Wednesday, July 9, 2008

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.

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