The offseason between winning a Stanley Cup and defending it is usually a bittersweet time. While the celebration is ongoing, changes are almost inevitable. Players with Stanley Cup rings are a commodity around the NHL, and oftentimes the opposition is willing to pay to hack and slash away at your winning roster.
No team in recent memory is more aware of this than the Chicago Blackhawks.
When they won the Cup four years ago, they were forced to make all kinds of tough roster choices. The salary cap forced them to trade Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager and Brent Sopel to the Atlanta Thrashers (now the Winnipeg Jets). Colin Fraser was also dealt out of town, as was Kris Versteeg. Andrew Ladd was also flipped to Atlanta.
Aware that the 'Hawks were up against the cap and running out of options to retain Antti Niemi, the San Jose Sharks aggressively extended an offer sheet to restricted free agent Niklas Hjalmarsson. Chicago matched and were forced to release Niemi as a result.
In a no-coincidence move, San Jose then pursued and signed the Cup-winning goalie.
Compared to that tough offseason, 2013 has been a cake walk and Chicago is in much better shape as defending champions than they were the last go around.
Player turnover is just a fact of life in the NHL, but a spotlight will land on every little move the defending Stanley Cup champion makes. Such has been the case this offseason for the 'Hawks, as they shook their roster up a bit without losing any major contributors.
Former second-line center Dave Bolland was moved at the draft to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Chicago managed to acquire three draft picks for him. Not a bad deal for a player who had never really excelled as a top-six forward and that has scored more than 40 points in a season once.
Michael Frolik—a key member of the penalty killing unit—was also shipped out at the draft. The Winnipeg Jets traded a third-round and a fifth-round selection for the 25-year-old winger.
Chicago didn't get anything in return when it lost Viktor Stalberg, who the Nashville Predators signed away as a free agent. Ditto for Ray Emery, who decided to pursue the chance to be an NHL starter again with the Philadelphia Flyers.
It was expected that Chicago's wealthy line of prospects could replace the departed forwards (which we'll discuss in the next slide) while a familiar face in Nikolai Khabibulin was signed to a one-year deal to ease the loss of Emery.
All told, none of these departures are impossible to replace. There's an internal battle going on right now for the No. 2 center position and the spot appears to be in good hands, while the 'Hawks also managed to restock their prospect cupboard by moving Bolland and Frolik.
The 'Hawks taught both of those players to be what they are now. Bolland learned to be a responsible pivot, while Frolik was morphed from a fledgling and failing top-nine forward to an outstanding penalty killer almost overnight by Chicago's coaching staff.
Overall, these loses won't accumulate to any sort of drop off in overall talent for Chicago, so that must be considered a victory for the champs. Especially considering who they managed to keep around (something that will also be discussed later).
Roster Movement Grade: A
It must be tough to be the Blackhawks. The luxury must be overwhelming, what with being able to trade away a top-six forward in Dave Bolland, only to be able to replace him with the AHL's scoring leader.
Brandon Pirri may have missed his shot at cementing the No. 2 center spot in the short-term, but he will be lining up beside Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp before the Olympic break. The kid is just too talented, and with three AHL seasons under his belt, he's more than paid his dues.
He has a lot of finish, plays a responsible two-way game and has the vision to find finishers like Hossa and Sharp when they find open patches of ice.
That's a huge A-plus for player development, being able to turn a 59th overall pick into a guy that can come in and plug a hole like that.
Chicago also added a lot of solid players to its prospect pool at the draft by selecting the likes of Ryan Hartman and Carl Dahlstrom. Strong, sound and riskless drafting like that is why the 'Hawks are able to stay strong despite losing guys like Bolland.
Teuvo Teravainen also came over to North America for training camp and two preseason games and was downright impressive. Scott Powers of ESPN Chicago wrote that Teravainen had the Twitterspehere abuzz with his slick stick-handling and hustle, looking and playing a bit like Patrick Kane.
The Blackhawks don't need any major contributions from youngsters with players like Kane, Jonathan Toews and Hossa still manning the tranches, but being able to add an impact rookie where needed is important to maintaining this near-dynasty.
Like roster movement, Chicago did what it needed to do to remain as good or better as they were last season with their youth development, so it's tough to dock them anywhere here as well.
Youth Development Grade: A
Corey Crawford was stoked about his offseason payday.
All the aforementioned roster movement occurred so that general manager Stan Bowman could keep his key players around. Where Dave Bolland and Michael Frolik made key contributions during the cup run, they weren't necessarily key contributors at all times.
At least not like Bryan Bickell and Corey Crawford were.
Those were the two names at the top of Bowman's to-do list, and he locked both up to long-term contracts. Bickell is going to have his hands full proving that he's worth $16 million over four years.
The 27-year-old forward has appeared in 220 NHL games and averaged .41 points per game in that span. His point-per-game total jumped to .73 while playing alongside Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews during the playoffs, and that's the kind of production that Chicago payed him for.
$4 million a year will seem like an awful lot if Bickell produces another 37-point campaign, but Chicago chose to roll the dice on him rather than keep Bolland or Frolik around. How this works out for them won't be clear until a year from now.
Based on what players like David Clarkson and even Viktor Stalberg received during free agency, though, it would appear that Bickell was retained at a fair cap number based on the marketplace.
If Bickell is facing more pressure, than the same has to be said for Crawford, who will be tied as the sixth-highest paid netminder in the NHL when his new contract kicks in next season. Based on the deal that Tuukka Rask signed with the Boston Bruins, maybe the 'Hawks can feel like they got a bargain.
They're paying him to win the team Stanley Cups, though, and to dominate games when the need arises. Can Crawford continue to grow and evolve into that kind of netminder? Chicago has their bet on the table, and they bet yes.
Both of these deals seem like mild over-payments to us, but if Bickell and Crawford can meet and exceed these sizable expectations, then the 'Hawks will be alright moving forward. Still, every small over-payment ripples across and effects everyone else.
What does the lack of cap space mean for Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, who will need extensions in the summer of 2015? Time will tell, and Bowman doesn't seem to be the type to move forward blindly without a plan.
Contract Negotiations Grade: B
Hockey is a results-oriented business, and the moves that Chicago made over the summer won't be judged based on what happens in October or November. This is a team that wants to challenge for the Stanley Cup again, and based on the losses and gains, it's tough to argue that they're in worse shape than they were at this same time last season.
You're going to lose pieces after winning a Cup. You're going to lose pieces after finishing dead last. With that in mind, the 'Hawks were at least in the driver's seat this offseason and were able to control which assets went where.
They kept Bickell and Crawford in place and were able to promote from within to replace departing players. If that isn't the definition of a successful offseason for a team that already has a championship core in place, then we don't know what is.
Overall Offseason Grade: A