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Blackhawks Season Preview

By Benjy Lipsman in News on Oct 6, 2009 6:20PM

2008_blackhawks_logo.gif With all of the Olympics hoopla last week, we hadn't yet had a chance to preview the Blackhawks season, which opened in Helsinki, Finland against the Florida Panthers on Friday. After last season's renaissance on the ice, hockey has re-emerged as a sport we in Chicago care about, and we fans have high expectations for our Blackhawks in 2009-10.

But a bizarre off-season splashed a large dose of ice cold water in fans' faces. First came the firing of GM Dale Tallon, who forgot to send tender offers to restricted free agents by the league deadline. Before his departure, Tallon inked free agent Marian Hossa to a 12-year deal that drew questions from the league, and then Hossa ended up requiring shoulder surgery on a pre-existing injury. Then there was the arrest of Patrick Kane after a scuffle with a Buffalo cabbie. Can the team bounce back from their strange summer? Are dreams of a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals a realistic possibility?

Last season, the Blackhawks surprised many when the team went 46-24-12 and then made it all the way to the Western Conference Finals, where they lost to the Detroit Red Wings. During the off-season, the Blackhawks shook up their roster a bit, losing a number of key players from last year's squad. Martin Havlat, their top scorer, signed with the Minnesota Wild after the 'Hawks chose to sign Hossa. But Hossa remains out indefinitely after shoulder sugery. Also departing was goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, who was expected to be traded after last year's signing of Cristobal Huet but ended up the primary goal tender by season's end. Huet will be expected to live up to the high expectations set when the team signed him in July '08. Backing him up is rookie Antti Niemi instead of the "'Bulin Wall."

In front of Huet remains one of the top young teams in the league with rising stars like Kane, Jonathan Toews and Kris Versteeg. They will be looked upon to provide the bulk of offense this year, as will forward Patrick Sharp. Defensively, the Hawks have some good players in Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Cam Barker and Brian Campbell but lack depth.

So can the Blackhawks bring Lord Stanley's Cup back to Chicago for the first time since the Kennedy administration? All but one of ESPN's hockey experts predict the 'Hawks will beat out the Red Wings to win the Central Division, and half expect them to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cups Finals. Only ESPN's Barry Melrose and Sports Illustrated predicts them to win it all, but anything's possible with this team.