Revamped Blackhawks anticipate strong season

By The Associated Press

CHICAGO – The 2006-07 Chicago Blackhawks sure seem like a faster, quicker, more-skilled team than they were in 2005-06.

Now the question is: How much better will they be after missing the playoffs in seven of the last eight seasons?

General Manager Dale Tallon revamped the roster after the Blackhawks finished at 26-43-13 and with the third-worst record in the 30-team NHL last season. When Chicago opens its 2006-07 schedule at Nashville on Thursday night, only nine of 22 players in the expected lineup will have been with the club when at the beginning of last season.

Led by forward Martin Havlat, acquired in a trade from Ottawa in July, the Blackhawks showed in a 7-1 preseason they could skate with greater tempo and handle the puck with more finesse than last year.

Defenseman and team captain Adrian Aucoin believes that will extend into the regular season.

“The difference is night and day from last season,” Aucoin said. “Just the practices alone are much better. If you do it every day in practice, you don’t have to turn it on in games. It will be there.”

Goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, who struggled with injuries and stopping the puck last season after signing a four-year, $27 million contract, sees more zip as well.

“We’re quite a bit faster,” he said. “I can tell from the (exhibition) games, practices and even watching upstairs.”

Havlat will be counted on as a key offensive force. Considered one of the NHL’s rising stars, the 25-year-old signed a three-year, $18 million deal with Chicago. Injuries limited Havlat to just 18 games with the Senators last season, but he posted nine goals and seven assists. In 2003-04, his last almost-full season, Havlat had 31 goals and 37 assists in 68 games.

“It’s not about one guy, but having 20 guys on the same page and knowing your role,” Havlat said. “I’ll be in a situation where people will expect me to be scoring, but I was in the same situation the last three years in Ottawa, too.”

The Blackhawks expect other new players to help them keep up with opponents in the “New NHL,” where play has become much faster and free-flowing following the 2004-05 lockout.

Forward Michal Handzus was acquired from Philadelphia in August for Kyle Calder, Chicago’s leading scorer in 2005-06. Other new forwards, including free-agent Denis Arkhipov and rookie Tony Salmelainen, are fast on the ice.

They join forwards such as Radim Vrbata and Patrick Sharp, both acquired during the 2005-06 season, to give the Blackhawks a different look up front.

On defense there have been few changes.

Veterans Aucoin and Jassen Cullimore are back. So are Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith, who as rookies last season were the bright spots in a terrible year.

Jim Vandermeer, also a steady surprise in 2005-06, returns on the blue line. Lasse Kukkonen is the lone new face among the six defensemen.

In goal, the Blackhawks expect Khabibulin to live up to his reputation and salary and play a lot better than last season when he had a 17-26-6 record and 3.35 goals-against average.

“Every year you play you want to get better,” he said. “Last year I put too much pressure on myself. This year I just want to relax and play.”

Khabibulin will be backed up by Brian Boucher, who signed a one-year contract after coming to training camp on a tryout basis. Patrick Lalime, signed from St. Louis as a free agent, had been tabbed for that role, but he’ll miss the first half of the season recovering from surgery to repair a herniated disc.

Lalime isn’t the only injured Blackhawk.

Forward Tuomo Ruutu will miss four weeks with a sprained left knee. Ruutu, the Blackhawks first-round draft pick in 2001, played in just 15 games last year due back and ankle injuries.

Second-year coach Trent Yawney knows he needs better health, good goaltending and an improved attitude for the Blackhawks to start winning.

“We have more skill, but if we don’t have more will, the skill isn’t going to amount to anything,” Yawney said.