Neil Milbert on the Blackhawks

I've noticed that Mark Bell is quietly having a solid season, on pace to score around 25 goals. Do you think there is a chance that he can still match his No. 1 draft pick potential? --Nick Junker, Mundelein, Ill.

In my opinion, Mark Bell is on his way to becoming a good NHL player--solid on the second or third line--but not a superstar. Bell was the eighth choice overall in 1998. It's interesting to look at the eighth overall selections earlier in the 1990s. The players and the teams that selected them are as follows: 1997 Sergei Samsonov, Detroit; 1996 Jonathan Aitken, Boston; 1995 Terry Ryan, Montreal; 1994, Jason Wiemer, Tampa Bay; 1993, Nicklas Sundstrom, New York Rangers; 1992, Brandon Convery, Toronto; 1991 Richard Matvichuk, Minnesota (before moving to Dallas); 1990, Derian Hatcher, Minnesota (before moving to Dallas). This season's performance suggests Bell is better than a lot of these players.

In a recent article by ESPN Magazine, the Blackhawks were named the worst franchise in all of sports. Just wanted your thoughts on that and if anyone in the Blackhawks organization seemed to care about it. --Jaime Guzman, Elmwood Park, Ill.

The Blackhawks' honchos are very upset by the barrage of criticism, not only in the ESPN magazine but also Sports Illustrated and USA Today, which ran similar stories. I don't have enough in-depth knowledge on the pro baseball, football and basketball teams to make a judgement on whether or not the Hawks are the worst franchise in pro sports. But when you see all these expansion teams--most notably Tampa Bay and San Jose--playing much, much better than the Hawks it's obvious that they've made some bad mistakes over the years.

Should the Olympic committee seriously consider returning hockey to the amateurs for the Olympics? Pro players haven't done much to make people watch, not to mention the pros have taken the fun out of the Olympics. --CJ Keller, Prattle, Ala.

Personally, I'd love to see amateurs back in the Olympics. However, I disagree when you say, "Pro players haven't done much to make people watch." In the last Olympics, I thought the caliber of play was very high and the games were very good. The championship game between Canada and the U.S. was outstanding and the TV ratings were exceptional for hockey.

What would be the most important single item the Hawks could do to improve the fan experience? Show home games on TV? Pay more for players? Get a better coach? --Steve Ciatti, Lombad, Ill.

Good questions. This season, if the Hawks had broken from tradition and shown home games on TV, people might have been turned off watching so many losses. On the other hand, because the Hawks are such a young team, they might have been able to put some staunch supporters in the bank because of how hard these kids have been playing. Money doesn't necessarily buy championships--exhibits A. B, C and D are the New York Rangers, who began the year with the second biggest payroll in the NHL; the St. Louis Blues, who were No. 6 in the salary department; Anaheim, which was No. 8; and Washington, which was No. 9.

The reason the Hawks have deteriorated is because they've made several very bad investments. I don't think Scotty Bowman in his prime could have done a better job of coaching than Brian Sutter has this season. Goaltending is the backbone of every team and the Hawks' outstanding goalie, Jocelyn Thibault, has been on the injured list since Nov. 7. Three more of the Hawks' best players--Eric Daze, Alex Zhamnov (before he was traded) and Kyle Calder--also have missed big chunks of the season with injuries. I blame the Hawks' current problems on fired General Manager Mike Smith. He did a good job of lining up high draft picks but made some atrocious trades--getting next to nothing in return--and signed some terrible free agents.

Look at some of the guys he got rid of and see what they're doing now. To name a few: Tony Amonte, Bryan McCabe, J.P. Dumont, Dean McAmmond, Jaroslav Spacek. Now look at some of the players he added: Valeri Zelepukin, Theo Fleury and Michal Grosek.

During a Hawks-Toronto game, a player put his hand on the puck in the crease. He received a penalty, but isn't that a penalty shot infraction? --Harry Tram, Chicago

You are right in your interpretation of the rule: a penalty shot is awarded when a defensive player puts his hand on the puck in the crease. I didn't see the Toronto game so I put your question to the Hawks' announcers Pat Foley and Troy Murray. Neither could remember a player putting his hand on the puck in the crease. They suggested that perhaps the player you cited was penalized for another infraction and fell on the puck during a skirmish in front of the net.