The 2002-2003 NHL season saw eight new faces slip in and out of Chicago. Below is a review of how each rookie found ways to show off their wares to the parent club.
Tyler Arnason was called up during the 2001-02 season to see if his gift as an offensive play-maker could continue at the next level. At the end of that season he showed clearly had a quick burst up ice, a gift for seeing ways to exploit defenses, and a nose for the net. Although not a speed guy nor a ballerina on skates, Arnason showed he could pot goals but needed to work on his defensive game, not any different than many young players getting a chance in the NHL. His 2002 training camp continued to make the management see him as a guy they were unable to send down because he could get the goals the Blackhawks sorely needed.
The thinking at the end of the 2002 season was to try and play “Arny” with at least one vet who could help advise him on his area of deficiencies while they shared ice and similar game experiences. Injuries to Daze and other Hawks made scoring a priority, so Arnason was thrust into situations with players who were also not as concerned with the defensive side of the ice. Early on Arnason lead rookie scoring and the Hawk press staff started trying to market him as the next best hope. His production was very good scoring 19 goals and 20 assists but he continued to be unaware of defensive responsibilities and was part of the same break-downs as the season ended as when it started.
Based on Arnason’s potential the Blackhawks traded away another offensive only player, Nylander, in a gamble that Washington’s Chris Simon and Andrei Nikolishin along with Arnason could help the the Hawks continue to score. It isn’t as if Arnason choked in his role because he just proved to be a young guy learning in the bigs.
Will Arnason ever be a player equal to Nylander? He certainly needs to be surrounded by better players to improve. Being involved in the Theo Fleury/Paul Coffey strip club fight could easily be passed off by management as a rookie mistake. It is a little more difficult to explain both Housley and Fleury having him there as a sidekick. Does this tarnish his image with Hawk brass? Probably not while his contract is signed and be doesn’t rate big dollars. Expect him to be around and marketed as a star despite his present weaknesses.
In the early season action, there was much talk about which of the players who faired well in pre-season would be kept as a role player at forward. Early on, Shawn Thornton was asked to muck it up and be the large physical presence the line-up lacked. Although he filled the role adequately, the rest of the line-up didn’t warrant having a spot taken by a slow non-scorer. Although last year in the playoffs Mike Smith blamed the St. Louis debacle on his team’s lack of jam in the corners, you need scoring “jelly” to make a good sandwich. Thornton was dispatched early in the season to Norfolk as the team went another direction.
The entire preseason was filled with a buzz about the face-off wins and strong penalty kill play of Brett McLean. He did finally end up playing a couple games in Chicago but the acquisition of Nikolishin clearly filled the role he would have had.
Waiting patiently for his real chance to make in-roads as a Blackhawk defender was Steve McCarthy. He was another casualty of management who from the start were willing to convince the dimwitted Chicago press he might be the next #1 offensive and defensive phenom. McCarthy played as well as he could in the opportunities he was provided, and was then asked to work on his defensive game in Norfolk while the logjam on the parent club continued. Granted the rostered defensemen on the club may have been just a tad bit better than he was, the minors might continue McCarthy’s improvement.
It was the dismissal of Boris Mironov that really opened a spot for McCarthy to play with more regularity. While he did not seize the moment control the game offensively and show he could play a perfect game defensively, he shouldn’t he take the entire blame while the team struggled either.
Mental errors, his lack of size, and almost complete lack of play-making at this point in his career did nothing to solidify him being asked to remain on the roster. His upside remains a #3 defenseman. One must understand that he is a gifted player capable of being an offensive force, but it is far easier to excel when surrounded by strong defensive defenders and a core offense, both lacking at this moment in the house that Bobby built.
Seeing that the defense was in disarray, the Hawks again gave an audition to a former Ranger 3rd round draft pick (later picked up and dropped by Edmonton), Burke Henry. The Blackhawks love finding guys who need a second chance and signing them to minor league contracts because if they do show NHL moxie, management can get these players to sign major league contracts based on the Hawks giving them the second chance. And it was a business decision to see if Henry could ward off NHL forwards and add play-making punch. Both were not the case as Henry looked as if he was in over his head, no matter who he was paired with. Will he return? Because Hawks decisions are equal parts contracts and ability, anything is possible.
Next are several guys that fans can get excited about. Igor Radulov made an impression on many of the Hawk faithful in preseason training camp because it was clear to all of us he knew how to do one thing: go to the net and shoot the puck. He doesn’t want to dish it off unless he is sure his teammate has a clear shot at a goal. He wants the biscuit, he wants to shoot it. Many great players feel the same. When Radulov was sent down after pre-season camp, the management knew what they had but figured that the safe slow route was the best to take with him so he would learn more English, adjust to the smaller ice and team play, the same things that they expected the Mississauga Ice Dogs experience to bring him.
The Blackhawks’ miserable showings, lacking offensive at crucial times in so many games, was the reason Radulov was brought in after the Hawks were eliminated from the playoffs and the games counted less. Imagine the surprise when he scored 5 goals in those last 7 games! (Prior to the Hawks last two wins and tie, they were looking at drafting at #8 but these points moved them all the way up to #14.) It is difficult to imagine that Radulov will not be given every opportunity to play on one of the top lines next season. Playing him with a Russian speaking line-up may be part of the strategy, and he will have to fit into a system that also requires him to play defense. How many young players can the team play who don’t care about the other end, especially when your defense looks as porous as the present Hawk “big six?”
One thing for sure, he has the one ability missing that the team needs: offensive punch.
Again in 2002-03, starter Jocelyn Thibault was used as if he were the marathon man, and Steve Passmore’s inadequate play as a back up did little to inspire the management to rest Thibault. In stepped the two farmhands who over the course of the next decade may have the most positive impact on this franchise: Craig Andersson and Mike Leighton.
Although their games didn’t yield a enormous amount of wins, glowing GAAs, or super save percentages, it did provide the brass with lots of hope and depth at a position they have been weak since the Ed Belfour 1 for 3 trade. Mike Leighton showed a strong presence and ice water veins in the preseason and Craig Andersson was the Calgary 1999 draft pick who re-entered the 2001 draft feeling there was far too large of a logjam in the Calgary net and he was the guy standing behind.
If you remember that 2001 draft in Sunrise, Florida, the Hawks took a 5 minute time-out when it was time to draft at #73 (four slots earlier than Calgary picked Andersson two years before). Blackhawk Bob impatiently waited even though he had a plane to catch hoping to hear the pick. The Hawks then when asked for their pick, took a 30 second time-out making sure Andersson and his agent would agree to terms before the Hawks would choose him.
The 2002-03 season was one where many expected Andersson to play second fiddle to the already established Leighton in Norfolk. That was not the case as Andersson’s good play placed him as the #1 early on. The Blackhawks gave Andersson six different occasions to step in front of the posts and though his performances were not stellar, he doesn’t let the goal before effect his play afterward. He displayed solid positioning and good reflexes and an attitude that all feel will lead to continued improvement.
Mike Leighton came to camp ready and willing to duel for a NHL job, and looked good in preseason games he played in. Never intimidated, he made great save after great save in many situations where he faced 5 on 3 penalty kills. Later in the season during his call-ups, he battled Phoenix’s Zac Beirk to 0-0 tie. As with Andersson, you can only envision a huge upside for Leighton.
Andersson and Leighton’s auditions in 2003 may have hammered all the necessary nails in Steve Passmore’s coffin. The big question for the Hawks is which one is the better long term prospect as a starting goaltender, which one’s development will not he stifled by playing less in the big leagues, and which will get better by NOT making the parent club.
Rookie Stats for 2002-03
Tyler Arnason Chicago NHL 82 19 20 39 20
Steve McCarthyChicago NHL 57 1 4 5 23
Burke Henry Chicago NHL 16 0 2 2 9
Igor Radulov Chicago NHL 7 5 0 5 4
Shawn ThorntonChicago NHL 12 1 1 2 29
Brett McLean Chicago NHL 2 0 0 0 0