The Chicago Blackhawks entered the first season of the post-lockout era with high hopes. They had added many new free agent bodies, including high-profile pickups Nikolai Khabibulin and Adrian Aucoin, as well as solid veteran leaders in Martin Lapointe, Matthew Barnaby, Jassen Cullimore, Jaroslav Spacek and Curtis Brown, which, when coupled with the emerging presence of Tuomo Ruutu, and up-and-comers Kyle Calder and Mark Bell, spirits were high for the Hawks entering the 2005-06 season, with hopes of sneaking into the playoffs permeating the minds of the team’s fans.
However, this season, it was not to be. Bouts of inconsistency and injury plagued the Hawks, with Aucoin, Khabibulin, and power forward Eric Daze and Ruutu missing sizeable amounts of time due to serious injuries, as well as lower than expected contributions from some of the other key veterans. Once again, when the season ended, the Blackhawks were on the outside looking in come playoff time.
A positive can be drawn from the inconsistency and injury problems that faced this year’s Hawks squad. Chicago has in recent years had one of the better, deeper prospect pools in the NHL (in the most recent edition of Hockey’s Future’s Organizational Rankings, the Blackhawks placed fourth), so plenty of Chicago’s younger talents were given an opportunity to contribute with the big club. No less than 13 Blackhawks donned their team’s jersey for the first time in regular season play, and many gave strong contributions, often playing in situations above their skill, but trying hard nonetheless, shouldering the load as best they could. It was on the point where the future of the Hawks young talent was most readily apparent, with no less than eight rookie defensemen making an appearance in the lineup at some point of the season.
The two most readily apparent rookie contributors on the Hawks blue line were Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith. Both Seabrook and Keith made the Hawks out of training camp, in anticipation of seeing time on the third pairing for the most part, as well as occasional special team duty. Seabrook, however, got off to a cracking start, picking up five points in his first two career NHL games, and for a very short time, leading the NHL in scoring. It was not long before Seabrook became the de facto leader of the Blackhawks defensive unit, playing big minutes in all situations, using his size to his advantage, and playing very strong in both ends. Though a mid-season knee injury threw a short-term wrench into Seabrook’s season (even the rookies were not immune from Chicago’s injury problems), he was able to bounce back and renew his stellar play from the first half of the season, finishing strong, and leading all defensemen in scoring with 32 points, and finishing second on the team in plus/minus, picking up a plus-5 rating on a team that gave up 74 more goals than they scored. Unquestionably Chicago’s best rookie this season, Seabrook was also arguably their best player, period.
Alongside Seabrook on the Blackhawks’ blue line, but to much less fanfare was Keith. He did not share Seabrook’s strong start, playing inconsistently, and perhaps over his head initially, however as the season progressed, Keith began to adapt to the higher level of play. By the end of the season, Keith had emerged as one of Chicago’s better defensemen on the team. Known more for his offensive play entering this season, Keith was forced into a defensive role for much of the year out of a lack of other options, and worked hard to improve his defensive play, and was an acceptable option in his own end come the end of the season. Keith will be better served in an offensive role, given his strong skating a good work with puck, and would be better suited playing alongside a more defensively responsible defensive partner, but the experience he has gained working on his play in his own end will be invaluable to his future development, occasional hiccups aside. He picked up 21 points over the course of the season, playing in all but one game. A restricted free agent postseason, Keith is expected to be back next year, bringing hard work to the table every night.
A third rookie defenseman started the season with the Blackhawks, that being Chicago’s top prospect Cam Barker. Kept on with the big club for an extra look as the team’s seventh defenseman out of training camp, Barker only got into one game for the Hawks before being sent back to Medicine Hat for the duration of the season, however, he was able to learn about the rigors of life in the NHL whilst traveling with the team for the first couple weeks of the season, and will be one step ahead of the field when he likely becomes a permanent fixture of the Blackhawks blue line next season.
As the season progressed, and more injuries continued to mount, more Blackhawks rookies made appearances on the blue line, with Dustin Byfuglien, Anton Babchuk, James Wisniewski, and Michal Barinka garnering mid-season call-ups from Norfolk.
Byfuglien made his debut appearance in the line-up at the beginning of March, and remained a fixture in the Hawks line-up for the duration of the season, gaining valuable experience for next year. The monstrous defenseman made an immediate impact in the line-up offensively, scoring in his first career game March 1 against Nashville. Byfuglien’s bread and butter is his offensive play. An adept stickhandler, and an aggressive forechecker, Byfuglien also boasts a cannon of a shot that he uses regularly. Despite his large size, he does not seem willing to regularly use it to his advantage in his own end, which also was problematic given that his foot speed and defensive positioning both need work. If he can get meaner and slowly but steadily improve his defensive play, he will be a much more valuable contributor down the line. It will be interesting to see how he will adapt to a full season with the big club.
Wisniewski was another late-season call-up, seeing spot duty in February, before sticking with the team full-time in late-March as a sixth defenseman. He picked up an impressive seven points in his 19 games of work with the Hawks, gaining the call-up with Aucoin and Cullimore out for the season at this point. Defensive depth next season could once again play a role in keeping Wisniewski down with Norfolk next season. His all-around skills and physical play are intriguing, but he is still a little too raw for the NHL, and will probably benefit from a full season playing big minutes with the Admirals next year, building on his valuable contributions with Norfolk during his stint there this past season.
Barinka, too, warranted a late-season call-up for the Hawks in March once their playoff fates were sealed. A stay-at-homer to complement their solid core of offensive defensemen, Barinka was never flashy but was competent. Appearing in 25 games, he picked up one assist, appearing occasionally on the Hawks penalty kill. He will benefit from another season or two in the minors to hone his skill and see if he can bring forth some semblance of an offensive game and whilst improving his discipline.
Babchuk saw time mid-season with the Hawks, picking up five points in 17 games, but was a victim of the numbers game, and was moved to Carolina in a January deal that brought, oddly enough, another defenseman, in fellow rookie Danny Richmond to the Hawks. Richmond, a native of the Chicago area, appeared in 10 games for the Hawks, without picking up a point, before being returned to Norfolk for their playoff run. He also appeared in 10 games for the Hurricanes, adding an assist. Another offensive defenseman for the Hawks’ stable, who adds some grit, Richmond will probably benefit from another year in the minors, and may be there by default due to a busy defensive core.
Up front, there were fewer rookie forwards, but two stood out, one for his stellar offensive play early in the season, and another for his hard work over the course of the season. The Hawks started the regular season with two rookie forwards in their line-up: former first-round draft pick Pavel Vorobiev, and free-agent acquisition Rene Bourque.
Vorobiev had been a decent contributor for the Norfolk Admirals for the past couple of seasons, putting up modest offensive numbers. Vorobiev stuck with the big squad this season, and was an immediate contributor. An enigmatic, all-offense player who seems to pay relative indifference to his defensive play, he needed to be firing offensively to be valuable. He got off to a cracking start, with four goals in his first three games of the season, and was still finding the net regularly, on pace for nearly 100 points for a time come mid-November, until he went down with a foot injury, missing about four weeks, save a rushed one-game reappearance. He ran into serious consistency issues late in 2005, and did not find the net after Dec. 16. Not contributing offensively, and playing a lax defensive game was enough to put Vorobiev in the doghouse, and was a leading factor in his being sent down to Norfolk for the balance of the season, when he picked up 25 points in 32 games. A skilled scorer, Vorobiev will look to bounce back from a disappointing second half next season.
Bourque remained with the Hawks for the bulk of the season, forced into a top-six role due to the Hawks injury problems, and was solid in playing above his head. Bourque, a hard worker, who likes to hit and has solid stickhandling ability, was one of the few bright spots, leading the team in rookie scoring. Though he is more suited for a third or fourth line role, the gritty forward still managed to pick up 16 goals and 34 points, appearing in 77 games. Though he needs some work on his skating, his all around game should ensure that he has a role for the foreseeable future with the Hawks.
Two other rookie forwards saw spot duty for the Hawks, with heavy-hitter Matt Keith and pint-sized, skilled Martin St. Pierre both seeing two games apiece for the Hawks. An early season free-agent acquisition, St. Pierre went pointless for the Hawks, but compiled 73 points in 77 games for the Admirals, good enough to lead the team. Keith was called up for his second stint with Chicago (he played 20 games for the Hawks in 2003-04), in the last week of the season, after having picked up 26 goals for Norfolk. A decent skater who likes to hit and pays the price in the trenches; Keith will likely be resigned in the offseason, and given more time to develop in Norfolk.
Chicago acquired one more rookie forward at the trade deadline, bringing over Brandon Bochenski from Ottawa in the deal that sent Tyler Arnason to the Senators. Bochenski had a great preseason with the Senators, which led to him sticking with the eventual No. 1 ranked team in the Eastern Conference, and looked decent early in the season, with 13 points in 20 games playing with strong line mates. He was sent to the minors for a period, before being deemed expendable in the ill-fated Arnason deal. He received less ice time and was unable to get in gear with the Hawks. Bochenski appeared in 20 games for Chicago, picking up four points. In order to be effective, Bochenski needs to be paired with a playmaker, and thus, play on the top two lines. Unfortunately for Bochenski during his Chicago stint, playmakers on the fourth line are not a common commodity. If he can have a training camp next season like he had for Ottawa in 2005, he should be primed for a roster spot.
If the large number of rookie skaters being thrown to the fire by Chicago was not enough, Chicago also utilized two rookie goaltenders, with Corey Crawford and Adam Munro seeing time between the pipes for the Hawks, both as emergency call-ups during Khabibulin’s extended absence due to injury. Crawford was the first to be called up, getting his feet wet with two appearances, while Munro started 10 games in late January, before trading back and forth with Craig Anderson. Munro compiled three wins in his 10 appearances. Crawford and Munro made an adequate tandem for Norfolk through the season, and present two very solid future options should Khabibulin become unavailable in the near future.
Many players were given valuable experience in playing key roles early in their careers with the Blackhawks in the 2005-06 regular season. Some were impressive, some were mediocre, and some proved that they needed more seasoning at a lower level. Thankfully for the Blackhawks, the prospect cupboards are full enough that several inconsistent or mediocre performances are not to worry about. Yet.
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