Chicago Blackhawks Preview
By Jon A. Dolezar, SI.com
It's been tough to be a Blackhawks fan over the past decade.
Chicago fans have been fortunate enough to witness the best years of the career of hockey luminaries such as Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull, Tony Esposito, Denis Savard, Steve Larmer, Roenick and Chelios, but with the amount of roster turnover lately in the Windy City, there are no such legends to latch onto anymore. The ice at the United Center would only feel so lucky to be graced by the presence of such identifiable names. Blackhawks fans might even settle for someone with the infamy of legendary Chi-town gangsters Al Capone and John Dillinger. Oh wait, they had Theo Fleury, but he's gone, too.
The Blackhawks have lost Sergei Berezin, Mike Eastwood, Fleury, Phil Housley, Andrei Nikolishin, Lyle Odelein, Chris Simon and Steve Thomas in the six months dating back to the trade deadline, leaving plenty of roster spots open in training camp.
"Despite the collapse at midseason, we ended up with 79 points which was [tied for] the most of anyone missing the playoffs," general manager Mike Smith said. "When you read all the media here it was like we had 42 points or something. Our best players are all back and the players who are gone are all over 30, and some over 35."
Jocelyn Thibault was the team's lone All-Star in 2003, but even he slumped down the stretch from being overworked and having only journeyman Steve Passmore to back him up. With Passmore unlikely to secure a spot in Chicago, young netminders Craig Anderson and Michael Leighton are locked in a neck-and-neck battle to back Thibault up in Chicago, with the losers heading back to AHL Norfolk at least to begin the season.
Head coach Brian Sutter had his team squarely in the playoff hunt with a 21-13-8-3 record in mid-January, but the team lost five of its next six games, a stretch during which the infamous Fleury strip club incident in Columbus took place. The Blackhawks emerged from that incident a much different team, with the locker room significantly fractured by the latest of Fleury's distractions. Though he remains in the NHL's aftercare treatment program as part of his six-month suspension, Chicago will almost certainly cut its losses with Fleury if he decides to attempt another comeback.
Sutter will be happy to give some of Fleury's ice time to emerging fowards Tyler Arnason and Kyle Calder. That trio of youngsters will combine with veteran wingers Eric Daze and Steve Sullivan to form two-thirds of the top two lines, while newcomers Ville Nieminen and Scott Nichol will join Mark Bell and Jason Strudwick as the anchors on the energy and checking lines.
Young Russian forwards, in particular, will be the biggest beneficiary of Chicago's roster purge, with Igor Radulov, Pavel Vorobiev and Mikhail Yakubov all in the hunt for jobs.
After being playoff regulars for a long time, the Blackhawks may be heading for a bumpy patch. The road back to glory could take some time, but Chicago is committed to its youth movement and will ride out a rough season or two in the hopes of getting back to contender status.
Alexei Zhamnov, C -- The 32-year-old pivot has enjoyed a successful, albeit underrated 11 years in the NHL, scoring 237 goals and adding 436 assists in 740 games with Winnipeg and Chicago.
Though Zhamnov's name isn't likely to come up alongside Peter Forsberg, Sergei Fedorov and Mike Modano in discussions of the best two-way centers, he has averaged 40.3 assists over the past four seasons, an impressive total for playing on a team that has struggled to score goals.
"He's our best, most complete player," Smith said. "Alex plays head to head against the top players and there are few No. 1 centers who are asked to play against the other team's No. 1 center. He's a good offensive player, but he's equally good defensively. He's a classic Russian center like they produced back in the Soviet Union days."
The Blackhawks would love to see one of the young Russian wingers (Radulov or Vorobiev) snag a spot on the top line with Zhamnov, whose playmaking ability could turn either rookie into a Calder Trophy contender.
Chicago was disappointed when its captain was pulled over for a DUI in suburban Buffalo Grove on March 10. Zhamnov's blood alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit. Zhamnov needs to set a better example than that both on and off the ice for what is likely to be one of the youngest teams in the league.
Lack of a top-flight defenseman -- The Blackhawks were thrilled to lure Jon Klemm away from the Avalanche as a free agent in 2001, but after a hot start in the Windy City, Klemm's offensive production has tailed off back to its regular pace. While he is a solid NHL rearguard, Klemm isn't noted for his work on the power play, a role that is open after the team dealt Housley to the Maple Leafs at the deadline.
"We're missing a clear No. 1 or 2 defenseman," Smith said. "And they aren't easy to pick up. We may be a year early, but we have four or five real good young defensemen coming along. They have big size, they are rangy and have a chance to be significant players in the future. Whether or not they can step into it this year, I don't know. I guess we'll find out."
Klemm is joined by veterans Steve Poapst and Alexander Karpovtsev as the anchors, while Steve McCarthy, Nathan Dempsey and free agent pickup Deron Quint are likely to round out the top six. After that the 'Hawks are looking forward to seeing steady progress from Anton Babchuk, Michal Barinka, Vladimir Gusev and Lasse Kukkonen in training camp. This quartet offers Chicago fans a steady blueline bunch to look forward to for the next decade, but the Blackhawks would be happy if one or two of them are able to make significant contributions in the NHL this season.
"Defense is a little more up for grabs here," Smith said. "We're optimistic that a couple of young guys can make it. We're going to see how it goes, but if we get into the start of the season and we're not satisfied then we'll probably have to go out and try to make a trade or pick somebody up."
Are the Blackhawks getting too young too fast?
The average age of the players on the Blackhawks' training camp is six years younger than it was last season, proving that Smith and Sutter are committed to a youth movement. But the team could suffer growing pains trying to assimilate so many young players into the lineup at once.
"You have to be a little more patient with a young team because early in the year they make a few more errors, but quite often they are more coachable too," Smith said. "We're in a rebuilding process and trying to sign all of our top prospects. Right now we're seeing if those players can fill those holes."
Smith has overhauled the roster significantly since arriving in 2000. His most unpopular move was not keeping Tony Amonte around, though Amonte's struggles in Phoenix last season may have justified Smith not caving in to Amonte's high salary demands. The 56-year-old general manager was one of the first NHL executives to show an interest in Russian players, a trend that is evident glancing at a list of the Blackhawks' top prospects.
Chicago has enough talented young players in its system that it could be a team to reckon with in a few years, but such a quick overhaul of a team usually results in some significant growing pains. And the late swoon to close out 2002-03 season may have been just the beginning of the process.
Tuomo Ruutu, C, 6-2, 208 pounds
After contentious negotiations which lasted nearly a year, the Blackhawks were finally able to sign Ruutu in late August. His older brothers Jarkko (Canucks left winger) and Mikko (Jokerit right winger, property of the Ottawa Senators) are excellent players as well, but Tuomo is a far more complete player than either one, combining Jarkko's nasty streak with an offensive game that is far more advanced.
Ruutu was regarded as the best player outside of the NHL last season, and he played excellently for HIFK Helsinki in the Finnish Elite League, finishing with 12 goals and 15 points in 30 games as a 19-year-old. Now that he's signed, sealed and delivered, Ruutu will make an immediate impact on the Blackhawks, likely filling the third-line center role as a rookie behind Zhamnov and Tyler Arnason.
"I think his game is NHL-ready," Smith said. "We think he'll fit in here pretty quickly. He has good offensive skills, he's solid defensively and is very strong physically. He has a reputation of liking to play the body and be involved in hitting. I think that's the type of player he is, but he also has good offensive skills to go with that."
Ruutu has been impressive in the Blackhawks' rookie camp and during the early stages of training camp, though he left Monday's workout with stiffness in his surgically repaired right knee.
"I try to do many things, score and hit, be a versatile player," Ruutu told the Chicago Tribune upon signing his contract. "I only have one gear and I play as hard as I can."
His work ethic and physical play will quickly endear him to fans in Chicago, and Ruutu will be a mainstay with the Blackhawks for many years to come. Eventually he will emerge from a third-liner into a top-line center, and scouts believe Ruutu will become a perennial All-Star with two-way skills that have been likened to those of Forsberg.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.