Sunday, September 14, 2008

Lang's Trade Opens Windows For Blackhawks' Youth

The Blackhawks made the first move in a preseason that figures to have a great deal of transaction activity on Friday.

But it was not Nik Khabibulin packing up his goalie gear and heading to Los Angeles, as many had speculated. Rather center Robert Lang was dealt to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for a second round draft pick in 2009. Around that time the Blackhawks will be using that pick, the 37 year old Lang will become a free agent.

The Blackhawks are by most estimates over the salary cap going into the season, so another move might still have to be made by Blackhawks GM Dale Tallon before the season begins. Many still believe that goalie Nikolai Khabibulin will be moved before the Blackhawks drop the puck on a new season October 10th at Madison Square Garden.

With Khabibulin no longer the number one goalie after the signing of Crist Huet, the logical salary dump would be the netminder, especially considering the play of Corey Crawford in Khabibulin and Patrick Lalime’s stead last year. With Khabibulin and Huet together taking up 12 million dollars of cap space this year, such speculation Khabibulin was halfway out the door was not unfounded.

What happens with Khabubulin awaits to be seen, but the Blackhawks move on without a notable veteran presence and a very solid top line center for the 2008-2009. As of now, the venerable Dave Bolland has moved up to the second line, filling Lang’s former role as linemate of Dustin Byfuglien and Martin Havlat.

Bolland had a respectable campaign last year, tallying 17 points in 39 games, most on the fourth line. A gifted passer, Bolland is a very adequate fill in, but will likely need time to mesh with his right wing, Havlat, who had great chemistry with his center and fellow Czech Lang.

Taking over the roster spot vacated by Lang’s trade seems to be rising star in the Blackhawks’ system Petr Kontiola. The Fin had 5 assists in 12 games for the NHL team last year and had a fantastic season in Rockford, the Blackhawks’ AHL affiliate. Many believe that he is a top line NHL talent.

Going into training camp it appears that the spot is Kontiola’s but many in the Blackhawks’ circle believe that 2007 Third round pick Akim Aliu will make the team out of camp. Also take into account that Troy Brouwer, who many believe could score 100 points in the NHL if he ever becomes merely a half decent skater, and Michael Blunden, who had 37 points and 83 penalty minutes last season in Rockford, both have the credentials to make the team and fit the role of power forward Coach Denny Savard looks for on his fourth line. All that makes this move of Lang to Montreal not only surprising but also incredibly intriguing for the Blackhawks.

With loads of talent in the system the ‘Hawks have many talented players to fill the roster spots, but not enough roster spots to fill with talented players. With another spot open, there is a new window for young players like Brouwer and Aliu to break into the NHL through. With all of the contributions Lang made as a veteran to help out younger players, the best contribution he might have ever made was being traded, giving some of those players a chance to play.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Three Netminders To Pay Mind To

The hockey world was abuzz after the signing of Cristobal Huet to the Chicago Blackhawks. Signing a four year contract, Huet is expected to battle Nikolai Khabibulin for the starting goaltender spot in 2008-2009 and will claim his spot as the starting goalie the following as Khabibulin’s contract expires June 2009.But as of right now, the Blackhawks have 12 million dollars wrapped up in goaltending for the 2008-2009 season, by far the most spent on goalies in the NHL. But, when both goalies are healthy, the Blackhawks have by far the best duo of goalies in the NHL. They are compensated as such.

But there is confusion coming out of the Blackhawks front office in regards to the team’s intentions at goalie this season. The word from general manager Dale Tallon seems to change daily, and as of now, the Blackhawks, who are slightly over the salary cap, intend to keep both star netminders in 08-09. There was word that Khabibulin, expected to make just under seven million dollars for the upcoming campaign, was being shopped to other teams earlier in the week.

But with the recent statement by Tallon that Khabibulin would play for the ‘Hawks this season, the team is faced with a conundrum. They have three NHL goaltenders for a roster that can only carry two.

They have Khabibulin, who is spectacular when locked in, but inconsistent in his performance and ability to play. They now have Huet, who is solid, consistent, albeit unspectacular. A number one goaltender without doubt, Huet isn’t as talented as Khabibulin by half, but is certainly twice as reliable to give the Blackhawks his best, night in and night out.

Then they have Corey Crawford. Crawford went 1-2 for the Blackhawks last year in emergency reserve duty, replacing Khabibulin, who (to no one’s surprise) was injured. Crawford had a coming out party of sorts against Detroit, saving 44 of 46 shots in a 3-1 loss to the eventual Stanley Cup champions.

Crawford, before the signing of Huet, was supposed to start a minimum of 30 games as Khabibulin’s backup in 08-09. If he performed well and the Blackhawks liked what they saw, he would be the number one goalie in 09-10. With Huet in town until 2012, Crawford’s time table looks to be pushed back at least two years, possibly four, when he would be 28 years old. Quite a drastic difference for the young man who was rock solid in the Ice Hogs' run in the AHL Calder Cup playoffs the past year.

All that said, the signing of Huet still makes sense for the Hawks. He might be the starting goalie this year, and if not, he will be the best backup in the NHL. Khabibulin will end his Chicago campaign, a campaign that some say was a reign of terror, holding fans hostage, at the end of the year. Huet will immediately fill the vacancy of number one with Crawford becoming the backup in 09-10.

It is theoretical that Crawford could beat out Huet for the starting job the year after. But Crawford is not a Carey Price type talent. And while he could be a top of the list starting NHL goaltender, it seems more likely that he will fit the mold of a Huet. Solid, certainly a number one, but not spectacular. Because of this, it seems unlikely that he will pull a coup and take Huet’s job any time before the last year of Huet’s contract. And while his playing time could certainly increase from year to year, it seems unlikely that Crawford will be starting goaltender for the Chicago Blackhawks in the foreseeable future. Taking into consideration that Dale Tallon recently said that Crawford was “right on schedule” to be the starting goalie in 09-10, the signing of Huet is a drastic shift.
And while the signing of Huet might only have the implication of making the Blackhawks a better team, which it certainly appears to have done, a side effect seems to be that the Blackhawks have lost an enormous amount of confidence in their goaltender of the future, Crawford. That honor might have been passed without intention to prospect Josh Unice, who for the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL had a regular season 2.309 GAA and .908 save percentage. But while those numbers are pedestrian, his playoff numbers that helped the Rangers to the OHL championship and the Memorial Cup, were better than his regular season totals. Unice racked up a .915 save percentage in the playoffs to go along with a 2.375 goals against average. Pairing that with a CHL player of the week honor, the Blackhawks could see a great upside for the 18 year old. Crawford could leave as a free agent before Huet’s contract is up, and at least at this point, if that happens, Unice seems to be the answer to the question of who will be Huet’s home grown backup.

But right now, the Blackhawks have an incredibly solid goaltending situation. In fact, a their goaltending situation can be labeled as Stanley Cup caliber. They paid for those expectations. Drama and intrigue will certainly continue as the season goes on, as Huet and Khabibulin battle for the starting spot and Crawford, who will see time when, seemingly not if, Khabibulin gets shelved with injuries, fights to prove his worth to the organization that has seemingly shunned him. The soap opera of goaltenders on the west side of Chicago will be cast and produced by Dale Tallon and directed by Denis Savard.

It certainly looks to be a thoroughly entertaining show.

Blackhawks Attacking Corps: Proven, Ready To Prove More

Despite the major acquisitions and major injuries on the Blackhawks blueline recently; causing major turnover and competition for significant ice time, the Hawks need to score goals. And while the D-men are very important in such endeavors, more times than not, the forwards are the one's who take care of business, light the lamp and sound the horn. 

Last year was a coming out party for many of the Blackhawks, all of whom will be expected to match or exceed their play from the season prior in 08-09. If the before 07-08 campaign the Blackhawks were full of question marks, the 08-09 version of the ‘Hawks are full of exclamation points.The first line I expect Denny Savard to trot out in key situations will have two big exclaimation points, fail not. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, the two most dynamic rookies in the NHL last year, and two of the most remarkable talents in the game, will look to gain superstar statuses across North America. With Toews at center and Kane on his right, Savard will rotate his top three left wings to that line. Patrick Sharp made it apparent early last year that he plays best with Toews and Kane feeding him the puck. And when Patrick Sharp is on the top of his game, the Blackhawks are a very hard team to beat.

Dustin Byfuglien also saw some ice time with numbers 19 and 88. A big physical presence, who resembles more of a NFL linebacker than a NHL winger. Byfuglien has in his arsenal deceptive speed and a formidable slapshot. Overall, Byfuglien is a hoss and doubles as protection for Kane and as a decent goal scorer. Working Byfuglien in the slot with Toews doing his magic behind the net reaped many benefits in 07-08. But Byfuglien will see his fair share of time with the second line, a line which he also established strong chemistry and play with in last year's campaign. Despite that, expect him to play with Toews and Kane frequently this year.

Andrew Ladd also saw some time on the ice with Toews and Kane. Ladd, the enigmatic talent, played his best hockey when paired with the team's best players. He’s also a scrappy player, a grinder. Ladd has shown that he can help establish the forecheck with efficiency, so when Byfuglien is not on his game and the ‘Hawks need to manufacture a goal through hard work on the forecheck and strong offensive-zone puck movement, expect Ladd to jump over the wall with the no longer rookies.

The second line is a 180 from the young, vibrant first line. Robert Lang, the steady veteran presence on the ‘Hawks played his best hockey with the adroit Marty Havlat last season. But alas, Havlat’s propensity to catch the injury bug over his entire career did not make an exception in the 07-08 season. Havlat played less than half of the season last campaign because of leg and shoulder problems. If the perfect storm of injuries, one that seems to hit every year for the Czech right wing, is quelled next year, Havlat’s contributions will be significant. But, like every year, his health status is the biggest question mark on the team.

Similar to the first line, the left wing position for Lang and Havlat will be anything but solidified. The same three characters will fill in the vacancy, but Byfuglien will see the most time on the left side. The combination of those three players give the 'Hawks an all encompassing line. A player who can score with brute force (Byfuglien, who has also shown great touch when called for), a dexterous goal scorer with great puck handling (Havlat) and a veteran player who generally knows how to find the back of the net in any situation by any means (Lang.) Many teams would feel fortunate to have a line like such to trot out late in games. The Blackhawks would feel the same way if the line’s fate wasn’t in limbo every year, dangled by the fragile body of it’s most prodigious player.

The third line is where the other young Blackhawks will show their skill. There will be shuffling on this line, certainly, but there are clear favorites to start on this line on opening day. The line will certainly be centered by Dave Bolland. Bolland, no longer considered a prospect, but an unproven young NHL player. Bolland is considered to be in a class of talent enviable to all to this side of Toews when it comes to playing center in the NHL. If he plays at the level the organization knows he is capable of performing at, he will be the second line center in 09-2010, replacing Lang, who's contract will expire. Until then, he will line up with some other fantastic talents on the third line.

I presume playing on his right side will be Jack Skille. Skille is a great talent who might make one of the most formidable lines in hockey with Toews and Kane one day. As of now the 20 year old is considered the best prospect in the Blackhawks deep system. Last year he came up when the injury bug hit the Blackhawks hard. He received more and more ice time as his 16 game NHL stint went along, eventually tallying 5 points (3 goals) with a +1 rating. And when the injury bug that hit so hard subsided and players came back, Skille’s unexpected play made it very difficult to send him back down. Alas, after another round of seasoning in Rockford, Skille is ready to claim his spot on the Blackhawks roster.

Andrew Ladd will likely start with the third line in 08-09 on the left side, but like the top two lines, expect Denny Savard to shuffle left wingers to maximize the team’s efficiency. Ladd, drafted highly by the Hurricanes in 2004, as the fourth pick overall, never lived up to expectations in Raleigh and was shipped to Chicago for fellow enigma Tuomo Rutuu. Ladd does a little bit of everything well and while he might never be the player the Hurricanes envisioned him to be when they drafted him, he was rewarded with a two year contract from the Blackhawks in June. Ladd doesn’t buy into the high draft pick stigma and will scrap and battle with the best of them. And while not an enforcer, he does fight pretty well, and honorably, as evidenced by

The fourth line, the goons, the grind line. This line might as well be written in stone, as the Blackhawks' most prolific penalty minute player, Adam Burish, will captain the line and center it as well. His job is to go out and raise hell. It is a job that he does very, very well. He was in 16 fights last year and was 5th in the NHL in penalty minutes. Pair him with Ben Eager, who when healthy is just as irritating and scrappy as Burish, and you have possibly the best goon line in the NHL. Craig Adams, who will line up on right wing with Burish and Eager is a very physical player, but has the ability to make plays and score goals. The element of surprise will play well with him, as I would expect teams to goons to counter goons, and while their back is turned, Adams, after a great forecheck, sneaks one past the clumsy forwards and puts one in the back of the net. This will happen a few times this year, and when it does, expect the Blackhawks to be nearly unbeatable because of it.

There are a few players who will also challenge for playing time on the third and fourth lines. Akim Aliu, who will likely start the season in Rockford is a great talent that the Blackhawks stole from the rest of the NHL with the 56th overall pick in 2007. He is a pure goalscorer and a power-forward to boot. The Nigerian Nightmare as he is called in reference to his birthplace is a player along the future lines of Chris Drury. If he shows in Rockford what he showed in London of the OHL, he should be up with the Hawks, playing any one of the three forward positions he is capable of, very soon.

Mike Blunden, the right wing who had 37 points and 83 penalty minutes last season in Rockford could see some time with the 3rd or 4th line this upcoming. He is recovering from a bum shoulder, but is a strong power forward who can light the lamp without help. Blunden is the proud owner of a 6’3” frame and a thunderous slapshot.

Many people are very high on the prospects of Petr Kontiola. Hockey’s Future has gone so far as to say that he is the best prospect in the Blackhawk’s system. He does project to be a top 3 NHL center one day. But that day never seems to come. A smart and “deft” playmaker, Kontiola had 50 assists with Rockford last year to go along with 18 goals. In the Ice Hog’s playoff run Petr had 10 points, evenly split, in 12 games. If he can keep that form up in Rockford at the beginning of the season or if he dazzles in early at training camp, expect the Fin to be on the Blackhawks roster as soon as possible.

Kris Versteeg, whom the Blackhawks acquired from Boston is a good two way player, albeit a bit undersized. He has an NHL scoring touch and is a talented puck handler. But neither of these abilities allow him to overcome the fact that he is too small and not strong enough for the NHL. His goal in Rockford this year will be to bulk up and maintain his ability in the process. If he is able to do this, he can challenge for a roster spot, but likely won’t make much noise at the NHL level.

Troy Brouwer is an NHL class scoring winger. No scout will tell you otherwise. His body seems to have been ready to dominate in the NHL since puberty. So why isn’t he in the NHL? Brouwer can’t skate very well. In fact he is brutal. So while his game might belong in the rinks of the NHL, his skating ability belongs with the midget league of the local rink. He might see action as an injury fill-in this season, but unless he can overcome his skating woes, he won’t challenge Skille, Ladd, Eager or Byfuglien for playing time any time soon. If he can overcome his skating problems though, he might be able to be a 100 point scorer in the NHL. And while his skating might be, that prediction is not a joke.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Blue Lining Up in 08-09

Fresh off the moves to solidify their chances for long lost playoff success on the west side of Chicago, the Blackhawks have a conundrum, one that many teams would feel fortunate to have, in that they have too many talented players with NHL experience, but too few spots to play all of them.

The 2007-2008 season was a great awakening for the Blackhawks, who despite having the most rookies that saw playing time in the NHL, finished only 3 points out of the playoffs, even with injuries to Martin Havlat and Nik Khabibulin, their two highest payed players. The signing of Campbell looks even more valuable after James Wisniewski announced that he will undergo knee surgery to repair a torn ACL, an injury that will force the Wisniewski to miss a significant portion of the upcoming season.

Even with the loss of Wisniewski, the blue line will have numerous candidates to start on a nightly basis, and battles might be brewing for the right to commit to the Indian on a nightly basis.

Brian Campbell will be the first line left defenseman, and will also be in the same position on the power-play in 08-09. And while Duncan Keith, the Blackhawks’ best defenseman before the acquisition of Campbell, would form a formidable blue line with Big Red, two left handed shooters on the same defensive pair could cause problems for the Hawks. It seems more likely that Brent Seabrook will pair with Campbell in even strength situations. The second group of defenders will most certainly be lead by Duncan Keith on the left side and James Wisniewski on the right side when he returns to his late season form. Until then, my money would be on the 21 year old 6’3” Sweed Niklas Hjalmarsson to hit the ice with Keith. Hjarlmarsson’s name might be hard to pronounce, but his talent is hard to mistake. He didn’t put up gaudy numbers in his NHL service last year, but he earned high praise from Denny Savard. A physical two way defender, Hjalmarsson plays both sides of the game with an aggressive nature, something that will endear him to fans very quickly, even if it does find him in the box at times, something fans are very used to with Wisniewski. There is a small drop-off on both the offensive production and size between Hjalmarsson and Wisniewski, but Hjalmarsson is an adequate substitute in the second pair and his time with Keith will only make the Blackhawks better when the Wiz comes back.

When Wisniewski comes back, there will be a logjam. Without injuries, the Blackhawks have four NHL defensemen and only two starting spots to fill them with Brent Sopel, who received a multi year contract extension last year, and is a solid veteran presence on a very young team, stands to make claim to one of the spots. So the battle for the final spot on the roster and a spot in the starting lineup comes down between Jordan Hendry and Cam Barker. Barker, who has been enigmatic in his time with the pro team, but dynamic with his time in Rockford certainly has the offensive talent to make the team without a challenge, but his inconsistency and often times clumsy play puts him at a disadvantage. Which is all the advantage for Hendry to make a name for himself, something that he was unable to fully do in 40 games for the ‘Hawks last year, tallying only 4 points and 22 penalty minutes with a 0 +/- rating. Hendry is not one to wow the scouts on the offensive side, but he is a strong defender who finishes his checks and is capable in moving the puck. Barker looks lost on the defensive zone at times, but is a top notch offensive d-man talent. Depending on what Denny Savard thinks his team will need in the regular season, the choice between them will be made, with the other getting spot minutes on the bench until Wisniewski’s return. Expect Savard to experiment with both in a platoon role for a solid chunk of the season.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

What Campbell and Huet Mean to the Blackhawks in 08-09

First, may I welcome you to Sounding the Horn, and the first installment of what I hope will be a regular installment of Blackhawks news, notes, recaps and analysis on

If news reaches you slowly, the Blackhawks signed Brian Campbell to a lucrative, 8 year contract on Tuesday. But not before signing veteran goaltender Crist Huet to contend for the starting spot in net with Nik Khabibulin this year, and is foreseen as the staring goaltender for three years after that. On an active first day of signs and trades, the Blackhawks were the talk of the NHL, as the franchise recently considered dead has made moves indicative of Stanley Cups dreams.

A year ago, those dreams would be considered to be of the pipe variety. Indeed, what a difference a year makes.

But what exactly do the signings of Campbell and Huet mean for the Blackhawks? Surely, they would not sign players long term to merely make noise. And while making some noise was certainly not a deterrent, and possibly an intention of Blackhawks GM Dale Tallon, the main goal was to fill the missing pieces on a Blackhawks team looking to make the next step towards the playoffs and possibly beyond.

Watching the 'Hawks play last season was exciting for the first time in many years. The infusion of youth and it's forms of speed (Kane), skill (Toews), and toughness (Byfuglien, Burish) made for the first likable team the Blackhawks have had in years. The breakthrough years of Patrick Sharp, Brent Seabrook, and Duncan Keith excited fans and earned them contracts during the season. In the end, the team that had the most rookies in the NHL, by a wide margin missed the playoffs by only three points. For a team expected to wallow in their own mediocrity for another season became the darlings of the NHL and truly a team on the rise.

I recall in November having a discussion with another hockey fan in regards to the Blackhawks and their future. It seemed a certainty that the Blackhawks would make a move for a puck moving (offensive) defensemen to run the powerplay. It was something that the Blackhawks had lacked for years on end, and it frequently invigorated fans to become so enraged with the powerplay that if the Blackhawks even shot the puck once, it was a success. Last season bode better for the 'Hawks in comparison to the monstrosities of years past, but they still finished in the last third of NHL teams in power play efficiency. Knowing that James Wisnewski will never be the powerplay quarterback of a playoff team, if the 'Hawks wanted to ever win a Stanley Cup they would need a top notch blue line puck mover. Nic Lidstrom and Sergei Zubov were not available and the chances of trading for one in a long term capacity would be impossible, my friend and I looked to the Free Agent market of the upcoming year. Brian Campbell was the perfect fit and the Blackhawks had all the money in the world to lure him to wonderful Chicago. In my eyes it was a foregone conclusion nearly a year in advance of the actual signing. The Blackhawks had to have Brian Campbell and they went out and got him.

Looking at the tentative roster for next year's Blackhawks. The Denny Savard should trot out Kane, Towes, Sharp, Byfuglien and Campbell for the powerplay. That attack could be specatular, but certainly will be solid and formidable.

But if Campbell was foreseeable, then the Crist Huet signing was truly the biggest surprise of the day. When I heard through the wire that the Blackhawks had made a splash on the free agent market, I honestly thought that Campbell was coming to Chicago. I never heard rumors in regards to Huet and Chicago. So to hear that he had signed with the 'Hawks so early was surprising indeed. And to have Campbell sign later in the day was the icing on the cake. No pun intended.

Huet doesn't bring anything new to this team other than piece of mind. Over the reign of Khabibulin in Chicago, he has been peppered with injuries and inconsistent play. When he is on his game, he truly is one of the best goaltenders in the world. The problem is, those times are few and far between. His huge contract is up at the end of the year, and before yesterday, it was assumed that Corey Crawford would be handed the keys to the crease in 09-10. This was viewed with skepticism from fans. In my honest opinion, I don't believe that Crawford is a starting NHL goaltender. So to sign Huet to push Khabibulin this year, and Crawford for three years after that is a great move by Dale Tallon. Many are skeptical of wrapping up 12 million dollars in goaltending alone this year. And to that I say, if you are going to wrap up six million dollars in Marty Havlat, I believe that having two playoff ready goaltenders in certainly worth it. Because three things win in the playoffs. A potent powerplay, a physical brand of hockey, and impeccable goaltending. On June 30th the Blackhawks had the physical brand of hockey locked up, and were less than questionable in the other two categories. A day later, the Blackhawks look like Stanley Cup contenders.

Indeed, what a difference a year makes.