NEW PLAYERS 10
NEW RULES NO FACTOR
BETTER THAN '03-04? YES
When it came time for the presumed savior of the worst franchise in the Western Conference to pick a uniform number, Nikolai Khabibulin learned that 35, which he had worn since the 1994-95 season, had already been retired by the Blackhawks (for former goalie Tony Esposito). So he decided to reverse the digits and wear 53.
The symbolism wasn't lost on general manager Dale Tallon and new coach Trent Yawney, who are counting on the four-time All-Star goaltender, who backstopped the Tampa Bay Lightning to the last Stanley Cup, to reverse the fortunes of a perennially dreadful team that finished the '03--04 season with the fewest victories (20) in the league. "We realized we needed him to win," says Tallon, who received a standing ovation from his staff after signing Khabibulin to a four-year, $27 million deal. "We've been waiting a long time for this."
Chicago has made one playoff appearance since 1998. In '03-04 the team used 13 rookies, whose inexperience contributed to a club-record 19-game road losing streak. "We didn't have a lot of character. We didn't play hard every night," says Tallon.
Khabibulin, the highest-paid goalie in the league, should give the Blackhawks a chance to win every night. Says All-Star defenseman Adrian Aucoin, another of Tallon's 10 new additions, "When you have that confidence in the goaltending, you seem to play better. You just worry about your own job, and things take care of themselves a little easier."
The high expectations haven't fazed the 32-year-old ' Bulin Wall. "In my position there's a lot of pressure," said Khabibulin. "I've been dealing with it for a long time. I just try to do the best I can."
Khabibulin's presence should be enough to get Chicago into the playoffs. In any case, Yawney says Khabibulin has already brought the Blackhawks something else they desperately needed: "He's given us instant credibility." --Y.Y.
The addition of workhorse Adrian Aucoin will help develop defensemen Anton Babchuk and Brent Seabrook.