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Wednesday, October 28

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Blackhawks Wed Oct 07 2009

Hawks hope small changes lead to Cup

Looking ahead to the most anticipated season for the Blackhawks in a long time (Yes, the Hawks are actually 2 games into the season after taking 3 of 4 points from Florida in Finland, but it's hard to consider that games that start at 11 a.m. count, especially when I'm driving through New England and can't watch them.), it's hard not to talk about the tumultuous offseason. But let's not, because at this point, it only matters what happens going forward. It may be easy to lay blame for a lackluster season on this summer, but 6 months and 82 games is a long time, and this Hawks team is just too talented to miss the playoffs entirely. What happens from that point on is anyone's guess, but only the most myopic would blame a postseason failure on events from a midsummer nightmare.

So that said, where can the Hawks end up this year after last season's magical conference final run? A deep run in the postseason is certainly a possibility, and for the first time in a long time, mention of the Stanley Cup isn't a cruel joke. However, the Hawks are still a very young team, and part of the magic last season was the chemistry and cohesiveness they displayed as the year went on. With only a few major roster swaps (Marian Hossa for Martin Havlat and Nicolai Khabibulin's departure), the core from last season is still intact, along with a few new key parts in John Madden and Tomas Kopecky. If coach Joel Quenneville and his Q-stache can continue to instill a team first focus on the Hawks, they stand to reap the rewards of a fruitful season.

Looking up front, the Hawks are stacked at forward; with a number of scoring options on all lines, don't expect to see too many 2-1 losses this season. While Patrick Kane and Jonathon Toews are the stars, a major part of the team's success was the emergence of players like Kris Versteeg, Dave Bolland and Dustin Byfuglien, while Patrick Sharp should be good for a barrage of goals once again. The addition of Hossa when he returns from surgery will be a huge boost for the Hawks, and the signing of Madden brings a wealth of playoff experience that will prove invaluable provided the 36-year-old's legs hold up. The other major free agent was the Red Wings Tomas Kopecky, who can bring a bit of scoring touch and grit to the fourth line, but is equally as valuable for his defection from an arch rival. Andrew Ladd, Troy Brouwer and Ben Eager all are dependable role players who fit well in the Hawks system, but one player who the Hawks may miss, not on the score sheet but in the locker room, is Adam Burish, whose torn ACL will have him out most of the year. The Hawks have more than enough depth to replace Burish, but his heart and soul are one of those intagibles that can make a huge amount of difference in a tight playoff race.

With that much depth up front, it's easy to assume the weak link is the blueline, but that's not exactly the case for a team returning a core that was 5th in goals against last season. As a group, the blue liners are agile, small, positional players who can sometimes struggle with more physical teams, but can still be a shutdown group if it controls the tempo and the puck. The top pair of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook will only continue to grow stronger together, and is already one of the most underrated tandems in the league. Brian Campbell's best defense is a good offense who needs a strong partner in Niklas Hjalmarsson, who began to come into his own in the playoffs. With some postseason experience and added bulk, he could be primed for a breakout year. Cam Barker still shows flashes of brilliance followed by middling play, and the only real change is recovered D-man Brent Sopel taking the place of Matt Walker and his cement block skates. As a group, they're not intimidating, but they do get the job done more often than not.

In goal, after a season of trading starts with Khabibulin, Cristobal Huet is now officially the man, and that puts the bulls-eye squarely on his back for the team's ultimate success. While Huet was decent last year going 20-15-4, his .909 save percentage was decidedly mediocre. Backing up Huet (at this point, though Corey Crawford could also make an appearance this year) is rookie Antii Niemi and his 3 career starts. With either young goalie, Huet can be expected to get the bulk of the minutes and therefore the bulk of the criticism if he can't carry the load. He's being paid a lot of money to be a bona-fide top tender how far the Hawks go this season will depend on how much Huet proves himself.

Predictions? The Blackhawks will contend and eventually outlast the Wings for their first division title since 1992-3. Postseason is anyone's guess, but a return trip to the conference finals is a possibility. For the Hawks to advance beyond and try to win their first Stanley Cup in 48 years, the youthful group will need to show they learned from last season, and Huet needs to become the goalie the Hawks believe him to be and not the goalie he currently is. It's a bit of a leap to say "it's gonna happen", but this year, it doesn't take much daydreaming to wonder "what if."

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