Season Preview: Here Come the Hawks

Well, the season starts Friday, so we might as well do a season preview...

COMMIT!

The Hawks finalized their roster meaning I don't have to speculate on any cut downs!  If you hadn't heard yet, Cam Barker, Aaron Johnson and Antti Niemi were sent to Rockford, while Kevyn Adams was released and Joakim Lindstrom claimed off waivers by Anaheim.  That leaves the Hawks roster at 23, so let's dive right in:

    Line combinations and defense pairings are as reported by Tim Sassone, and as always, could change by the 2nd shift on Friday.

Goalies: Nikolai Khabibulin, Cristobal Huet
    
    The immediate issue here is that Khabibulin is still on the team and so is his contract.  I'm assuming that Huet will be treated as the No. 1 goalie here, not that it seems to matter much on paper.  The two goalies have similar career GAA and save percentage number.  The Hawks are hoping that the arrow is still pointing up on the slightly younger, slightly cheaper Huet.  I think Huet will provide better goaltending for the Hawks this year, but only marginally so.  Khabi can still turn in a jaw dropping performance now and then, and may be better suited to a time share or backup role, as the heavy load he carried in his early years seem to be catching up with him.  As for any locker room issues, I don't think Khabibulin will have much impact there.  Goalies are generally loners as it is, the question isn't whether a disgruntled goalie can hurt the team, but whether anybody will be able to tell that a goalie is disgruntled.
    
Defensemen: Brian Campbell, Jordan Henry, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Brent Sopel, Matt Walker

    Brian Campbell was the Hawks big prize in the offseason.  They needed a power play quarterback and top 4 defenseman, and in Campbell they got both.  All reports indicate that Campbell will be paired with Duncan Keith.  While they'll make an excellent offensive pairing, they also lack in size.  I think we may not see this pair together for long if teams begin to take advantage of them physically.  A breakup would likely result in Keith being paired with his mate from last year, Brent Seabrook who can definitely bring the physical game, but needs to stay out of the penalty box if he's going to have a breakthrough season.  Niklas Hjalmarsson is currently the No. 4 defenseman, but I'm not convinced his making the team was so much a product of his play as it was Cam Barker's $2.8MM cap number.  Brent Sopel or Matt Williams may leapfrog him on the depth chart in short order.  Jordan Henry is a solid No. 5 or 6 man.  He stays home and makes the little plays.  As a whole, the Hawks have very good depth in their defense corps this year, especially with James Wisniewski scheduled to return from a knee injury in December.  If the Hawks need to acquire a forward during the season, they are in position to trade a defensemen to get him.

Forwards: Craig Adams, Dave Bolland, Adam Burish, Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager, Colin Fraser, Martin Havlat, Patrick Kane, Andrew Ladd, Patrick Sharp, Jack Skille, Jonathan Toews, Kris Versteeg


    The Hawks are extremely green up front this year, shedding veterans from last year's team like Yanic Perrault, Robert Lang, Kevyn Adams (cut this week) and Jason Williams.  As it stands now, they'll be depending on several players who've only had cups of coffee in the NHL to play very big roles.  The top line will be centered by Jonathan Toews who had a terrific year last year, marred only by a knee injury, which ultimately may have given his teammate Patrick Kane the Calder Trophy.  Toews is the Hawks new captain, and appears to be the real deal.  He's already a very good player, and I think the main question with both he and Kane is not will they be great players, but when will they make that jump?  Toews will be joined on the top line by the perennially ouchy Martin Havlat and Andrew Ladd.  Ladd will be expected to create room for the other two, and chip in on offense whenever possible.  I'd look for Patrick Kane to rejoin Toews on this line when Havlat suffers his regularly scheduled shoulder injury in November.

    As it stands now, Kane will start the season on the 2nd line, with Patrick Sharp and Dustin Byfuglien.  This is where Tallon's failure to acquire a veteran center really hurts.  Sharp is clearly more effective as a winger, and has expressed his preference for that position on more than one occasion.  The real breakout player I see here is Byfuglien.  He's nearly impossible to move from the front of the net, and has terrific hands.  I don't think that 30 goals is out of the question for Big Buf, if he can stay healthy.

    As of now, the third line consists of Dave Bolland, Kris Versteeg and Jack Skille.  I like all three of these players, but I'm not sure I want them playing together at this point in their careers.  Bolland could be a decent two-way center, and Versteeg has a nose for the puck in the corners, and Skille could provide some fire power, but the three have played a combined 79 games in the NHL, and none of them tops 200 lbs.  If these guys get in over their heads early on, it could be trouble for the Hawks, and it may be better to play them separately with some of the more experienced players.

    The fourth liners are the rotating cast of Adam Burish, Colin Fraser, Craig Adams and Ben Eager.  Both Burish and Adams are good checking line players, and Fraser could be a similar player.  Burish could up his goal output if he works on finishing.  He missed on a lot of breakaways last year.  Eager is, in my opinion, all but useless.  Granted he's huge, but he's shown no aptitude for fighting with other heavyweights, and would seemingly rather swing his stick than throw a punch.  If you're going to have a guy like that on your team, you'd rather have him be more of a Tomas Holmstrom-type.  He'll piss off the other team with his stickwork, but at least he can score a goal too.

    At this point, I think the lack of a true fighter is glaring hole for the Hawks.  Burish and Wisniewski (when he returns) are both game, but neither should be asked to take on a professional goon, and too be honest, they're both too valuable to this team on the ice.

Coach: Denis Savard

    Savvy's got his work cut out for him again this year.  He's working without an extension, and he's got a lot of young players on his roster again.  On the plus side, the power play should be improved with Campbell on the blue line.  However, without good coaching, there will likely be a fall off in defense due to the youth of the forwards.  The best bet might be to let this team go and shoot it out every night.  Needless to say, a slow start could cost Savard his job, especially with Joel Quinville taking a prominent place in the organization.


General Manager: Dale Tallon

    The real question is what impact Khabi's continued presence has for Dale Tallon.  The top two items on Tallon's offseason checklist were signing a big time defenseman and obtaining a no. 2 center.  The first was accomplished, but compromised the Hawks salary cap position to the point that moving Khabibulin is the only real option if the team wants to bring in a center.  But no one wanted to take the goalie on waivers, or in trade, and a deal with a Russian team fell through.  This leaves the Hawks with and extremely young group of forwards, and also rumblings that Cam Barker's demotion to Rockford has as much to do with his $2.8MM salary as it does with his "footwork".  Tallon's going to be under a lot of pressure with Scotty Bowman now working in the front office, and if the team underachieves, he'll be subject to the same scrutiny as Savard, especially if the team is still handcuffed by Khabibulin's salary at the trade deadline.

In summary, I think the Hawks will be better this year by virtue of improvement from Toews, Kane and Byfuglien, as well as the addition of Campbell.  This group should improve on an offense that was 10th in the NHL in goals scored last year, but I don't see them improving much from their 20th spot in goal's against.  Still, that should be enough for 2nd in Central Division and 4th in Conference.

 

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