Blackhawks: Preseason update

By Bill Placzek


















The 2003 Chicago Blackhawk preseason camp is remarkably
different from past ones due to the large number of GM Mike Smith draft picks
who are finally close to helping the parent club. Some have shown they will be
playing in Chicago in the next couple years, while others return to junior or
the minor leagues to develop.


This is also the first Blackhawk preseason where an equal
number of vets and rookies were given playing time in the games. The lack of
veterans in games can result in being outmatched by the opposition, and a
grueling schedule of four games in five nights also impacts team play. style="mso-spacerun: yes"> 
But getting a look at the youngsters is more
important that winning games.


The Hawks have been averaging nine rookies per preseason
game, an unusually high number. This is a contributing factor in team play, and
it takes a trained eye to distinguish each player’s individual positive and
negative performances. Here is a breakdown the Hawk futures thus far in camp.


Barring injury, Tuomo Ruutu will be wearing
Indianhead jersey #15 for a long time. All pre-camp predictions that he could
be a Peca or Forsberg seem to be very close to the truth. Ruutu scored four
minutes into his first game on his second shot. He continued to play his style,
pounding Blues whenever he could. The Blues departed remembering number 15.
Jamal Mayers retaliated by using his stick to knock off Ruutu’s helmet, but he
refused to be goaded into a fight. He repaid Mayers by nailing him later in the
game. Ruutu played with Eric Daze and Mark Bell and his desire to go to the
corners to unearth pucks is a good complement to Daze who prefers to stay out
of the corners and wait for the biscuit. In the game against Dallas, Sullivan
replaced Bell on what looked to be a #1 line. Ruutu was able to make plenty of
space for the veteran duo with hard checks and physical play.


The Hawks played an all-rookie line of center Mikhail
LW Pavel Vorobiev, and RW Matt Ellison. Although
this line didn’t score, and might not be a good fit, plenty of skill and potential
scoring savvy was displayed in their performance. Vorobiev is parallel to Ruutu
in that he also is an avid cornerman and also has solid movement in high
traffic areas. Yakubov also was a lot more involved and worked hard and kept
his feet moving shift after shift, but still looked like he needed to get a
little more involved along the wall. 
Ellison, the smallest of the three, also played with a lot of heart and
was active all over the offensive zone. 
Ellison was tried on a checking line in a later game, and didn’t look
out of place, but didn’t create many offensive chances. All three will be major
leaguers at some juncture. Vorobiev probably will make the Hawk squad this year
if he continues playing with the tenacity he has shown.


The Hawk organization is auditioning six young rearguards
hoping one or more can make the parent club. The first exhibition saw four
rookie defensemen in Vladimir Gusev, Anton Babchuk, Michal Barinka, and Duncan
. Gusev is a little older and the Hawks hoped he might be able to show
enough to make the parent squad. The large amount of rookie errors and poor
team play might have hurt his chances as he was put in many unenviable
positions on the ice, and didn’t win many of the battles. He may be destined to
Norfolk (AHL).


Anton Babchuk was unable to unleash his booming
point shot and although he didn’t embarrass himself defensively, he also didn’t
stand out as solid in his own zone. 
Duncan Keith who some, including this writer, though would never play
NHL defense (and that the Hawks should transition to forward), was impressive.
At approximately 5’10”, Keith is a player like Pat Stapleton, a midget Hawk
defenseman of yore, who played despite his size. Duncan Keith is an amazing
skater. There were times when he covered yards of ice in seconds, breaking up
plays, covering the attacker, etc.  He
has too much speed and agility to be dismissed as unfit for the NHL. When
attempting bodychecks, he did bounce off opposing players to the ice, but he
got right up and into the play. Weight training might help, but Keith will make
the Hawk defense in a year as an undersized offensive defenseman, and there is
talk of signing him and making him play his way out of Norfolk.


Michal Barinka is destined to stay with the
Hawks either in Norfolk or Chicago. In his exhibition games, he showed he could
play as a solid defenseman but still has a lot to learn to guarantee a spot
with the parent club. He comes with an impressive size and skill package who
has to step it up in each game to get noticed. He lost battles against the
boards and he still needs to catch up to the speed of the NHL game in both body
and mind.


Another 2000 draft pick, Barkunov is attending his
first camp. The Hawks expected him in North America last season, but contract
and visa difficulties kept him from attending. The Hawks are hoping he can also
rise to the occasion and make this 2003 version, but so far he has brought
little attention to himself with his showing. The Hawks are still hoping he
shows more and stays in the US. 


2003 first round pick Brent Seabrook played one game
and was sent back to Lethbridge for the start of his junior camp. Brent will be
brought along slowly so he can catch up to the pace the NHL brings. Pencil him
in as possible captain of the Canadian Junior Team. Junior eligible goaltenders
Cory Crawford and Michael Brodeur were sent to their junior camps after
seeing a period of game action each. Both understand there is a long road
ahead. Dmitri Levinski looked a little out of place on the small ice surface.
He shied away from the corners choosing to look for the pass to shoot from the
perimeter. He was an early cut and is returning to Russia.


One of the wingers who has been given ample opportunities is
right wing Matt Keith. So far he has seen action on different lines but
all seem to be checking lines. He was part of a couple of horrible
penalty-killing units which were scored on in the first game. The Hawk brass
feels Keith has a great size and skills package to go around great balance and
the ability to bring “jam” in each shift. He is being groomed for a role on the
parent club as a checker who can help with a few goals, and it would be no
surprise if he is a Blackhawk in the near future.


One of the surprises was Rob Millar, a right handed
left wing who also played in preseason game one. He showed significant attack
skills and prowess in the corners.

Lasse Kukkonen has looked very impressive,
playing a hard nosed style for a six footer. He looked less out of place in all
phases of his play than the rest of the auditioning defensemen.

Igor Radulov shows a want for the puck in the
offensive zone but he rarely shows much when expected to play defense in his
own zone. The Hawks are a team who needs as much scoring as possible and they
will probably be willing to keep him in Chicago and teach him to get better in
that area.


Impressive 2002 third round pick Alexander style='color:black'>Kojevnikov has yet to
play in a preseason game after taking a hard hit from Burke Henry during a
scrimmage last week.


All the prospects have provided style='font-size:10.0pt;mso-bidi-font-size:20.0pt;font-family:Arial'>an
interesting preseason and as it comes to a close, cuts have come to forwards Rob
Millar, Mikhail Yakubov, Matt Ellison, Matt Keith, Yorick Treille, and
defensemen Michal Barinka, Vladimir Gusev, and Alexander Barkunov
. Barkunov
is returning to Russia.


Who will make the final cuts? How many rookies will remain?
These question remain to be answered, but so many are so impressive that they
most certainly be returning soon to be part of Chicago’s future.