Exciting young talent revitalizes Chicago

Never has a non-playoff season felt as good as it did for the 2007-2008 Chicago Blackhawks.

That’s not to say the team was not disappointed to miss the postseason for the fifth straight spring, and for the ninth time in 10 tries, but they enjoyed a winning record for the first time since 2001-02, and more importantly recaptured the imagination of a great but long-slumbering hockey town thanks to the emergence of a couple young stars.

Calder winner Patrick Kane was a deserving rookie of the year, and had plenty of support – not to mention stiff competition for the award – from teammate Jonathan Toews. The teenage duo electrified the fan base and the United Center was at capacity on many nights.

They may never bring back the roar that permeated the old Chicago Stadium, but they certainly chased off the snore that accompanied bad and boring recent Blackhawks teams.

The passing of long-time owner Bill Wirtz just before the last season was a sad blow, but it allowed the team to change some unpopular long-standing policies. The biggest was the return of a number of home Blackhawks games to local television. Considering the exciting product on the ice, giving Chicagoland fans a reason to venture out to the United Center was the right thing to do. And this season all 41 home games will be televised.

A new leadership tandem of Rocky Wirtz, a son of the late former owner, and president John McDonough gets credit for reaching out to the fans while being patient with the young team. It helps, of course, to have some success in the draft, and after quite a drought, it appears the Hawks are on to something.

Chicago’s revival also caught the eye of free-agent defenseman Brian Campbell, who left what could have been a good thing with Joe Thornton and the San Jose Sharks to quarterback a young and promising group on the Blackhawks’ blue line. Chicago said it would go after the best defenseman available, and it stuck to its word by forking out $56.8 million over eight years for Campbell.

Now, however, comes the hard part. It’s one thing to improve from 71 to 88 points, but making that jump into the mid-90s, which is what it will likely take to return to the postseason, will pose a challenge.

Last season: 40-34-8, 88 points, third place in the Central Division, 10th place in the Western Conference. The Blackhawks finished three points behind eighth-place Nashville and missed the playoffs for a fifth straight season (and ninth out of the last 10), but showed marked improvement.

Imports: D Brian Campbell (2007-08 team: Buffalo Sabres and San Jose Sharks), G Cristobal Huet (Montreal Canadiens and Washington Capitals), D Matt Walker (St. Louis Blues), D Aaron Johnson (New York Islanders), D Doug Janik (Tampa Bay Lightning), C Tim Brent (Pittsburgh Penguins), C Pascal Pelletier (Boston Bruins).

Exports: C Jason Williams (Atlanta Thrashers), C Martin St. Pierre (Boston Bruins), G Patrick Lalime (Buffalo Sabres), LW Rene Bourque (Calgary Flames), David Koci (Tampa Bay Lightning), D Andrei Zyuzin (free agent), C Yanic Perreault (free agent), C Kevyn Adams (free agent).

Three keys to the season: Without a doubt, both Kane and Toews have to avoid a sophomore slump. It’s a lot to ask of a couple of young and inexperienced players, but both appear to be winners, and there really is nowhere else to turn. While Kane (21 goals, 72 points), right wing Patrick Sharp (36 goals, 62 points) and Toews (24 goals, 54 points) pacing the offense, the Hawks will be looking for other forwards to increase their production. There are only three natural centers with NHL experience on the roster, and one of them – Robert Lang – has been rumored to be heading out to alleviate salary-cap concerns. And the other two – Toews and Dave Bolland – were rookies last season.

Second, goaltending is a question. Even though Nikolai Khabibulin is the incumbent starter, Chicago signed veteran Cristobal Huet, which will give general manager Dale Tallon some salary-cap flexibility if he can trade Khabibulin. The veteran Russian goalie was up and down last year, and there’s some talk that he’d rather be playing elsewhere. Corey Crawford has toiled for three seasons in the minors, and he’s probably ready for a shot if the team decides to move Khabibulin.

Third, while Kane and Toews grab most of the headlines, the real strength is the young defense that is growing and maturing. Remember, defense wins, and the trio of Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, James Wisniewski (a knee injury will keep him out a while) is as good a young group as anyone’s. Youngster Dustin Byfuglien may also see time up front, and veterans Campbell and Brent Sopel will help steady the group.

On the hot seat: Campbell will be playing for his third franchise in nine months after spending his first seven seasons with the Buffalo Sabres. Campbell was solid in 20 games with the Sharks last season – San Jose earned points in all but two – but he was not a factor in two playoff series. Still, he was paid big money to anchor the Chicago blue line, but buyer beware: This is not a shutdown defenseman in any way, shape or form. He’ll only be successful if he piles up points because he’s not going to dazzle anyone in his own end, unless he skating the puck out of the zone. Campbell needs to inject some life, too, into a power play that ranked 24th last season.

Poised to blossom: The 6-foot, 190-pound Keith, who plays bigger than his listed size, averaged 25 minutes and 33 seconds per night, and his total of 2,096 minutes were second only to Florida’s Jay Bouwmeester and Calgary’s Dion Phaneuf. Keith has missed only one game in his first three seasons, and his modest offensive numbers took a jump last year to a career-high 12 goals and 32 points.

Analysis and prediction: The Blackhawks have an opportunity here, but it won’t be easy. They’re in a division where the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wins, who Chicago played very well during the regular season, could be primed for a bit of a hangover and the three other teams – Columbus, Nashville and St. Louis – might be running a step or two behind the Hawks. Here’s to Chicago slipping back into the top eight and showing off some of that great young talent on the playoff stage.

Ross McKeon is an NHL editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Ross a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Sep 7, 2008