Daily Herald
Talented Blackhawks are 'ready to take that next step'
By Tim Sassone | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 10/10/2008 12:05 AM

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NEW YORK - It's graduation day for the Blackhawks.

Time to open the season against the New York Rangers on the big stage that is Madison Square Garden and "graduate" from the lower reaches of the NHL, where the Hawks have spent most of the last decade, into an elite team.

Hawks coach Denis Savard has talked about "graduating" since training camp began, and now it's time to put those lofty expectations into action.

"We're all ready to take that next step," center Patrick Sharp said.

The hockey world also believes the Hawks are ready. Both Sports Illustrated and The Hockey News predict the Hawks will finish sixth in the Western Conference, which would mean their first playoff appearance since 2002 and the second in 10 seasons.

The Hawks added all-star defenseman Brian Campbell and goalie Cristobal Huet to a team that missed the playoffs by only 3 points. Rookie of the year Patrick Kane and Calder Trophy finalist Jonathan Toews are more experienced, and first-year players Jack Skille, Kris Versteeg and Niklas Hjalmarsson are being counted on to bring more youth, speed and energy.

"I love the makeup of our team," general manager Dale Tallon said.

Here's a look at a handful of players who are key to keeping the franchise's momentum moving forward:

The new guys

The Hawks see Campbell being worth every penny of his eight-year, $56.8 million contract if he puts up big offensive numbers and turns around the power-play deficit.

"He gives us a different look," Savard said. "He wants to play the style I coach, which is being a puck-control team. So it really fits well for us. At the same time, he's a great leader. He's already become a very popular teammate."

Huet got a four-year, $22.54 million deal to be the No. 1 goalie even with Nikolai Khabibulin in the picture for now. Huet's .920 save percentage last season was sixth best in the NHL.

"He's got great work habits," Savard said. "You can see why he has been successful.

"I haven't seen him play a lot over the years, but I look at his numbers and he finds ways to win."

The captain

Toews is the third-youngest captain in NHL history, and the Hawks don't see it as a negative. At 20, he is the Hawks' best all-around player and showed it last season when he was plus-11 with 24 goals and 54 points in only 64 games.

"I told him you stay yourself," Savard said. "Come out and be my best practice player, my best worker, game in game and out, shift in and shift out. That alone, lead on the ice, that's all we're asking. Everything else will come together. He's got lots of help in the locker room. We've got lots of champions and lots of leaders in there."

The pest

Adam Burish doesn't have to score 15 goals to be one of the most important players despite skating on the fourth line. Burish knows his role and does it well. He is the team's agitator, protector, semi-enforcer and vocal leader.

"I'm going to go out there and be a pest," Burish said. "A guy every night that when the other team in the locker room goes over it, every guy is going to say I'm a pain in the butt to play against. I'm going to be a maniac out there."

The kid

Skille doesn't come with the hype Kane did a year ago, but the Hawks see a big future for the seventh pick of the 2005 draft. He will start on the third line with Dave Bolland and Versteeg on what the Hawks hope is their energy line.

"Half the battle is making the roster; now the other half is staying here," Skille said. "I've got to show up every night, every shift.

"I've got to get out there on the forecheck, drive the net, shoot the puck and be smart defensively - be an energy guy. And hopefully I can supply some goal scoring, too."

The big guy

Dustin Byfuglien has slimmed down and comes in with a new $3 million deal.

On a team that is not overly big, the 6-foot-3, 246-pound Byfuglien is the power forward and will need to look out for teammates such as Kane, Sharp and Martin Havlat.

Byfuglien scored 19 goals last season, most of them coming in the 52 games he played at wing after Savard moved him up from defense. It would be huge if Byfuglien could score 25-30 goals, but Savard isn't putting that kind of pressure on him.

"He'll get his goals and hits," Savard said. "The goals are going to come. Be a plus player every night. That's what we want from (Byfuglien)."

The rock

Duncan Keith might get overshadowed with Campbell here, but his play is certain to speak for itself again.

Keith had 12 goals, 32 points and was plus-30 last season in a breakout year that saw him go to his first All-Star Game.

"His plus-minus has to be the same as last year," Savard said. "I'm not really concerned with how many points he's going to get. Just be good defensively (and) get the puck out of your own end.

"He's probably one of the best in the league breaking out. If he does that, plays good defense and breaks out of our end well, he'll be a plus-30 again."

Tonight's faceoff

Blackhawks vs. New York Rangers, 6 p.m. at Madison Square Garden

TV: Comcast SportsNet

Radio: WGN-720 AM

At a glance: The Rangers are 2-0, having beaten Tampa Bay twice last weekend in Europe. Left wing Markus Naslund and defenseman Wade Redden were the Rangers' big off-season acquisitions.

Next: Washington Capitals at the Verizon Center, Saturday, 6 p.m.

- Tim Sassone