Even though the Chicago Blackhawks' title defence ended with a first-round playoff loss to Vancouver, it was a rather successful season under the circumstances.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at the Blackhawks going forward, as they continue to battle salary cap constraints and keep together a core that still appears as strong as any in the National Hockey League.
After winning the Stanley Cup in 2010, the Blackhawks were left with a daunting agenda in the summer, trying to clear out a bunch of contracts just to get under the salary cap.
Out went Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, John Madden, Brent Sopel, Colin Fraser, Ben Eager, Adam Burish and, for all intents and purposes, Cristobal Huet.
While those departures cut into Chicago's depth and could be seen as the difference between the Blackhawks winning and losing their annual playoff matchup with the Canucks, it also bears noting that the Blackhawks lost in overtime of game seven, on the road, against the top seed in the playoffs -- for as disappointing as their regular season point total might have been, the Blackhawks weren't that far away from being an elite team again in 2010-2011.
As such, it's important to keep that core intact and the Blackhawks have done that well. They have four forwards and four defencemen under contact for at least the next three seasons and, after getting Brent Seabrook and goaltender Corey Crawford inked to new deals, the only core player that isn't signed up long-term appears to be Patrick Sharp, whose deal expires following next season.
There are other players that may come and go -- Tomas Kopecky is a significant unrestricted free agent this summer -- but the Blackhawks have the core pieces of their championship team in place and will continually make personnel decisions based on augmenting those elite players.
"We're still going to be making some changes," GM Stan Bowman told the Chicago Sun-Times. "Not wholesale changes, but we need to have some new faces in the lineup."
New faces are to be expected for any NHL team, but the guys leading the charge are going to be familiar faces -- the players that won the Cup in 2010 and now have a full summer of rest and preparation as they try to recapture what was once theirs.
Stan Bowman/Joel Quenneville
Already one of the elite players in the game, 23-year-old Jonathan Toews has improved his points per game and plus-minus in each NHL season. He's a conscientious superstar who can play in any situation and is exactly the kind of character player around which a championship team can build.
Chicago's leading goal-scorer last season, Patrick Sharp scored 34 goals and finished with a career-high 71 points. He's versatile enough to play centre or wing, regular shift, power play and penalty kill, which makes it easier for the Blackhawks to shuffle lines if need be.
It's a testament to his skill level that Patrick Kane can put up a point-per-game, his fourth straight season with at least 70 points, and yet his season can be considered somewhat disappointing.
Kane is one of 13 players who, in the last 20 years, have scored more than 300 points in their first four seasons, so expectations are always going to be that he'll be a point-per-game scorer.
He's missed 42 games in two seasons since signing with Chicago, but Marian Hossa remains a productive scorer when he's in the lineup. From 1999-2000 through last season, Hossa ranks second among all NHLers with 373 goals, behind only Jarome Iginla in that time.
Sure, he's not as productive as he was at his peak, but 32-year-old Hossa gives the Blackhawks proven scoring depth.
It's troubling that 25-year-old David Bolland has had health issues over the past couple of seasons, causing him to miss 64 regular season games over the last two years, but his value to the Blackhawks was spotlighted in the playoffs, when he both shut down the Canucks' top line and produced offensively.
Bolland can't be reasonably expected to play at that level for an entire season, but if he could stay healthy, Bolland may have the all-around game to challenge for a Selke Trophy.
Bryan Bickell had a fine rookie season, scoring 37 points. He's a big winger who can play as a checker or in a role as a complementary scorer and, at his salary, is a bargain.
Acquired from Florida, Michael Frolik endured a puzzling offensive drought, scoring 11 goals and 38 points, both career-lows, and not improving matters when he arrived in Chicago.
However, Frolik played well in the playoffs, as a nice complement to Bolland on the third line. If his game is well-rounded enough to handle those minutes, 23-year-old Frolik should still be able to establish himself as a quality scoring winger.
A winger with good size and decent hands, Troy Brouwer struggles to find a consistent level, at times playing on a scoring line and producting; at others, nearly an afterthought on the fourth line.
He ended the year with no goals in his last 29 games, including playoffs, and he's certainly capable of much better than that.
Picked up from the Maple Leafs in last summer's salary purge, Viktor Stalberg played 77 games for the Blackhawks, but averaged a modest 10:42 of ice time per game. While he didn't play a lot, he did have the best shot differential (five-on-five, per 60 minutes) on the team, perhaps an indication that he might be able to play a more significant scoring role.
At the minimum, though, Stalberg gives the Blackhawks depth, providing skill on the third or fourth line, with the ability to slide up the depth chart to fill-in on a scoring unit, if necessary.
Jake Dowell is a standard fourth-line centre; hard-working, hits, blocks shots and generally busts his butt when he's in the lineup, but the 26-year-old is limited offensively, so he's in a constant battle to keep his place in the lineup.
Even if Chicago's salary cap position isn't quite as dire as it was last summer, they are still in a tight spot financially, which could make it difficult to retain their unrestricted free agent forwards or lure in top-calibre replacements.
As such, it would be nice to keep Tomas Kopecky, following his breakthrough season, but a big forward who scored 42 points and can play centre and wing could find a nice raise on the open market.
The Blackhawks have some quality prospects in the pipeline, some of whom will be able to challenge for spots next season. Ben Smith impressed in his late-season and playoff audition, so he could earn a job, but the Blackhawks may do some bargain hunting on the free agent market.
Re-signing Ryan Johnson or giving prospect Marcus Kruger a chance could add centre depth, while wingers like Drew Miller or Ethan Moreau might add proven wing depth, if they can be squeezed in under the cap and prospects Jeremy Morin and Kyle Beach are deemed to need more time on the farm.
Brent Seabrook is one of the elite defencemen in the game, though tends to be overshadowed by 2010 Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith. Last season, Seabrook played in all 82 games (he's missed five regular season games over the last five seasons), scoring a career-high 48 points while playing a career-high 24:23 per game.
He's a big, physical presence who relishes the shutdown responsibilities that come his way, but Seabrook just happens to be more talented -- a more complete defenceman -- than most of the league's premier shutdown defencemen.
Keith, who has often been Chicago's best blueliner in recent seasons, struggled under a heavy workload last season. He got off to a decent start, but was playing more than 29 minutes per game in October; once that seemed to catch up to him, Keith couldn't get into a good groove all season.
But, just in case anyone forgot what kind of player he's capable of being, Keith -- fueled by a certain amount of anger after Seabrook was knocked out of action by a head hit from Vancouver's Raffi Torres -- totally took over Games Four and Five of the series against the Canucks, showing his Norris Trophy form.
A sublime skater, Keith is able to elude forecheckers as well as any defenceman in the league, and is a durable workhorse as a result, missing a total of six games in six NHL seasons.
Brian Campbell's game has undergone a metamorphosis, as he's gone from freewheeling offensive defenceman to responsible defender. He finished last season with 27 points, his lowest total since 2003-2004, yet also tied a career-high with a plus-28 rating.
Now, 32-year-old Campbell blocks more shots and plays second-unit power play time, which may not be an ideal contribution considering his salary cap hit, but he's a highly effective player, even if he's not the offensive threat that he was a couple of years ago.
It seemed like a good idea for the Blackhawks to match last summer's offer sheet to Niklas Hjalmarsson, tendered by the San Jose Sharks, in order to lock up a top-four defenceman.
The Blackhawks' faith was rewarded by Hjalmarsson going minus-9 in the first 13 games of the season, but he turned it around, going plus-22 the rest the of the way. A lighter workload late in the season, after the Blackhawks acquired Chris Campoli, reduced Hjalmarsson's impact, but the 24-year-old could still find his way into a top-four role.
Campoli's career got a nice boost when he was acquired by the Blackhawks. Campoli skates well and has the puck skills to contribute on the power play, but is also maturing into a more responsible defender, giving the Blackhawks impressive depth through their top five defencemen.
And then we come to Nick Leddy, who was rushed into the league as a 19-year-old and didn't play much. Will Leddy's development be stunted, playing 14 minutes a night for the Blackhawks as opposed to 25 minutes a game in the AHL? Perhaps, but if he can learn from the veterans on hand, then maybe Leddy will be prepared to play a more significant role a few years from now.
6-foot-8 John Scott is a bad man. He can line up at forward or defence, but hardly plays enough for it to make a significant difference. What he can do, however, is throw 'em with anyone in the league.
According to www.hockeyfights.com, Scott has fought 17 times since arriving in the NHL in 2008-2009, winning every one of them and most in a lopsided manner.
The Blackhawks may want to bring in a bargain veteran to provide some depth, but there aren't a lot of minutes available, so a player on the roster fringe, like Freddy Meyer, Alexander Sulzer or re-signing Adam Hendry could fill out the group without forcing another prospect into the mix too soon.
Free Agent Goaltender
||'10-'11 Cap Hit
It took the Blackhawks some time to recognize it, giving Marty Turco every opportunity to hold the starting job for the first half of the season, but Corey Crawford established himself in the second half and in the playoffs, earning a new contract as well.
Crawford was a 26-year-old rookie, so he's more mature than most goalies going into their second season and his numbers should remain solid given the calibre of team in front of him.
Picked up from Florida as part of the Jack Skille-Michael Frolik deal, Alexander Salak had a terrific season in the Swedish Elite League. Signed to a one-way contract, Salak would figure to have to struggle mightily not to end up as Crawford's backup.
Though Cristobal Huet has one year remaining on his Blackhawks contract, there is no reasonable way to fit him under the cap. He was loaned to Fribourg-Gotteron of the Swiss League last season and posted an .894 save percentage there, so he's likely to get similarly exiled from the NHL this season -- his game just not near the value of his contract.
||8-4-12,+2, 22 GP
||1.97 GAA, .926 SV%, 32 GP
||16-20-36,-24, 71 GP
||6-29-35,+12, 52 GP
||0-4-4,-18, 42 GP
||5-27-32,-16, 73 GP
||12-31-43,-6, 70 GP
||Boston College (HE)
||4-10-14,-3, 31 GP
||23-30-53,+19, 59 GP
||19-12-31,-3, 63 GP
A shoulder injury limited Jeremy Morin to 31 games (22 in Rockford, nine in Chicago) last season, but he's a natural scorer. That lack of playing time might make another season in the AHL preferable for his development, but Morin should be a finisher in the NHL at some point.
24-year-old Czech goaltender Alexander Salak, who has played in Finland, Sweden and the AHL already, should be ready to play for the Blackhawks next season.
An agitator with skill, Kyle Beach was still a hell raiser in his first pro season, racking up 163 penalty minutes, but his game may need further refinement, as his minus-24 rating was worst among all Rockford skaters.
Pressed into the Blackhawks' lineup late last season, Marcus Kruger was probably a little overwhelmed and didn't produce much in a dozen (regular season and playoff) games.
He gets compared to David Bolland, so if he can develop into something of a two-way playmaking centre, Kruger could be a real find for Chicago, but it appears he'll need time to develop into that player.
20-year-old defenceman Dylan Olsen left Minnesota-Duluth halfway through his sophomore season to turn pro and the early results were rough, as he was minus-18 in just 42 AHL games. Olsen has the complete package in terms of size, skills and skating ability, but he could use a good year of development in the American Hockey League.
A smooth puckhandling defenceman, Shawn Lalonde had a solid first pro campaign, but can tighten up his play without the puck if he's going to improve his chances of landing an NHL job.
Brandon Pirri was 19-year-old for most of his first season in the AHL, and he was awfully productive, considering his age and the level of competition. He's more of a playmaker than finisher, but could provide nice down the middle depth for the Blackhawks.
A first-round pick last summer, Kevin Hayes didn't have a huge impact as a freshman, playing for the national champs, but has good size and can skate. Another couple years in college should help determine how high is ceiling is going to be, particularly when it comes to offensive contributions.
Kevin's brother, Jimmy Hayes
, is also a Blackhawks prospect and scored 21 goals in 39 games as a junior for B.C. and signed with the Blackhawks this spring.
He scored a career-high 53 points in 59 QMJHL games last season, which isn't all that much for an NHL prospect, but Philippe Paradis plays a gritty checking game and, while his upside is limited, he may have a better chance to earn a depth role after some time in the AHL.
A stocky blue-collar winger who does his best work along the boards, Ben Smith
earned a late-season call-up to Chicago and made his mark with three goals in the first round against Vancouver. The 23-year-old may be a favourite to earn a fourth-line job next season.
Check out a possible roster for next season on www.capgeek.com, with minor tweaks to fit under a presumably-increasing salary cap here: http://bit.ly/k9rxR5
18th - Boone Jenner, Mark Schiefele, Joe Morrow.
According to www.capgeek.com, the Blackhawks have approximately $59.9M committed to the 2011-12 salary cap for 17 players.
Needs: Depth forwards, backup goaltender.
What I said the Blackhawks needed last year: Shed salary, one or two defencemen.
They added: Bryan Bickell, Fernando Pisani, Jack Skille, Viktor Stalberg, Corey Crawford, Marty Turco.
TRADE MARKET Troy Brouwer, Viktor Stalberg, Brian Campbell, Niklas Hjalmarsson.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.