THE BOTTOM LINE
By Jim Kelley, Special to ESPN.com
The Blackhawks in recent years have been the poster child for failure among the Original Six (just 20 wins last time out), but that could be changing. There's a revamped hockey department with new general manager Dale Tallon, and the addition of Rick Dudley as a highly regarded talent man and Trent Yawney, a respected up-and-coming coach. That alone is a good start.
Offense: There's a core of young players -- Eric Daze, Tuomo Ruutu, Mark Bell, Kyle Calder, Tyler Arnason and perhaps rookie Rene Bourque -- who appear poised to finally take control. That group is being supplemented by a veteran checker in Curtis Brown, a physical winger with some scoring ability in Martin Lapointe and a certified pest who can also pass and score a bit in Matthew Barnaby. The trio knows how to win. Ruutu, Bell, Calder and Arnason have all had 20-goal seasons and Daze, who should he regain his health (bad back) and scoring touch, has netted 30.
Defense: Major changes to a previously weak unit include Adrian Aucoin (New York Islanders), Jassen Cullimore (Tampa) and Jaroslav Spacek (Columbus). Spacek is a good puckhandler, Cullimore is physical and Aucoin immediately becomes their best two-way defenseman. Those are serious upgrades.
Goaltending: Talon lured 2004 Stanley Cup winner Nikolai Khabibulin away from Tampa, a major upgrade over the departed Jocelyn Thibault. The Bulin Wall will stand for 60 or more games, and should do wonders for the fragile confidence of the younger players.
WHERE THEY'LL FINISH
YES Good goaltending lifts all boats, especially on a young team. With Khabibulin on his game, and the depth and experience provided via the offseason acquisitions, the Hawks could challenge for a playoff spot.
BUT There's more talent, but not a great deal of depth. If Khabibulin isn't all-world every game or if there are serious injuries (not uncommon in Chicago), then not even new skating coach Dan Jansen can help the Blackhawks.
PLAYER TO WATCH
The Blackhawks are looking to give 2004 AHL Rookie of the Year Rene Bourque a spot on the left side of the third line, but he might not be ready. The breakout player might be Mark Bell, who needs to establish himself as a play-making center on the No. 2 line for the Blackhawks to have any noticeable improvement.
Yawney built a reputation in the AHL of being a tough taskmaster. He also benefits from knowing the talents of most of the younger players, having helped develop them during his five-year AHL run. A former Blackhawk player, Yawney might have more success navigating the tricky ownership-front office relationship, something former coach Brian Sutter never did quite get a handle on.
BEST OFFSEASON MOVE --> STRENGTH AT GOAL
Signing Khabibulin, arguably the best offseason pickup in the league. A direct result of getting Dudley, who brought Khabibulin to Tampa from Phoenix when he was the Lightning GM.
WORST OFFSEASON MOVE --> NOT ENOUGH OF IT
What if Khabibulin gets hurt? What if he needs a night off? Not securing quality backup goaltending for Khabibulin could lead to problems.
Tyler Arnason, C
Arnason led the team with 22 goals and 33 assists in 82 games during the 2003-04 season.
Michael Leighton, G
Leighton started in 35 games, posting a 6-18-8 record, 2.99 goals-against average and .900 save percentage.
“The Blackhawks had the best offer. They have some young talent. I've won the Stanley Cup and I want to do it again.”
— Nikolai Khabibulin