As hockey fans search for the next great young team, aside from the Stanley Cup champions, eyes have to shift to the Windy City.
Off-Season Game Plan takes a look at a Blackhawks team that is back in business in a big way.
"The key for us is to keep the nucleus of this team together for the longest possible time, and that's our goal, and we'll achieve that goal," general manager Dale Tallon told the Chicago Sun-Times.
With forwards Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Kris Versteeg, Dave Bolland, Andrew Ladd and Troy Brouwer all 23 or under and a defence anchored by the under-25 set of Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith and Cam Barker, it leaves Tallon's first objective of the off-season dealing with virtual greybeard Martin Havlat, who is all of 28 and headed for free agency.
Havlat stayed healthy and had the best season of his career in 2008-2009, as an ideal fit alongside the rest of Chicago's talented young forwards, so it would make sense to keep him in the fold. However, free agency has a way of forcing the logical into the illogical and if Havlat reaches free agency, who knows where the bidding might stop?
While the Blackhawks have a strong nucleus in place, Tallon also has to keep an eye on the future. Not only does he have six regulars as restricted free agents this summer, but may also need to secure contract extensions for both Kane and Toews, who will be restricted free agents when their contracts expire next summer.
It's not easy in the salary-capped NHL to keep a strong team together for very long, but that is the challenge that awaits Tallon, as Chicago now has championship aspirations after ending more than a decade of futility in which they missed the playoffs nine times in ten seasons.
In order to reach those championship goals, the Blackhawks have to not only keep their current core together, but also have to supplement so that they are up to the task of defying Detroit's Western Conference supremacy and taking on the champion Penguins, who also have the foundation to compete for a championship year-in and year-out.
Talking about championships? Yes, the times are changing for Blackhawks hockey.
Dale Tallon/Joel Quenneville
Top Prospects: Kyle Beach (24-39-63, plus-4 in 54 GP; Everett, Lethbridge-WHL), Igor Makarov (9-8-17, even in 42 GP; St. Petersburg-KHL), Jack Skille (20-25-45, plus-10 in 58 GP; Rockford-AHL)
Jonathan Toews had a solid season, if not necessarily the complete breakout campaign that might have been expected. But let's not quibble about a 21-year-old who has already scored 58 goals and is a combined plus-23 through his first two seasons. He's a player that the Blackhawks ought to feel comfortable building around.
Alongside Toews frequently skates Patrick Kane, the small but skilled winger. While Kane is a creative offensive player, his play without the puck needs work as his minus-2 rating was worst among the Blackhawks' regular forwards even though he was the team's second-leading scorer with 70 points.
With 62 goals over the past two seasons, Patrick Sharp has emerged as a terrific scoring threat, though he probably remains underrated. When he's healthy, Sharp has electrifying speed and he's an excellent complementary scoring threat.
It's taken some time, but Andrew Ladd is starting to make his mark as a power forward. He's not a naturally gifted finisher -- last season's 15 goals was his career-high -- but Ladd plays a reliable two-way game.
Massive winger Dustin Byfuglien was inconsistent through much of the season, but had his moments in the postseason when he used his size to be a powerful presence in front of the opposition net. He still has untapped offensive potential and could be a 30-goal scorer, even if most of them are of the ugly variety.
Fourth-line centre Adam Burish doesn't offer a lot of scoring, with 17 points in 156 career games, but he's an in-your-face agitator; a useful player at a reasonable price.
Kris Versteeg emerged as one of the top rookies in the league, though his production tailed off in the second half of the season. Even if Versteeg doesn't increase his production, he can still be a quality complementary scoring winger. If he does continue improving and turns in to a 30-goal scorer, then it's a bonus considering the Blackhawks got him in a trade for Brandon Bochenski.
The Blackhawks have been looking for a second-line centre, but their best option for the position may already be on the roster. Dave Bolland emerged as a quality two-way pivot in his first full NHL season and the 23-year-old should get better in the coming years.
Troy Brouwer is a big strong forward who has latent offensive ability -- he was a productive goal-scorer in the AHL -- and could fit on a scoring line if he improves his speed. However, if he doesn't, Brouwer is still a physical presence who can play regularly.
In his first NHL season, Colin Fraser was a scrappy presence in the fourth line. He could develop as more of a shutdown checker but, even if he doesn't, Fraser is worthy of a regular spot in the lineup.
While he doesn't tangle with the heavyweights, Ben Eager adds toughness and contributed 11 goals (to go with his 13 fights) last season.
The first priority for the Blackhawks on the free agent market should be getting Martin Havlat resigned, but if he decides to go elsewhere, the Blackhawks can earmark that money for another free agent scorer, with Marian Gaborik, Alex Kovalev, Alex Tanguay and Steve Sullivan among the free agent snipers who could help fill the void.
How much the Blackhawks have to spend will also be dependent on the cost to get all their restricted free agents signed up to new deals. If too many big raises are doled out, there may not be too much room left for a marquee free agent signing.
Top Prospects: Shawn Lalonde (19-35-54, plus-29 in 66 GP; Belleville-OHL), Jordan Hendry (3-6-9, plus-4 in 53 GP; Rockford-AHL)
While he's been overlooked at times, Brent Seabrook's standout performance in the postseason should ensure that is no longer the case. He's durable, having missed just one game in the last three seasons, and handles big minutes against the opposition's best. Seabrook could contribute more offensively, but there's little to complain about following his career-best plus-23 season.
Smooth-skating Duncan Keith continues to improve, finishing last season with career highs in points (44) and plus-minus (plus-33). Though he doesn't have ideal size, Keith is a difference-maker on the blueline and is entering his prime, so he should be a fixture for the Blackhawks.
In the last four seasons, Brian Campbell has played 326 games and his 52 points in 2008-2009 represented the second-highest total of his career. Even so, the season was considered a disappointment when he didn't score a goal over the final three months of the regular season. Signed to a monstrous long-term contract, Campbell could be shopped to give the Blackhawks more financial flexibility.
Rookie Niklas Hjalmarsson didn't see a lot of ice time, but was quite effective in a safe and steady defensive role. He's only 22 and should see a regular turn on the third pairing next season.
Sidelined by an elbow injury for much of the season, veteran Brent Sopel played in just 23 games and he was wholly ineffective when he did play. Under contract for two more seasons, he's a candidate for a buyout.
Cam Barker enjoyed a breakthrough season, putting up 29 of his career-best 40 points with the man advantage. Barker still needs to improve oin his own end and get his shot to the opposition net more consistently, but he has good size and sound offensive instincts worth cultivating.
While the Blackhawks have excellent mobility and puckhandling on the back end, they will need to add size and depth.
Prospect Jordan Hendry can challenge for a depth spot, but if character defender Matt Walker leaves as a free agent, Chicago could look to potentially inexpensive veterans like Rob Scuderi, Steve Montador or Kent Huskins.
Top Prospects: Antti Niemi (18-14-3, 2.43 GAA, .913 SVPCT, 2 SO in 38 GP; Rockford-AHL), Corey Crawford (22-20-3, 2.59 GAA, .917 SVPCT, 2 SO in 47 GP; Rockford-AHL)
It was surprising enough when the Blackhawks shelled out big money for Cristobal Huet as a free agent last summer, especially since they already had Nikolai Khabibulin under contract and Chicago was firmly committed to opening the season with Huet as the number one goaltender.
However, a slow start from Huet provided Khabibulin an opportunity for redemption and he responded with his best season in a Blackhawk uniform. Indications are that the Blackhawks would like to re-sign Khabibulin, but that only seems a reasonable option if Chicago can find a taker for Huet, which seems unlikely given his mediocre season and that he has three years and nearly $17-million remaining on his contract.
If Khabibulin leaves in free agency, the Blackhawks have internal options available to back up Huet, as Antti Niemi and Corey Crawford are both on the verge of being ready for NHL action.
28th - Drew Shore, Zach Budish, Ryan Button.
The Blackhawks have approximately $32.5-million committed to salaries for next season.
Needs: Depth forwards, depth defencemen
What I said the Blackhawks needed last year: One top six forward, one defenceman
Who did they add? Kris Versteeg, Colin Fraser, Craig Adams, Brian Campbell, Matt Walker, Aaron Johnson, Cristobal Huet.
Dustin Byfuglien, Brian Campbell.
Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca