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By David Walter, Contributing NHL Editor

(Sports Network) - Chicago Blackhawks hockey makes you think of one word over the past few seasons: bad.

After finishing last year's campaign 14th overall in the Western Conference and 28th overall in the league, Chicago needed to make a drastic change in the offseason, and it did.

The Blackhawks traded for up-and-coming star Martin Havlat from the Ottawa Senators and are counting on the forward to turn around a horrific offense that was ranked 29th in the league.

Havlat now becomes the face of a franchise that has qualified for the postseason only once since the 1997 campaign.

While adding Havlat was a terrific move for Chicago, general manager Dale Tallon had to deal away a talented and gritty forward, Mark Bell, to make the three-way swap happen.

Bell, along with Kyle Calder, who was also traded in the offseason in a separate deal, were the only Blackhawks to score 20 or more goals last season. Calder also led the team in points with 59, so the pressure is on Havlat to help Tallon and Chicago ease the pain of losing its top two goal scorers.

The Blackhawks' defensive play was no better than their poor offense last season, ranking 27th overall in the league. Nikolai Khabibulin's first year in Chicago was a disaster, as the veteran netminder posted a hefty 3.35 goals- against average with a .886 save percentage.

While adding Havlat was a nice move, the Blackhawks have a roster full of young talent that is probably a few years away from fully getting the Windy City excited about hockey again.

FORWARDS - Havlat gives Chicago a premier forward that can be used in all situations on the ice. Last season, Havlat played in only 18 games with Ottawa due to injury problems, so his health will be a concern and something to keep an eye on.

Bryan Smolinksi, who was acquired with Havlat from Ottawa, brings leadership and experience to a young group of forwards. The 34-year-old veteran can play center or wing and provides much-needed scoring depth.

Michal Handzus, who was acquired from Philadelphia in exchange for Calder, brings a solid two-way game to the table. Handzus is a valuable center that is dependable in his own end and his versatility allows him to be a threat offensively as well.

The often-injured Tuomo Ruutu, who missed the majority of last season with various injuries, is being counted on to contribute offensively this year and fill the void of Bell and Calder on the wing.

Youngster Rene Bourque hopes to build off his solid rookie campaign, as the winger netted 16 goals and had 18 assists. He should benefit this year by playing with either Handzus or Smolinski.

Adding depth to the forward position is Radim Vrbata, Patrick Sharp and the gritty veteran Martin Lapointe. All three players bring a solid all-around game, but shouldn't be counted on to contribute heavily on the scoring sheet.

One player to keep an eye on is former Nashville Predator Denis Arkhipov, who played last season in Russia and signed with the Blackhawks as a free agent in the offseason. Arkhipov is a serviceable center that is still young enough at 27-years-old to develop his scoring touch.

DEFENSE - If there is one bright spot for the future of Chicago Blackhawks hockey, it sits with the up-and-coming youngsters on the blueline. Rookie defensemen Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith were arguably the best players on Chicago's roster last season.

In his first season with the club last year, Seabrook became the Blackhawks most reliable defenseman and finished the campaign a plus-five on a weak team.

Keith led the Hawks in ice time last season as a rookie and excelled on both ends of the ice. Keith chipped in 21 points last year while also leading the team in blocked shots.

The Blackhawks need veteran defenseman Adrian Aucoin to stay healthy this season after playing in only 33 games last year due to groin and shoulder injuries. A healthy Aucoin gives Chicago a veteran presence that can log a ton of minutes with Seabrook and Keith.

Jim Vandermeer and Jassen Cullimore give the Hawks some muscle and toughness in their own end. Vandermeer also contributed 24 points last season and led all Chicago blueliners with two power-play goals.

Another youngster that could make the club is Cam Barker, who was a member of the goal-medal winning Canadian team in the 2006 World Junior Championships. Barker, known for his offensive skills, should be able to improve a power-play unit that ranked 30th in the league last season.

GOALTENDING - All eyes will be on Khabibulin this season as the goaltender had a season to forget last year. If Chicago has any chances of being competitive this season, "The Bulin Wall" will need to have fewer cracks and holes.

The veteran also missed 22 games last year with groin and knee injuries, which is not a very good sign for an aging 33-year-old netminder. His 3.35 goals-against average and .886 save percentage were his worst numbers since entering the league with the Winnipeg Jets in 1994.

The Blackhawks signed Patrick Lalime as a free agent in the offseason to back up Khabibulin but that plan will be put on hold. Lalime underwent back surgery in mid-September and is expected to miss 2-to-3 months.

Chicago has signed Brian Boucher, and he will compete with Sebastien Caron for the back-up goaltending role.

http://146.145.120.3/default.asp?c=hockeynews&page=nhl/news/ADN4042048.htm
 
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