After a dismal 30-39-13 record last season, the Chicago Blackhawks have turned to rookie head coach Dirk Graham (good ol’ No. 33) to bring the team back to their hard-hitting, Central Division form. Much of the team has not forgotten the embarrassment of being the first Chicago Blackhawks team since 1969 not to make the post season. The team believes that their biggest problem last year was starting off 0-7-0. Most of last season was spent playing catch up, and in the last couple of weeks of the regular season they found themselves struggling for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. Goalie Jeff Hackett knows this to be true more than anybody. “Now we have to look at last season as a learning experience, so we don’t fall into the same trap. We can’t be fighting for a playoff spot going into the last week of the season. We have to establish ourselves early,” Hackett said.
There is no denying the fact that the front office, led by General Manager Bob Murray, has made numerous attempts to strengthen this team in the off-season. With the acquisition of defenseman Paul Coffey and center Doug Gilmour, the team looks to blend young, enthusiastic agility with speed, experience and leadership which should culminate into a highly productive season.
Coffey, a 14-time all-star who still ranks as the leagues all-time defenseman in goals, assists and points, is coming off his worst season and realizes that last season was not the Paul Coffey hockey fans know. He was acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers for a fifth-round draft choice. Veterans Eric Weinrich and Chris Chelios should compliment Coffey nicely. One of the down sides of last season was the ineffectiveness of the defense to kill the power play and neutralize the red zone. Others to watch on defense that should make an impact are Cam Russell (who will provide the fighting), Trent Yawney and Christian Laflamme.
The center position looks to be the strongest points of this 1998-99 campaign. Most of the pressure Alex Zhamnov had last year in replacing former star Jeremy Roenick will be off his shoulders with the addition of Gilmour. It was obvious last season that the pressure Zhamnov felt was overwhelming and he was not as productive as many expected.
The team promises to have the most depth at the left wing position. Ed Olczyk should skate on the same line with Tony Amonte and Zhamnov as he makes his homecoming back in the “Windy City.” Bob Probert will most likely be on the third line, but will see plenty of time. The intimidation factor with him on the ice is necessary when the Hawks match up with physical teams such as their arch rivals, the Detroit Red Wings and the Colorado Avalanche. What’s not to enjoy in watching a game with Bob Probert dropping the gloves to fight?
Two more prospects to look out for at either wing positions are Chad Kilger and Ethan Moreau. Kilger came over from Phoenix last year in a deal that sent Keith Carney to the Coyotes. Moreau, who might be remembered for his dazzling puck-handling abilities and agility will provide for some excitement up front.
Right wingers Tony Amonte and Eric Daze will spend little time on the bench due to the lack of depth at that position. There is no question, though, that they two of them will get their goals and assists. Their play-making capabilities are never in question.
Well Hawks fans, our time has come. Let’s get the United Center back to the old Chicago Stadium form. Many will say that when Hawk fans are rockin’ there is no better home-ice advantage in hockey. Hawks Head Coach Dirk Graham promises to “put the forechecking back into Blackhawk hockey.” This is what the franchise has been lacking. It will be a different season that should put the Hawks into the top four seeds in the post season. The combination of youth and experience gives this team a different outlook, and as long as Jeff Hackett stays healthy in the net, this promises to be a successful season. I guess the only unanswered question that remains about this season is: When, for the love of God, is Bill Wirtz going to stop blacking out home games on televison?