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Off-Season Game Plan: Chicago Blackhawks

Scott Cullen
6/19/2010 12:15:48 PM
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The Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1961, so it's a summer for celebrating. For some, notably GM Stan Bowman, it's going to be a summer involving tough decisions as the Blackhawks scramble to get under the salary cap.

Off-Season Game Plan looks at the championship roster and what the Blackhawks can do if they're going to have a legitimate chance to defend their title.

Such is the nature of the salary cap world in the NHL that great young teams face a tight window of opportunity because it's so difficult to keep an entire team together.

As such, the Blackhawks (and any other team with an abundance of talent) have to identify their core and build around it, which means letting some valuable contributors move on when the finances don't fit.

"We'd love to have everybody back, but that's not a possibility," Bowman told the Chicago Sun-Times. "We're going to have to make some decisions, and so is everybody else."

Part of the reason for Chicago's dominant season was the team's oustanding depth and the decisions that Bowman is going to have to make this summer will surely cut into that depth. How deep the cuts run will depend on what next year's salary cap is going to be.

Just as challenging for the Blackhawks is that their financial predicament leaves them vulnerable to losing restricted free agents since they can't reasonably expect to match a significant offer sheet.

With goaltender Antti Niemi and defenceman Niklas Hjalmarsson among the restricted free agents who would figure to command interest, the Blackhawks will have to move quickly if they are going to keep most of the championship team in place.

For all the doom and gloom about roster changes that are coming, it's important to note that the Blackhawks should be in fine shape building around the elite talent of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith, the trio that signed long-term contract extensions last season.

Moves will be made this summer and there will, by necessity, quite a few new faces in the lineup next season, which will make it difficult to win a second straight Stanley Cup.

No matter; the job of defending a Stanley Cup title is never easy and 1998 (Detroit Red Wings) was the last time a team repeated as champs.

So, it's a tough job ahead for whomever the Blackhawks have on next year's roster but for a team that just won its first Cup in 49 years, the challenge is well worth it.

GM/COACH
Stan Bowman/Joel Quenneville

Returning Forwards

Player Rating Cap Hit
Patrick Kane 88.45 $6.3M
Jonathan Toews 87.94 $6.3M
Patrick Sharp 84.21 $3.9M
Marian Hossa 82.92 $5.275M
Kris Versteeg 75.07 $3.083M
Dustin Byfuglien 74.56 $3.0M
Troy Brouwer 74.41 $1.025M
Dave Bolland 72.19 $3.375M
Tomas Kopecky 65.97 $1.2M

Free Agent Forwards

Player Rating Class '09-'10 Cap Hit
Andrew Ladd 69.83 RFA $1.55M
John Madden 65.53 UFA $2.75M
Colin Fraser 64.61 RFA $700K
Ben Eager 63.80 RFA $965K
Adam Burish 60.00 UFA $713K

Just 21, Patrick Kane is coming off a phenomenal season capped, of course, by scoring the Stanley Cup-winning goal. Kane set career-highs in goals (30), assists (58), points (88) and plus-minus (+16) and then added 28 points in 22 playoff games for good measure.

He's small, but so shifty and creative that he continues to find space and create offensive chances. A 100-point season seems a fair possibility, given that he's racked up 230 points in his first three seasons.

Jonathan Toews is the more complete player and the 22-year-old had a rather sensational season in his own right, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP for the Stanley-Cup-winning Blackhawks and Best Forward at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver for Gold-Medal-winning Canada.

Though he has yet to surpass 70 points in a season, Toews is now being mentioned as one of the best players in the game, particularly after his 29-point playoff showed that he has the offensive upside to exceed his current level of production.

Right in his prime, Patrick Sharp is so valuable as Chicago's second-line centre, capable of playing in all situation and doing so quite effectively. Sharp's speed is his greatest weapon and just set career-highs with 66 points and a plus-24 rating before contributing 22 points in 22 playoff games.

Marian Hossa has had several playoffs (four, to be exact) in which he's finished with more than the three goals he managed last season, but he finally got his Stanley Cup win and is to be commended for it. Much-maligned for a lack of playoff success early in his career, Hossa has played in each of the last three Stanley Cup finals with a different team.

Considering his contract has him signed up through 2021, if Hossa is going to return to the Cup final again next season, it figures to at least be with the same team. Incidentally, the 31-year-old remains one of the better all-around wingers in the league.

Skilled and streaky, 24-year-old Kris Versteeg had his second straight 20-goal season, though his point and plus-minus numbers decreased in his second NHL season. He's certainly capable of fulfilling a second-line scoring role, but may be one of those considered for trade as the Blackhawks try to get under the salary cap.

While his 17-goal, 34-point regular season was relatively unremarkable, Dustin Byfuglien definitely left his imprint on the playoffs after moving back to forward once Brian Campbell returned to the lineup, scoring 11 goals and 16 points in 16 games against Vancouver, San Jose and Philadelphia in the final three rounds.

If that playoff performance is an indicator of future performance, the 25-year-old should be fixture on a scoring line in Chicago and expected to score 30-plus annually. However, if there are doubts about Byfuglien's ability to elevate his regular-season production, then Big Buff could also be considered a tradeable commodity.

Another big bodied forward who can score, Troy Brouwer tallied 22 goals and 40 points, while spending some time on the first line, while sliding further down the depth chart at other times.

Brouwer's not very fleet afoot, but plays hard, knows where the net is and doesn't cost a lot for a complementary two-way winger.

The playoffs may have been a coming-out party for Dave Bolland, the 24-year-old checking centre who drove top-scoring opponents to distraction and then made matters worse by chipping in 16 playoff points in his own right.

Bolland missed half the season as he recovered from back surgery, so he didn't build on his 47-point season from 2008-2009, but with good health, perhaps he'll have an opportunity to showcase more of the offensive skills he had displayed in junior.

Tomas Kopecky was signed away from Detroit as a free agent last summer, but his payscale didn't necessarily fit with his role, playing fewer than 10 minutes per game. Nevertheless, the 28-year-old is a big, physical winger and did manage a career-best 10 goals and 21 points with the Blackhawks.

24-year-old winger Andrew Ladd won his second Stanley Cup, playing all 82 games for the second straight season and set a carer-high with 17 goals. A big, reliable two-way winger, Ladd could be due a raise this summer and that might make him expendable; his two Cup wins would figure to make him more attractive than a garden variety 38-point left winger.

A scrappy fourth-line forward, Colin Fraser scored five goals in his last four games of the regular season to finish with a career-high seven before sitting for all but three games in the playoffs. On a lesser team, or perhaps if the Blackhawks clear out some forwards this summer, Fraser may be able to handle a more significant checking role.

Chicago's enforcer, effectively, Ben Eager is a big fourth-line forward who fought a team-high eight times (but that's rather low in terms of policeman totals), but the 26-year-old has developed his game to the point that he can be pretty useful when he gets in on the forecheck.

Veteran John Madden and agitator Adam Burish would surely be welcomed back but, just as surely, will get more lucrative offers elsewhere, so they can be expected to leave as free agents, leaving at least a couple of spots for prospects or bargain-bin veterans to fit into the lineup.

Jack Skille and Kyle Beach may be the most likely prospects to make the jump, while a veteran like Richard Park or Matt Ellis may be inexpensive depth options.

Returning Defencemen

Player Rating Cap Hit
Duncan Keith 88.36 $5.538M
Brent Seabrook 77.85 $3.5M
Brian Campbell 77.27 $7.143M
Brent Sopel 63.66 $2.333M

Free Agent Defencemen

Player Rating Class '09-'10 Cap Hit
Kim Johnsson 68.00 UFA $4.85M
Niklas Hjalmarsson 67.84 RFA $643K
Jordan Hendry 61.14 RFA $625K
Nick Boynton 60.86 UFA $1.5M

For the third straight season, Duncan Keith was at least a plus-20, while the 26-year-old really broke through offensively, scoring a career-high 14 goals and 69 points. Nominated for the Norris Trophy, Keith is a cornerstone piece for the franchise; a terrific skater whose mobility makes him difficult for forecheckers to track down, an alert passer and a smart positional defender.

Keith's partner, Brent Seabrook, is the bigger and more physical of the pair and while Seabrook has yet to score more than 32 points in a season, he has 23 points in 39 playoff games over the last two years, so he's capable of adding to the attack.

In a somewhat strange twist of fate, Brian Campbell transitioned to a more defensive role; his 38 points was his lowest total since 2003-2004, but his plus-18 rating was the second-best mark of his career.

Campbell's made his name as a freewheeling puckhandling defenceman, but the 31-year-old is also tagged now with the overpaid label after signing a lucrative long-term deal with the Blackhawks in 2008. Moving Campbell would do a lot to alleviate the Blackhawks' financial crunch this summer, but that may be a tall order for GM Stan Bowman.

Veteran Brent Sopel has struggled at times throughout his tenure with the Blackhawks, but the 33-year-old turned in a tremendous postseason performance, turning into an effective shot-blocker. Still, his price is a lot when compared to what he provides, which could make him expendable this summer.

In his first full season in the NHL, Niklas Hjalmarsson impressed with steady, if unspectacular, defensive play. The 23-year-old is already capable of fulfilling a top-four role, which is good for the future of the Blackhawks; provided, of course, that Hjalmarsson isn't poached as a restricted free agent.

Jordan Hendry sees limited duty, under 12 minutes per game in 43 games last season and the 26-year-old a serviceable depth defenceman.

If the Blackhawks need inexpensive options to round out their defence corps, free agents like Brett Lebda, Freddy Meyer, Andreas Lilja and Shane Hnidy could be reasonable free agents to pursue for depth roles.

Returning Goaltender

Player Rating Cap Hit
Cristobal Huet 70.50 $5.625M

Free Agent Goaltender

Player Rating Class '09-'10 Cap Hit
Antti Niemi 85.00 RFA $827K

Considering his salary and how he was bumped from the starting role after posting a career-low .895 save percentage, Cristobal Huet seems highly unlikely to return to the Blackhawks next season.

The challenge will be finding a workable solution; the best move for next year's salary cap would be to bury Huet in the AHL, though that will cost the Blackhawks the full freight on his contract, as opposed to buying him out and paying two-thirds of the two years remaining on his contract, with the cost spread out over the next four seasons.

26-year-old rookie Antti Niemi came on late in the season and, despite some rebound control challenges in the postseason, he won a Stanley Cup, so that should be enough to hold the starting job next season, presuming that he's signed to a new deal.

If Huet is banished, the Blackhawks will have to find a reasonably-priced backup. Corey Crawford may be ready to make the jump after 205 AHL games in the last four seasons.

Otherwise, free agents Martin Biron, Ray Emery, maybe even Michael Leighton would figure to be inexpensive alternatives to support Niemi.

Top Prospects

Player Position Team/League Stats
Kyle Beach LW Spokane (WHL) 52-34-86,+22, 68 GP
Marcus Kruger C Djurgardens (SEL) 11-20-31,+16, 38 GP
Shawn Lalonde D Belleville (OHL) 13-43-56,-21, 58 GP
Jack Skille RW Rockford (AHL) 23-26-49,-1, 63 GP
Akim Aliu RW Rockford (AHL) 11-6-17,-2, 48 GP
Bill Sweatt LW Colorado College (WCHA) 15-18-33,-3, 39 GP
Simon Danis-Pepin D Rockford (AHL) 1-7-8,+9, 38 GP
Brian Connelly D Rockford (AHL) 4-31-35,+3, 78 GP
Bryan Bickell LW Rockford (AHL) 16-15-31,-6, 65 GP
Corey Crawford G Rockford (AHL) 24-16-2, 2.67 GAA, .909 SVPCT, 43 GP

There aren't often players coming out of junior hockey with 52 goals and 186 penalty minutes, but Kyle Beach is a talented trouble-maker. If he can keep his game on the edge, without going over, then Beach may be able to make an immediate impact with Chicago next season.

While there is no urgency to get 20-year-old Marcus Kruger into the Blackhawks lineup, he enjoyed an outstanding season in the Swedish Elite League, making him an intriguing prospect, particularly if the Blackhawks end up losing depth down the middle.

Shawn Lalonde is a strong skating defenceman who is ready for the pro game after four OHL seasons. While the 20-year-old might be able to crack the Blackhawks' lineup next season, a year in the AHL wouldn't hurt his development.

The seventh overall pick in 2005, Jack Skille has appeared with the Blackhawks in each of the last three seasons, accumulating eight points in 30 career NHL games. He has good size and has scored 43 goals in 121 games over the past couple years in the AHL.

21-year-old Akim Aliu is still raw, but is such an enticing package of size, speed and skill that the Blackhawks can wait on his development. After 11 goals in 48 AHL games last season, Aliu has to add consistency before he can be considered for a spot in Chicago.

Speedy winger Bill Sweatt has put together four seasons of collegiate hockey and is set to start his pro career. Some time in the AHL, playing important minutes and getting used to the pro grind, will prepare him for his shot in the NHL.

Simon Danis-Pepin is a big 22-year-old, standing 6-foot-7 and while he skates well for a big man, additional seasoning is required.

At the other end of the size spectrum on the blueline, Brian Connelly is a small puck-mover who adjusted well to the pro game after three seasons at Colorado College.

Bryan Bickell is a big 24-year-old winger who played 16 games in the regular season and four more in the playoffs with the Blackhawks last season. He's inexpensive, so could end up as a consideration for a depth role next season.

25-year-old Corey Crawford has put in his time in the AHL and has generally played well in his eight NHL appearances, so he could be ready to finally get a full-time job at the next level.

Some of the Blackhawks' best prospects are toiling in the collegiate ranks, as defencemen Dylan Olsen (Minnesota-Duluth), Nick Leddy (Minnesota) and Joe Lavin (Notre Dame) have long-range potential, while playmaking centre Brandon Pirri had 43 points in 39 games as a freshman with R.P.I.

DRAFT
30th - John McFarland, Brock Nelson, Jaden Schwartz.

FREE AGENCY
According to www.capgeek.com, the Blackhawks have approximately $58.9M committed to the 2010-2011 salary cap for 14 players.

Needs: Shed salary, one or two defencemen.

What I said the Blackhawks needed last year: Depth forwards, depth defencemen.

Who did they add? Marian Hossa, Tomas Kopecky, John Madden.

TRADE MARKET Kris Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Colin Fraser, Brian Campbell, Brent Sopel, Cristobal Huet.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@ctv.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen.

 

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