The Blackhawks missed the playoffs last season for the first
time since Neil Armstrong kicked up dust on the moon. They had
the NHL's lousiest offense north of Tampa Bay, and their vaunted
captain, Chris Chelios, turned 36 during his poorest season as a
pro. And that's not the worst of it.
On Dec. 10 the Blackhawks were deadlocked with the Coyotes in
overtime when Phoenix center Jeremy Roenick took a run at goalie
Jeff Hackett behind the Chicago net. Hockey players learn to
protect their goalies at about the same age they learn to lace
their skates. Yet the Hawks barely responded. Later, general
manager Bob Murray said his team's timidity "made me sick."
The Hawks' lack of sack did not play well in Chicago. "A lot of
blood was spilled to make the playoffs 28 straight years," says
Blackhawks coach Dirk Graham, who replaced Craig Hartsburg in the
off-season. "Last year was disrespectful to all the players
who've played here."
That includes Graham, a captain on several Cup-contending Hawks
teams between 1989 and '95. He hopes to reignite the Chicago
fire by implementing a ferocious forechecking scheme and vows
that the moment any player starts slacking off, "I'll ask him to
leave." Sure to stick around are tough-nosed center Doug
Gilmour, who signed with the Hawks in July, and Chelios, who
should rebound from his subpar season. The Hawks also signed
gritty veteran center Mark Janssens to help set the on-ice tone.
Offensively, though, the Hawks still have problems. A strong
first line of Gilmour, Eric Daze and Tony Amonte--the latter two
had 31 goals apiece last year--needs more support from the
second and third lines, which are anchored by inconsistent
centers Alexei Zhamnov and Chad Kilger. Nor can the Hawks rely
on much playmaking from the blue line, not even from the once
potent Paul Coffey. A future Hall of Famer, Coffey was signed
not so much for his fading skills but for the fire he showed in
winning four Cups with two teams. Fire, remember, is what the
Blackhawks needed most last year. They should have enough of it
to get back to the postseason this year.
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JOHN TAMANIO [Drawing of golden hockey puck]
In '97-98 defenseman Chris Chelios unleashed 114 shots without
scoring a goal at the United Center, while on the road he had 91
shots and lit the lamp three times.
KEYS TO SUCCESS
--Chicago must improve its record on home ice (14-19-8), which
was the fourth worst in the league.
--With the addition of free agent Doug Gilmour, underachieving
center Alexei Zhamnov won't see the best checkers and needs to
become a big-time scorer.