The Chicago Blackhawks have missed the playoffs in nine of the past ten seasons, but finally appear to be on the right track.
Off-Season Game Plan looks at one of hockey's best young teams and what they might do to build on an 88-point season.
With the passing of longtime owner Bill Wirtz, there is a change afoot in Chicago, one that will have these young and exciting Blackhawks on local television and the organization has, through years of struggling, built up the kind of talent base that should make the Blackhawks an annual playoff team.
The youth movement in Chicago begins with Rookie of the Year candidates Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. There are plenty more fresh faces growing alongside them.
Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Dave Bolland, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Cam Barker and James Wisniewski are all under 25 and set to play significant roles as the Blackhawks aim for a better tomorrow.
Though it's easy to be optimistic about the Blackhawks' future, that optimism comes with one caveat and that is a team that relies on so many young players is still in a riskier position than teams that have more proven veteran talent.
So, while significant improvement could be expected simply by allowing the young guns gain another year of experience, general manager Dale Tallon can accelerate that process with some savvy moves this summer.
Make the right free agent signings and use organizational depth to make a blockbuster trade and suddenly the Blackhawks would be in position to not just compete for a playoff spot next season, but expect one.
Get ready, Windy City, this is a team you're going to want to watch.
Dale Tallon/Denis Savard
Top Prospects: Jack Skille, Kris Versteeg, Petri Kontiola
Patrick Sharp's previous career-high in goals, dating back to his teenage years in the USHL, was 23 with the Philadelphia Phantoms of the AHL in 2004-2005, but that was before the 26-year-old shattered all expectations with 36 goals in Chicago.
Given that out-of-nowhere explosion, Sharp may not duplicate his scoring exploits next season, but he's established himself as a quality two-way player who is an excellent penalty killer and, now, valuable with the man advantage as well.
Jonathan Toews was limited to 64 games in his rookie season, but he was as good as advertised, scoring 54 points with a plus-11 rating. Toews was expected to be a solid two-way player right off the bat, but his early offensive production has raised the bar for future seasons as the 20-year-old is already on the verge of being a legitimate first-line centre.
For all his wondrous skills, Martin Havlat is as fragile as anyone in the league, playing 109 games in three post-lockout seasons. With one more year left on his contract, it may be to Chicago's benefit to find a team needing an offensive upgrade and send Havlat packing. The other possibility is that, since it's a contract year, perhaps Havlat will be extra-motivated to stay on the ice and produce.
37-year-old Robert Lang still has playmaking skills that make him a good fit on a second scoring line, but he's fairly settled in the 50-to-55-point range.
19-year-old Patrick Kane was the team's leading scorer, with 72 points and his elite offensive instincts will make him a featured performer for years, particularly as he matures and gets stronger over time.
Injuries have set back Dave Bolland some in his first two pro seasons, but he played quite well when given the opportunity with the Blackhawks last year and, with solid ability at both ends of the rink, is a nice fit as the third-line pivot.
Feisty winger Craig Adams has managed to hold down regular NHL employment for five-plus seasons even though he's never scored more than 21 points in a single season. He's a character guy who works his butt off and will drop the gloves if need be, but there is minimal upside to his game.
Ben Eager is positioned to be the enforcer, though he only played 32 games last season and his track record early in his career doesn't yet indicate that he's ready to tangle with the true heavyweights on a nightly basis. With Chicago's emerging young talent, though, it's going to be important for Eager to handle that policeman role if he's going to be a regular in the lineup.
Acquired from Carolina for Tuomo Ruutu, Andrew Ladd had a bit of a breakthrough season, scoring 30 points in 63 games. A big, strong winger, Ladd is a nice complementary piece offensively and it's not unreasonable to expect the 22-year-old to score 20 next season.
Former defenceman Dustin Byfuglien has been moved up front, for keeps, as the Blackhawks try and mold him as a power forward. At 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, Byfuglien scored 19 goals and 36 points in 67 games and that's just scratching the surface of what the 23-year-old could produce.
Rene Bourque is an underrated contributor and valuable because he can play in a checking role, yet has enough of a knack around the net that he can chip in offensively at times.
Scrappy fourth-liner Adam Burish provides all kinds of grit and toughness but, with eight points in 81 games, he has to do a heck of a job as a penalty-killer and grinder to make up for his non-existent offensive game.
With their current crop of forwards, the Blackhawks may not feel a big need to dip into free agency unless they are looking for depth players to round out the fourth line. If looking for an upgrade, however, the Blackhawks may want to put together a trade package that includes a veteran along with any number of their deep group of forward prospects.
Top Prospects: Niklas Hjalmarsson, Simon Danis-Pepin
Duncan Keith emerged, in his third NHL season, as a quality first-pair defenceman, playing more than 25 minutes per game and finishing as a plus-30. Keith's a tremendous skater, but doesn't have premier offensive skills, so there is a certain ceiling on what kind of production can be expected.
In some ways, it appears as though Brent Seabrook has regressed some since putting up 32 points in 69 games as a rookie in 2005-2006, but there's still an awful lot to like about a 23-year-old defenceman who consistently logs more than 20 minutes per game and can play on both the power play and penalty killing units.
Scooped up off the scrap heap before last season, Brent Sopel earned a contract extension with his solid play. The 31-year-old still moves the puck effectively, has improved in his own end and can be a stabilizing influence on his younger blueline mates.
While 22-year-old Cam Barker may not live up to his lofty draft status (No. 3 overall in 2004), he did make quite a bit of progress last season, playing 45 games in Chicago. Barker can get better defensively, but he still has some offensive potential waiting to be tapped.
James Wisniewski is another up-and-coming talent on the blueline who is mobile, moves the puck well and plays with an edge. He's not the biggest guy out there, but the 24-year-old the skills to be a top-four defenceman.
Steady Jordan Hendry made a smooth transition to the NHL, splitting the season between Rockford of the AHL and the Blackhawks. He doesn't do much with the puck, but he killed penalties and played a safe game for more than 17 minutes per game.
If the Blackhawks are tempted to dip into free agency in order to find that puck-moving power play quarterback, they can take a shot at a big fish like Brian Campbell or Ottawa's Wade Redden, but a more ecnomical fit could be John-Michael Liles, the 28-year-old Avalanche defenceman whose production was down, but could be the puck-mover the Blackhawks need at a fraction of Campbell's cost.
The organization as a whole is lean on defence prospects, so it's worth the Blackhawks adding one or two so that a couple of injuries on the blueline don't necessarily ruin the entire season.
Top Prospects: Corey Crawford, Antti Niemi, Joe Fallon
Though he's hardly lived up to his massive free agent contract, Nikolai Khabibulin is coming off a strong season, posting a 2.63 goals against average and .909 save percentage, his best post-lockout numbers. Now 35, the Bulin Wall should have even better numbers as the young talent in front of him matures and he's entering the final year of his contract, so he should be motivated to have a big season.
With Patrick Lalime heading to free agency, there is an opportunity for either Corey Crawford or Antti Niemi to step in as Khabibulin's backup.
Crawford, 23, has three solid seasons of AHL seasoning under his belt and is ready to take the next step in his development, while Niemi is a 24-year-old who was considered one of the top goaltenders in Europe after going 26-6-14 with a 2.35 goals against average in Finland.
11th - Mikkel Boedker, Colin Wilson, Colton Teubert, Luca Sbisa
The Blackhawks have approximately $34-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: Depth forwards, top four defenceman, backup goaltender
What I said the Blackhawks needed last year: First line centre, one top pair defenceman
Who did they add? Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Robert Lang, Yanic Perreault, Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Sopel
Havlat, Lang, Barker, prospects
Scott Cullen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org