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Canadian Press
8/30/2006 3:55:49 PM

Martin Havlat never got the chance to be a first-line player in his five seasons with the Ottawa Senators, a team so deep in talent even a skilled winger of his magnitude found himself on the second or third line.

Not anymore. The 25-year-old Czech native will be the go-to guy this season in Chicago, which stands to reason since the Blackhawks gave him top-line money.

''The challenge is going to be great. It's going to be something new,'' Havlat said this week from Montreal, his off-season home. ''I'll have a different role than I had in Ottawa.''

You better believe it. After signing him to an $18-million US, three-year deal after acquiring him in a three-way trade from the Senators, the Hawks are going to give Havlat the kind of ice time and responsibility he craved in Ottawa.

''He's going to be our main guy,'' Hawks GM Dale Tallon said Wednesday from Chicago. ''We're excited about it. It's the type of player that we've been lacking for a lot of years. We haven't had a game-breaker like this in a long time, not too mention his charisma and personality.''

Havlat had 235 points (105-130) in 298 regular-season games with the Senators, putting up progressively better numbers every season since breaking into the league as a 19-year-old in October 2000. But a serious shoulder injury limited him to only 18 regular-season games last season, although he added 16 points (9-7) in 18 playoff games upon his return.

He's never played a full 82-game season, which is why Chicago's financial commitment to him sent murmurs around some corners of the hockey world.

''I'm sure there are a lot of people that say we paid too much,'' said Tallon. ''But there were other teams in the mix, too, there was competition for him. We know we paid a lot but we think we're getting value for it. We had to do something, we have to get interest back in the game here.''

The Hawks have been the league's doormat for most of the last decade, making the playoffs only once in eight seasons. Tallon has overhauled his team. Gone are forwards Kyle Calder, Mark Bell, Mathew Barnaby and Curtis Brown, replaced up front by Havlat, Michal Handzus, Denis Arkhipov and Bryan Smolinski. Rookie Tony Salmelainen also gets a shot this year.

''We'll be a faster team this year then they were last year,'' said Havlat, a comment echoed by Tallon.

Just what kind of production will the Hawks get from the speedy and skilled Havlat? He had a career-high 68 points (31-37) in 68 games with the Senators in 2003-04. And that wasn't with first-line ice time. Now Tallon says Havlat will likely play on the top line with Handzus at centre and Tuomo Ruutu on the left.

''I just want to be on the ice as much as I can because I think that's how I can help the team, when I'm out there - not if I'm sitting on the bench,'' said Havlat. ''I hope I'm going to be on the ice a lot in Chicago.''

The Senators had little choice but to deal him this summer. A restricted free agent, Havlat forced Ottawa's hand by refusing to sign a long-term deal one year away from unrestricted free agency. Even Chicago first met resistance.

''At first when we talked to Marty, they didn't want to come for more than a year,'' said Tallon. ''They wanted to test the waters (in unrestricted free agency next summer). So I sold them on the city, on the future and where we're going. That eventually led to us getting the deal done.''

Chicago, one of the world's great cities, wasn't a tough sell.

''That city is a little different than Ottawa. It's a little bit bigger,'' said Havlat. ''There's a lot of things to do, a lot of great restaurants. And it's a sports city, baseball, basketball, football. But people love their hockey and want us to win.''

The July 9 three-team blockbuster saw Chicago first trade winger Mark Bell to San Jose for defenceman Tom Preissing and prospect Josh Hennessy, who were flipped to the Senators along with prospect Michal Barinka and a 2008 second-round draft pick. Ottawa then dealt Havlat and Smolinski to Chicago.

''(Sharks GM) Doug Wilson and I had been working on a deal for months in advance, trying to get something done. He had a lot of interest in Mark,'' said Tallon. ''But we just didn't seem to have the right fit. Then we started hearing rumours from Ottawa that they might have difficult keeping Havlat. So it all sort of just fell into place.''

Havlat will head to Ottawa later this week and clean out his apartment and arrange for his furniture and personal things to find their way to Chicago, where he'll head Sept. 7. That's when it's really going to hit him, Havlat said, that he's no longer a Senator.

''I don't think I've realized it yet fully - once I go there next week and skate with the guys, that's when it'll totally sink in,'' he said.

His only regret leaving Ottawa is the obvious, not winning a championship with all those great teams.

''Sure, I was there for six years and every year we had great regular seasons,'' said Havlat, who had 34 career points (14-20) in 51 playoff games. ''The one year we were one game away from the Stanley Cup final (2003). The last two years we had one of the best teams in the league but just couldn't get into the final.

''We had great, great teams there and had great players. The fans were great. I was really fortunate to start my career over there. I'm happy for those six years in Ottawa, it was just missing a trip to the final.''

Note: Ruutu, a restricted free agent, remains unsigned but Tallon was confident on that front. ''We talked yesterday, we've been talking almost every day. We'll get something done here soon enough,'' said Tallon.
 

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I never saw him as a player that would take a team on his shoulders. He did play well this past playoffs though, but it could possibly be due to it being his contract year.

It's wait and see with him.
 

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BE-LEAF-ABLE said:
I never saw him as a player that would take a team on his shoulders.
And the Blackhawks aren't the easiest team to carry on your shoulders either. He's not going to get the kind of support he enjoyed last year and will be the biggest focus of opponents defense too.

BE-LEAF-ABLE said:
It's wait and see with him.
Definitely.
 
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