Six rookies remain on the Blackhawks roster heading into the start of the 2003-04 season.
Goaler Mike Leighton (1999, 6th rd.), drafted by former GM Bob Murray, starts the season as Jocelyn Thibault’s back-up. GM Smith pick Craig Anderson (2001, 3rd rd.) will be waiting for the call to flip-flop after each 20 games with Leighton, as Smith hinted would happen if Leighton falters.
Lasse Kukkonen, the Hawks fifth round pick this past year, has earned a spot on defense, based on his veteran-like play in camp. At 22, he captained the Finnish Karpat team the last two seasons. He adds a third Finn to a team that had none on its roster last season.
Mike Smith said the organization didn’t expect six rookies on the roster, but their play warranted spots on the club. Center Tuomo Ruutu (2001, 1st rd.), right winger Pavel Vorobiev (2000, 1st rd.), right wingerIgor Radulov (2000, 1st rd.) and left winger Travis Moen (2000, 5th rd.) are the other four rookies who made the team out of camp.
Moen is the biggest surprise. He was originally drafted by the Calgary Flames him out of the Western Junior Hockey league based on his 399 minutes of three regular seasons with the Kelowna Rockets. The 6’2” 208-pounder was chosen to be the next generation Hawk enforcer. The Hawks signed him to play in Norfolk last season on coach Brian Sutter’s recommendation when he saw him in the Flames evaluation camps. Moen’s presence may be temporary until WHLer Dustin Byfuglien (2003, 8th rd.) is ready forthe jump to the big leagues.
The Hawks have sent to their Norfolk AHL farm club and junior teams another 10 youngsters who may be a year or so away the big time, but whose names you will definitely be hearing in the future.
Mikhail Yakubov (2000, 1st rd.) couldn’t beat out Tuomo Ruutu or the veteran Blackhawk centers but it was not from lack of performance. Look for him to be a first call-up if Alex Zhamnov’s back gives him trouble.
Wingers Matt Keith (2001, 2nd rd.) and Matt Ellison (2002, 4th rd.) showed plenty of raw talent in their roles and will be back as they improve their game. One winger who, due to injury, was unable to show his stuff until the very end of camp, was left winger Alexander Kojevnikov (2003, 3rd rd.). His play in the July evaluation camp displayed a size skill package that possibly would have also put him in the pros at age 18, but the injury hampered his chances. He was optioned to Val D’Or of the Quebec junior league that owns his rights. This path will let him adjust both on and off the ice in North America.
Defender Anton Babchuk (2002, 1st rd.) may have a much bigger upside than Kukkonen with his cannon shot and huge frame, but the 19-year-old had trouble with his decision making in his own end and was not yet comfortable when asked to play the right side defense, after showing adequate ability when on the left defense spot. He also can expect to be a first call-up if someone else is injured or falters.
Defenders Duncan Keith (2002, 2nd rd.),Michal Barinka (2003, 2nd rd.), and Valdimir Gusev (1999, 4th rd.) were all sent to Norfolk with the hopes that off and on ice preparations there would round out their North American games. Keith would become the Blackhawks next generation version of Pat Stapleton, the diminutive defender who was a fan favorite in the 1970’s.
Still playing in the North American junior leagues are defensemen Brent Seabrook (2003, 1st rd.), goaltenders Corey Crawford (2003, 2nd rd.), and Mike Brodeur (2003, 7th rd.) while Europeans Olli Malmivaara (2000,4th rd.), Jonas Nordqvist (2000, 2nd rd.), Tommi Jäminki (2001, 5th rd.), Alexander Barkunov (2000, 5th rd.), Mattias Wennerberg (1999, 4th rd.), Alexander Golovin (2001, 6th rd.), Alexei Zotkin (2001, 4th rd.), Petr Puncochar (2001, 6th rd.), Teemu Jääskeläinen (2002, 7th rd.) and others have yet to show enough for a North American jump.
In the US colleges are goaltenders Michael Ayers (2002, 6th rd.), Adam Berkhoel (2000, 8th rd.) and forward Jeff Miles (2001, 8th rd.)
Not all will be up to the challenge of a NHL career, but it has been a long time since the Chicago Blackhawks can boast of having such a large stable of possible candidates.