jassen Cullimore away from the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning. Cullimore will complement rising young defensive star Jim Vandermeer, acquired from the Flyers in the Zhamnov deal.

Tallon also added a dose of gritty veteran presence by signing the combustible Matthew Barnaby and Curtis Brown.

Up front, rookie Tuomo Ruutu shook off a slow start to finish third among rookie scorers with 44 points to round out a promising group of forwards that includes Mark Bell, Tyler Arnason and Kyle Calder.

Tallon spoke recently to ESPN.com about trying to put the Blackhawks' dark days behind them.

ESPN.com: How would you assess your team's performance last season?
Well, I came on board in November, and the season was pretty well starting to slide. We started the season with seven rookies and then Daze was hurt and Zhamnov was hurt. We lost a lot of one-goal games. Then when we were so far out of it, we made the trades.

Almost everybody we had in Norfolk came up and played for us. We were pretty much an AHL team when the season ended. We took some heat for that. It was tough on all of us. But the result was a lot of them got a lot more experience than they normally would. And we've got some good young players, Bell, Calder, Arnason, and they got a lot more responsibility and a lot more playing time than they normally would. I think that builds character. You've got to be able to control your emotions sometimes. It's like a heartbeat. You want to keep it regular.

We definitely had a different approach after the deadline. We brought in Vandermeer and bringing up the kids like Matt Keith and with Ruutu developing, we played with a different approach. We had a little more character, a little more toughness. Those are the kinds of players we drafted and the kind of players we brought in this offseason. Our fans are used to that. We've had those types of players in the past, guys that were self-motivated, and we got away from that for a while. Guys like Curtis Brown, Matthew Barnaby and Jassen Cullimore, these guys are all top-notch individuals, and it'll be easy for them to motivate the young guys.

ESPN.com: Which player made the most significant strides in your estimation, had the biggest impact on your team?
Ruutu really had a great second half. And Vandermeer had a big impact on our players. I've watched Ruutu play in the elite league and internationally for years. He's a world-class player. It was just a matter of getting his conditioning and his health back. He had knee surgery before the season. You knew he was going to blossom. He scores. He was prolific at the end of the year.

ESPN.com: Which player needs to bounce back or take the biggest step forward if there is hockey this season?
We only won 20 games, so obviously the whole team has to make some sacrifices and do a better job. I think the players we've acquired will help them get better as we move along. Thibault? He's almost 100 percent. There was some scar tissue issues, but they've gone away. We've got a lot of good goaltenders coming up, too. It's opened up for some challengers. Last year we rotated (Michael) Leighton and (Craig) Anderson, but this year we're going to let one guy win the backup job.

ESPN.com: Who is the top player in your system ready to play in the NHL on a regular basis right now?
There's the two Keiths (RW Matt and D Duncan) and (D Anton) Babchuk and (C Mikhail) Yakubov. One of these kids might play. There might be one defenseman and one forward spot open. Also, (RW Pavel) Vorobiev. Those are the guys that are ready to make the big jump. It's their time now.

ESPN.com: What is the top priority in improving the organization?
I think we need to improve in all areas. Our penalty kill was pretty good; our power play was not. We've got to be better in our own zone, that's for sure. Cullimore will help. He's a strong man. And winning a championship, he understands what it takes to be successful. It'll be easy for him to tell someone what to do.

ESPN.com: What was your favorite moment from last season?
I'm trying to forget about last year and move forward here.

ESPN.com: Least favorite moment?
I'm a very positive person, so I don't want to dwell on the negatives. I can't tell you. It was a tough year. But we learned a lot and we're moving forward.

ESPN.com: What activity or destination or hobby will take you furthest away from hockey this offseason?
I play golf for a living. Or I did. I'm a PGA member, and I play in a few PGA senior-type events.

ESPN.com: Which is more stressful, playing professional golf or rebuilding the Blackhawks?
The golf isn't stressful. There's a little pressure, but it's what I enjoy doing. That's what I like to do now that I don't play hockey. But my first love is hockey.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.