The most pressing question that the Chicago Blackhawks face in the near short term is whether to keep a pair of goalies, mainly Nikolai Khabibulin and Cristobal Huet. The goalie position for the Blackhawks has been an ongoing sticky issue since Huet was signed as a free agent in the off-season. Many thought the signing was the end of the line for Khabibulin in Chicago. The Blackhawks were close to the salary cap and had over 20% of their budget wrapped up in goaltenders.
I believe the Blackhawks intention was to trade Khabibulin before the season began, but there were no takers and the Hawks were not going to give Khabibulin away just to get rid of him. The pre-season and early regular season was a showcase for Khabibulin and he did not disappoint. Khabibulin was incredible in comparison to the last 3 previous lackluster seasons , starting out hot, mixing in the occasional cool game. He had a chip on his shoulder and something to prove. He was not going to go down without a fight.
Huet, on the other hand, started out a bit slower, with the team winning only 3 of his 10 games in goal. Huet gave up 6 goals to the San Jose Sharks on 11/26 in a loss. Huet spent the bulk of the early season on the bench watching Khabibulin. In December, Huet made the most of his playing time, at one stretch, winning 7 of 9 games to close the calendar year on a hot streak, but that ended abruptly in the Blackhawks 6-4 loss to the Detroit Red Wings in the New Year’s Day 2009 NHL Winter Classic.
Blackhawks Coach Joel Quenneville has been playing the hot hand in goal and that strategy seems to be working well for a very young team that is navigating it’s way through the unfamiliar waters of competing for a playoff spot in a tough NHL Western Conference.
The questions of late have focused on the possible trade intentions of Blackhawks GM Dale Tallon and the rapidly approaching March 4th NHL trade deadline. Tallon wanted to move Khabibulin since the pre-season, but at this point, does he look to move Khabibulin again? With the way the Blackhawks have been playing, the last thing Tallon wants to do is upset the delicate balance of a team that is steaming towards what could be the second post-season appearance since 1997-98 season. Khabibulin can ride a playoff hot streak about as good as anyone out there and veteran goaltending is a huge plus for going deep in the playoffs.
Look for Tallon to make a trade elsewhere, maybe picking up a veteran scorer or a second line center, as the Blackhawks start focusing in on moving to the third seed in the NHL Western Conference playoff race.