The Chicago Blackhawks open their 2007 training camp on Sept. 13 at the United Center. The only position that seems set going into camp is goaltender, where Nikolai Khabibulin returns and will most likely be backed up by Patrick Lalime.
At forward and on defense, it’s been a typically very busy off-season for Dale Tallon, Rick Dudley et al. In addition to the comings and goings of pro players due to trade and free agency, the Blackhawks signed a number of top prospects to pro contracts and have a few key prospects that look ready to challenge for NHL jobs.
What follows is a position-by-position breakdown of organizational depth (barring injury or trade) and the opportunities for prospects to either make the NHL roster or elevate their stock.
Long a weakness of the Blackhawks organization, the center position now boasts some solid depth and considerable promise. While many feel that free-agent signee Robert Lang’s best days are behind him, both he and Yannic Perreault were signed to short-term deals in order to ensure the growth of prospects such as Jonathan Toews, Dave Bolland and Evan Brophey. The team also has Patrick Sharp and Kevyn Adams under contract. At the same time, Toews can play left wing, which is presently not a deep area within the organization.
Prospect to watch: 2007 draftee Akim Aliu gets his first official interaction and ice time with NHL veterans, which could be quite telling in terms of his potential to mature and grow into an NHL role himself.
On the roster: Lang, Perreault, Sharp, Adams
On the bubble: Bolland, Toews (at this position)
Most likely headed to Rockford (AHL) or Pensacola (ECHL): Brophey, Petri Kontiola, Adam Burish, Adam Hobson, Colin Fraser, Jacob Dowell
Headed back to junior: Aliu, Max Tanguay
Free agent Sergei Samsonov joins Tuomo Ruutu as the only natural NHL left wings on the Blackhawks. This, in addition to the depth at center, could very well mean that Toews will begin his NHL career on the left side. Make no mistake, Toews will be wearing the Indianhead this year, and playing left wing might place less pressure on the 20-year-old in his first pro season. It would also be in keeping with the stated desire of Denis Savard to be able to roll three lines that can score consistently.
Prospect to watch: Kris Versteeg, obtained in last season’s trade with Boston for Brandon Bochenski, has quietly distinguished himself as a skilled scorer, albeit against AHL competition. Though small, he has superior speed and hands.
Much of the talk in training camp promises to be around Patrick Kane. Many close to the Blackhawks believe, because of the team’s anemic performance at the box office in recent seasons, Kane will have to play his way off the team, rather than on. In a recent press conference, Tallon strongly hinted that it is the Blackhawks’ intent to surround Kane with the right players to help him succeed in the NHL right away. Still he is just 18, and after a summer of intense training, 170 pounds. Beyond Kane, Martin Havlat, Martin Lapointe and Jason Williams are three proven NHL right wings currently under contract. The Hawks also boast a wealth of strong prospects at the position, including Troy Brouwer, 2005 first-round pick Jack Skille, and 2005 second-round pick Michael Blunden.
Prospect to watch: Brouwer is coming off an exceptional rookie season in the AHL, where he scored 41 goals. He has worked hard this off-season with skating coach Dan Jansen and appears ready to fulfill the scoring power forward role the Hawks intend for him.
On the roster: Havlat, Williams, Lapointe
On the bubble: Kane, Brouwer
Most likely headed to Rockford: Blunden, Skille
Headed back to junior: Richard Greenop
Perhaps the biggest challenge before the Blackhawk coaches in terms of sorting out a final roster is on defense. Last season, four prospects—Danny Richmond, Cam Barker, James Wisniewski and Dustin Byfuglien—rode the shuttle between Chicago and Norfolk (AHL), appearing in games for both teams. The Blackhawks acquired Andrei Zyuzin in trade this off-season, as well as Swedish League veteran Magnus Johansson, with the intent of both playing in Chicago. And Jim Vandermeer returns from injury. Fourth-round choice in 2006 and 2007 World Junior standout Niklas Hjalmarsson was signed to a professional contract and will play in North America this season as well.
Prospect to watch: Is Dustin Byfuglien ready to put it all together and live up to his billing as the Blackhawks most physically skilled defensive prospect? Like Brouwer, he worked with Jansen this off-season on his skating. If he plays disciplined hockey, then this could be the season he stays in Chicago all year.
On the team: Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Zyuzin, Johansson, Barker, Wisniewski
On the bubble: Vandermeer, Byfuglien, Richmond, Jim Fahey
Headed to Rockford or Pensacola: Jordan Hendry, Hjalmarsson, Steve Marr, Prestin Ryan, Jean-Claude Sawyer
Back to junior: Ben Shutron
As previously stated, Khabibulin and Lalime are the top tandem. Corey Crawford and either Mike Brodeur or veteran Wade Flaherty look to be the goalies at Rockford. The Flaherty signing is most likely a signal that the Blackhawks want Crawford to continue to get steady starter minutes all season at Rockford, without getting pinched into NHL duty by injury to one of the top two goalies.
Prospect to watch: Josh Unice comes with the dual pedigree of having attended the prestigious Goaltending Institute and representing the United States in international competition. Along with 2006 draftee Joe Palmer (who along with other college prospects is not on the camp roster), Unice is intriguing because of the overall lack of depth at goalie within the Hawks organization.
On the team: Khabibulin, Lalime
On the bubble: Flaherty (only in case of injury)
Headed to Rockford or Pensacola: Crawford, Brodeur
Headed to school: Unice
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