By Jacob Luft, CNNSI.com
Chicago made the playoffs last season for the first time since 1997, but was quickly dismissed by the archrival St. Louis Blues in humbling fashion -- failing to score in Games 2, 3 and 4 and losing the series 4-1.
The Blackhawks have an up-and-coming team led by emerging star in Eric Daze, and a coach, Brian Sutter, that the players believe in. So why are fans looking forward to next season with all the enthusiasm of a weekend trip to Gary, Ind.? Why all the long faces in the Windy City?
For starters, they let their best player in Tony Amonte leave via free agency, in much the same manner they allowed past fan favorites Ed Belfour, Jeremy Roenick and Chris Chelios to leave town during their prime. Amonte easily could have remained a Blackhawk if not for botched negotiations, making his departure all the more bitter for fans.
At least the front office didn't sit around twiddling its thumbs for the entire offseason. They did take a flyer on Theo Fleury, who can be a prolific scorer when his head is screwed on straight. Also, they brought in winger Sergei Berezin, a former 30-goal man who has seen his better days but might benefit from another change of scenery.
The moves could be a major step toward replacing Amonte's 66 points. And look at the bright side -- Amonte wasn't the only reason Chicago improved from 29-40-8-5 in 2000-01 to 41-27-13-1 last season. Sutter was a major factor, as was the added depth brought by guys like Phil Housley, Jon Klemm and Kyle Calder.
“Our goal is to make the playoffs and not slide back from 96 points and be out in the first round,” Blackhawks general manager Mike Smith said.
Eric Daze, LW -- It seems like he's been around forever, but Daze is still only 27 and just entering the prime years of what looks to be a very nice career. Long considered a disappointment for not taking advantage of his 6-foot-6, 234-pound frame by asserting himself physically, Daze broke out with 38 goals last season, an increase of five over his previous career high. He went scoreless in Chicago’s five-game series against St. Louis, but Blues goalie Brent Johnson allowed just five goals in the series and had shutouts in three of the five games. Daze now has four 30-goal seasons and 200 goals in his seven-year career.
While some players go in the tank and aren’t motivated to improve by a frustrating situation, the Blackhawks believe a trade demand that Daze made around Thanksgiving during the 2000-01 season coincides with the light bulb going on in his head. After sitting out a couple of games, he returned to the lineup and recommitted himself to the Blackhawks. Since that time, Daze has been Chicago’s top scoring threat.
“Last year was the first year where for an entire season he was a dominant player,” Smith said. “When he scored more than 30 in 1995-96 and 97-98 I wasn't there, but he wasn't as dominating. He was more just a goal scorer. Last year he played very solid defensively, too. Last year was his first full year at that level.”
Daze did most of his damage on the second line last year while Amonte kept opponents busy. And though he might get a shot at the first line, the Hawks may want to keep him where he is most comfortable.
Goaltending -- Jocelyn Thibault was so shaky down the stretch Sutter nearly benched him for Steve Passmore in the playoffs. They ended up sharing time against the Blues with iffy results -- seven goals in three games for Thibault, six in parts of three games for Passmore.
Thibault posted a 2.49 goals-against average in the regular season, which was his best since 1997-98, but still below league average.
“Our goaltending was excellent last year,” Smith said. “Thibault made a significant improvement and was dominant for the first 40 games. Our whole team came back complacent from the Olympic break and I think he kind of got blamed for it. He didn't play any poorer than the rest of our team did after the Olympic break, but he was very good early in the year.
With the new season around the corner, the situation still is unsettled. The organization seems confident in Thibault's ability to carry the load for a full season, but he is in the lower half of starting goalies in the league. So Passmore could get more of a look this year or Michael Leighton could be summoned from AHL Norfolk if either underperforms or is injured. Leighton, the Hawks’ fifth-round pick 1999, impressed in his first season in the AHL, recording a 27-16-8 record, a 2.14 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage.
"Burning" is a good way to describe Fleury's temper. Fleury was on the way to having a stellar season in 2000-01 before coming apart at the seams. He scored 20 goals in the first three months as part of the Rangers' heralded FLY line with Eric Lindros and Mike York, but managed to light the lamp only four times the rest of the way.
Only a year removed from a stint in a substance-abuse clinic, Fleury lost control often. He walked out on the team during the third period of a game in Pittsburgh. On Dec. 28, after being ejected from a New York-San Jose game, he punched Sharks' mascot "Sharkie," breaking one of his ribs.
The Blackhawks were able to win the offseason bidding for his services mainly because of Sutter, who coaxed 57 goals and 147 points in 142 games out of Fleury when they were in Calgary in 1997-98 and '98-99. If Sutter can keep Fleury happy, the Blackhawks have a quality No. 1 winger on their hands for the relatively cheap price of $8.9 million for two seasons.
''We've gone through this process with Theo with our eyes open and we know what his personal situation is. We believe Theo can help our team, and we can help Theo,'' Smith said.
Touted as one of the best prospects in the game, Ruutu is at least a year away from signing with the Blackhawks. Negotiations went nowhere this summer, which means another year of development in the Finnish league. That might not be a bad thing for Tuutu, who is still only 19 and already has drawn comparisons to Peter Forsberg.
Smith hoped to have Ruutu in training camp, but Ruutu signed in late August with HIFK Helsinki after failing to reach agreement on a contract with the Blackhawks. Ruutu's new team is coached by former Blackhawks head coach Alpo Suhonen.
“I think teams make the mistake of rushing Europeans over and I think Europeans make mistakes in rushing over,” Smith said. “They used to stay and come over at 21 or 22, but now they want to come earlier. It's a hard league to play in. But there are exceptions like Sergei Samsonov, but generally speaking I think they are better off to stay over there for an extra year or two. That allows them to stay where they are comfortable with the language and culture, and if they are in a good hockey program they'll play and get better.”
As much as scouts love his two-way skills, it is his heart, determination and all-out hustle on the ice that really makes him a top-notch prospect. More help could be on the way in later years as prospects like Anton Babchuk, Dmitri Tolkunov, Mikhail Yakubov and Pavel Vorobiev come into their own and join Ruutu as the Blackhawks’ anchors.
Jacob Luft is a CNNSI.com producer.