The Chicago Blackhawks enter training camp in unfamiliar territory: surrounded by hype and expectations. For a team having spent the last decade largely ignored even by its once loyal diehard fans, the turnaround in less than 12 months from oblivion to playoff hype is startling.
Chicago was among the league’s busiest teams over the summer after a surprising and exciting 2007-08 campaign that fell three points short of the playoffs. The festivities began with 2007 first overall pick, 19-year-old Patrick Kane, taking home the Calder Trophy awarded to the league’s best rookie. A few short weeks later, the doors to free agency opened and the Blackhawks aggressively moved to the front of the line by spending over $78 million on the best available defenseman and goaltender, Brian Campbell and Cristobal Huet, respectively.
Less than three weeks after the big signings, Chicago held the first ever team convention in the NHL – an opportunity for fans to meet and greet former and current players, as well as the off-ice staff, over a summer weekend celebrating all things Blackhawks. Not only was it a huge success, but the convention also featured 20-year-old Jonathan Toews’ ascension to the 34th captaincy in team history.
Two weeks later, and arguably the biggest indication of how the times have changed, hockey legend Scotty Bowman left the rival Detroit Red Wings to join the Chicago front office as the Senior Advisor of Hockey Operations. Bowman’s knowledge and experience from his 11 Stanley Cup championships will be an immeasurable help to the Blackhawks’ mostly inexperienced general manager Dale Tallon and head coach Denis Savard. Bowman’s presence alone commands immediate respect from all players and management across the league. Anything Blackhawk-related commanding respect is as unfamiliar to the organization as the hype currently enveloping the team.
Oh, and lest we forget, there also is the matter of the NHL’s outdoor game against those same hated Red Wings at historic Wrigley Field on New Year’s Day.
Despite these many announcements and signings, the team still has several questions entering training camp, the most glaring of which comes from the goaltending position. Huet joins incumbent goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin to battle for the starting spot. Two goalies used to starting, and paid as such, generally is not a recipe for success – neither on the ice, nor in accordance of a salary cap.
Huet and his newly-signed $5.625 million salary certainly won’t be going anywhere, but the same can’t be said of Khabibulin and his $6.75 million cap hit. The Blackhawks are saying they plan to keep both goaltenders, but the more likely scenario is Khabibulin remains in Chicago because of the difficulty in finding another team willing to swallow his inflated salary for his inconsistent performance.
Given the problem unloading Khabibulin and the Blackhawks’ position above the salary cap, Chicago recently traded second line center Robert Lang to Montreal, which put the team barely below the cap. Currently little wiggle room exists for Chicago to choose its Opening Day roster and this potentially could be a deciding factor in who makes the team. The Blackhawks have several prospects possibly ready to start the season in Chicago, but those same prospects carry a big salary cap hit due to their draft status. So while the Lang trade alleviates the team’s dire salary cap problem, by no means is Chicago where it wants to be yet.
In trading Lang, the Blackhawks allowed themselves breathing room below the salary cap, but it also created an alarming lack of depth down the middle. Dave Bolland (40 NHL games) and Petri Kontiola (12 NHL games) appear to be the favorites to fight it out for the second and third line center positions, making Toews and his 64 NHL games the most experienced among Chicago’s top three centers. Beyond those three players are career AHL players or prospects even more inexperienced than the aforementioned group. That glaring lack of depth and reliance upon mostly untested youth is asking much, quite possibly too much.
The goaltender and center positions appear to be linked, as it likely will take a trade of Khabibulin to allow the team the freedom to acquire a veteran center. Whether it occurs during the preseason or after opening day remains to be seen. What is a certainty, though, is this training camp is shaping up to be one of the most exciting in the entire league.