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Team Preview: Chicago Blackhawks

Key additions: Nikolai Khabibulin, G (FA - TB); Adrian Aucoin, D (FA - NYI); Martin Lapointe, C/RW (FA - CHI); Jim Dowd, C (FA - MTL); Mikael Holmqvist, C (T - ANA); Jaroslav Spacek, D (FA - CBJ); Matthew Barnaby, LW/RW (FA - COL) ; Curtis Brown, C (FA - SJ); Todd Simpson, D (FA - OTT); Cam Barker, D (D - 2004, 1/3); Brent Seabrook, D (D - 2003, 1-14); Anton Babchuk, D (D - 2002, 1/21)

Key losses: Bryan Berard, D (FA - CBJ); Jocelyn Thibault, G (T - PIT); Steve Poapst, D, (FA - PIT); Igor Korolev, C/W (FA - Europe); Travis Moen, LW (T- ANA); Scott Nichol, C/RW (FA - NSH); Jason Strudwick, D (FA - NYR); Deron Quint, D (FA - Europe); Stephane Robidas, D (FA - DAL); Igor Radulov, RW (FA - Europe); Steve Passmore, G (FA - PHX); Steve McCarthy, D (T - VAN)

Key player still unsigned: Mikhail Yakubov
, C; Michael Leighton, G

Forwards: Only four teams scored fewer goals than the Blackhawks in 2003-04 (Washington, Anaheim, Columbus and Carolina), but the year off should help a number of 'Hawks forwards. Eric Daze had an extra year to heal after having back surgery and missing 63 games in 2003-04. Mark Bell, Tyler Arnason and Kyle Calder are all 25 or 26 and entering the prime years of their careers. Right wing Tuomo Ruutu is a rising star, but did not play in 2004-05 after refusing an assignment to the AHL. Yakubov, the 10th pick in the 2000 draft is on the verge of officially being declared a bust. Lapointe, Brown and Barnaby add grit but little else. The 'Hawks need another scorer (Teemu Selanne?) before they're going to instill any fear in opposing goaltenders.

Defensemen: Chicago lost its top two defensemen in terms of ice time in Berard and Poapst, and don't return a single defenseman who played more than 46 games for the Blackhawks in 2003-04. Newly acquired Aucoin is the perfect #2 defenseman, but he'll be forced into the role of a #1 defenseman in Chicago. Similarly, Spacek will be asked to do more than he is suited for. The Blackhawks boast a trio of top defensive prospects in Barker, Seabrook and Babchuk, at least one of whom should have a good shot at making the NHL roster when camp breaks (though probably not Barker), but as it stands now, the blueline in Chicago is shaky at best at both ends of the ice.

Goaltenders: The 'Bulin Wall blows into the Windy City for 2005-06 fresh off leading Tampa Bay to a Stanley Cup championship in 2003-04, and our prediction is that he will be the biggest bust of this year's free agent class. Is Khabibulin really $5.25m better than Thibault? Keep in mind that $5.25m is only about a BMW M3 Coupe less than what Bobby Clarke and the Flyers paid to land Peter Forsberg. Also keep in mind that the younger Thibault had a lower goals against average (2.37 to 2.47) and a higher save percentage (.915 to .911) than Khabibulin in 2002-03, the last full year the former played, while playing behind a significantly less talented defense. Don't get us wrong - Nikolai Khabibulin is a great goaltender. But not at a price that will pay him around $20,ooo less than Martin Brodeur and Dominik Hasek. Combined. Backing up Khabibulin will be the lanky Leighton, who is coming off a strong 2004-05 in the AHL, and at 24 years-old, already has more than 40 NHL games under his belt.

Bottom line: If there was a Stanley Cup of cool uniforms, the 'Hawks would be a contender year-in, year-out. But there isn't. And they're not. Chicago has more than 1/3 of the cap ($13.25m) committed to Khabibulin, Lapointe and Aucoin. By comparison, the Flyers spent less than that locking up Forsberg, Derian Hatcher, Kim Johnsson and Robert Esche. Which group would you rather have? It's nice to see the 'Hawks finally open the purse strings a little, but their spending hasn't exactly been wise. The 'Hawks gave up the second most goals in the League in 2003-04 (Pittsburgh gave up the most), and at least these signings (in addition to those of Brown and Dowd) should result in a move up the League rankings in that category, but there is not enough skill up front and the blueline will be too green to turn Chicago into a playoff team for 2005-06.

[For more on the Blackhawks new-found free-spending ways, check out Terry Frei's article here.]

Update (8/23): The Blackhawks signed veteran defenseman Todd Simpson. He will find a spot at the back of Chicago's top six blueliners, especially after Steve McCarthy was shipped to Vancouver yesterday.