Jocelyn Thibault was so eager to get back to work with Hawks
goalie coach Vladislav Tretiak this summer that he took turns
stopping pucks with four other netminders at Tretiak's camp
outside Toronto. While Thibault hopes he's on his way to making
the grade as a first-rate NHL keeper, his fellow students were
merely on their way to second grade. They were seven years old.
"The kids were focused," says Thibault, "but every once in a
while they'd ask for an autograph."

While you can't say the Hawks are brimming with childlike
enthusiasm in anticipation of the new season, you can be sure
that their locker room will be a much less stressful place than
it was last year, when former coach Dirk Graham was benching and
clashing with his players before being fired on Feb. 22. New
skipper Lorne Molleken took over a lethargic group that was
16-35-8, told them to forget the neutral-zone trap and even told
them that he liked them. "What's wrong with a pat on the back
now and then?" Molleken asks. First the new coach led the Hawks
to an 8-1-2 mark to close the season, then he led a rendition of
Take Me Out to the Ballgame at Wrigley Field in August. Creative
center Alex Zhamnov, stifled under Graham's conservative style,
emerged to score 25 points in his last 18 games. Winger Eric
Daze, who had just 22 points in 53 games under Graham, chipped
in with 20 in 19 matches under Molleken.

Even with 10-time All-Star blueliner Chris Chelios on the team
until March (when he was dealt to Detroit), the Hawks were 24th
in the league in goals-against. This year's defensive corps is
younger and more mobile. Anders Eriksson, a 24-year-old who won
a Stanley Cup with the Red Wings, was acquired in the Chelios
trade. His minutes jumped from 16 per game in Detroit to 23 in
Chicago. Boris Mironov, 27, came over from Edmonton at the trade
deadline and will have a full year as the team's power-play
quarterback. Off-season pickup Bryan McCabe, 29, was a captain
with the Islanders.

In August the Hawks also added 32-goal man Wendel Clark. The
free-agent left wing should take some heat off sniper Tony
Amonte, whose 44 goals last season were more than twice as many
as any teammate had. (Daze was second, with 21.) Expect Clark to
start the season alongside Doug Gilmour, the playmaking center
who once helped him score 46 goals in Toronto. No, these aren't
the same Hawks who led the league in penalty minutes last year
(1,799) and were next-to-last in road wins (nine). But Chicago
missed the playoffs the last two seasons after 28 straight years
in the postseason, and getting back there won't be child's play.


In his eight-year NHL career Chicago's Tony Amonte has never
finished a season with a negative plus-minus rating. However,
1998-99 was the third season in which his rating was exactly


OFFENSE 23 Gilmour and Zhamnov must do more
DEFENSE 23 Mironov is fast and skilled; McCabe brings
GOALTENDING 20 Thibault should continue to improve
SPECIAL TEAMS 15 One of the league's most aggressive killing
COACHING 13 No-nonsense Molleken squeezes a lot from this