The Blackhawks missed the playoffs last season for the first time since Neil Armstrong kicked up dust on the moon. They had the NHL's lousiest offense north of Tampa Bay, and their vaunted captain, Chris Chelios, turned 36 during his poorest season as a pro. And that's not the worst of it.
On Dec. 10 the Blackhawks were deadlocked with the Coyotes in overtime when Phoenix center Jeremy Roenick took a run at goalie Jeff Hackett behind the Chicago net. Hockey players learn to protect their goalies at about the same age they learn to lace their skates. Yet the Hawks barely responded. Later, general manager Bob Murray said his team's timidity "made me sick."
The Hawks' lack of sack did not play well in Chicago. "A lot of blood was spilled to make the playoffs 28 straight years," says Blackhawks coach Dirk Graham, who replaced Craig Hartsburg in the off-season. "Last year was disrespectful to all the players who've played here."
That includes Graham, a captain on several Cup-contending Hawks teams between 1989 and '95. He hopes to reignite the Chicago fire by implementing a ferocious forechecking scheme and vows that the moment any player starts slacking off, "I'll ask him to leave." Sure to stick around are tough-nosed center Doug Gilmour, who signed with the Hawks in July, and Chelios, who should rebound from his subpar season. The Hawks also signed gritty veteran center Mark Janssens to help set the on-ice tone.
Offensively, though, the Hawks still have problems. A strong first line of Gilmour, Eric Daze and Tony Amonte—the latter two had 31 goals apiece last year—needs more support from the second and third lines, which are anchored by inconsistent centers Alexei Zhamnov and Chad Kilger. Nor can the Hawks rely on much playmaking from the blue line, not even from the once potent Paul Coffey. A future Hall of Famer, Coffey was signed not so much for his fading skills but for the fire he showed in winning four Cups with two teams. Fire, remember, is what the Blackhawks needed most last year. They should have enough of it to get back to the postseason this year.