The 2008-09 season has brought a lot of joy to over a million fans that have attended Chicago Blackhawks' games at the United Center.
It has truly been a revolutionary season in Chicago, as the team that was voted the worst-run professional sports organization in North America just two years ago has risen from the dead like a phoenix on ice skates to become a legitimate contender for Lord Stanley's Cup.
But after the Hawks imploded in Game Four against the hated Detroit Red Wings on Sunday, the reality that this team is playing with "the big boys" has set in with most fans.
Down three games to one, the end is not far from view.
While the immediate has been so magnificent to be a part of as a season ticket holder, there are a lot of questions (and answers) regarding the future of this team.
Maybe I'm a little early taking a look at the future of the team with them not being eliminated, but there are issues that could (and should) motivate this roster to play harder than they did on Sunday.
Here is a look into the future of the best story in professional sports, the Chicago Blackhawks.
The following are players that could potentially leave Chicago to explore every offer available as soon as this great season comes to an end:
LW Martin Havlat, 28 years old
G Nikolai Khabibulin, 36
C Samuel Pahlsson, 31
D Aaron Johnson, 26
D Matt Walker, 29
Obviously, two names on this list have been overwhelmingly important to this season's resurgence: Havlat and Khabibulin.
The Hawks have an enormous decision to make with the oft-injured Havlat, who led the team in scoring this season.
He will undoubtedly command a significant contract and will be on the radar of teams that could afford to pay a lot more than Chicago—I'm thinking about the New York Rangers specifically.
With the talent the team has at forward already, the willingness of GM Dale Tallon to put a big offer in front of Havlat might not be as pressing as many fans would think.
I'll discuss some of the potential replacements for Havlat and future contractual issues that might lead Tallon to think twice about a big deal with Havlat later, but keeping this star isn't guaranteed.
After Sunday's Game Four performance, the more delicate situation might actually be surrounding the future of Khabibulin. Cristobal Huet signed a four-year, $22.6 million contract before this season and has yet to establish that he was worth one year at $5.6 million.
On the defensive front, Johnson and Walker won't likely be pursued too heavily because of the depth in the organization, with Walker being the one of that pair that has received significant play with the Hawks this year.
Pahlsson is an intriguing situation as well. He was acquired at the trade deadline from Anaheim and has played a solid center in the portion of the season he has spent in Chicago.
Pahlsson is a more physical, defensive-minded center that's a faceoff specialist and could have value in the future playing next to someone like Patrick Kane because of his physical style of play. He made just $1.4 million in 2008-09, and might be invited back at a similar salary.
The following are players that will be restricted free agents this summer, with the Blackhawks having first negotiating rights with them:
C Dave Bolland, 23
C Colin Fraser, 24
RW Kris Versteeg, 23
RW Troy Brouwer, 24
LW Ben Eager, 25
D Cam Barker, 23
Gs Anti Niemi, 26, & Corey Crawford. 24
Looking at a stat sheet there's just one name on this list that really jumps ott the page, and that's 2008-09 rookie scoring leader Versteeg. He established himself as a threat on the wing with a number of different lines this season and will likely reap the financial rewards for a great first full season.
In fact, the solid play of Versteeg is the first factor in Tallon making a decision on the future of Havlat. If the Hawks can look forward to a future with Versteeg playing a bigger scoring role (he scored 53 points this season), they could find a way to compensate for the potential loss of Havlat's 77 points.
There are a few other names on this list that will be huge considerations for Tallon and his checkbook this summer. Perhaps the most likely player in the organization to get a new contract would be Bolland, who is reportedly at the top of the list for almost every talent evaluator within the organization.
Bolland has become a solid center as the season progressed, playing largely on a line between Havlat and Andrew Ladd. While he scored 47 points, he is another legit scorer the braintrust may believe can make up for a loss of Havlat.
Considering both Bolland and Versteeg could play for a combined salary that's less than Havlat for the next four or five years, that's something that will undoubtedly come into play this summer.
Two other names on this list that the organization and fans should like to see around for a long time are Eager and Barker.
Barker was on the verge of becoming an urban legend in Chicago after being drafted third overall in 2004 behind Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin (and before teammate Ladd) before he developed into a solid blue liner this season.
Perhaps the influence of offensive-minded defender Brian Campbell played a role in Barker looking for his shot more later in the season, as Barker ended the regular season with 40 points.
Eager, meanwhile, has established himself as an elite fighter in the league. You can pull highlights of Eager fights off YouTube for days and never some away unimpressed. He totalled 161 pentaly minutes this season, nearly doubling the total of Adam Burish (93), who ranked second on the team.
What's overlooked is that, as this season progressed, Eager showed flashes of being a good skater who can handle the puck and put it on net effectively. Listed at 6'2 and 220 pounds, a summer of work on posting up in front of the net could triple his 15 points from this past season.
Finally, the obvious question marks in goal with Huet will lead to Niemi and Crawford both being around next season as insurance policies.
The following players could become free agents after next year:
RW Patrick Kane, 20
C Jonathan Toews, 21
LW Andrew Ladd, 23
D Duncan Keith, 25
Obviously, the faces of this young franchise have become those of the young captain Toews and second-leading scorer Kane. After investing the top overall draft pick in Kane and a high pick (and, more importantly, the captainship) in Toews, the money will be flowing in the direction of these two young stars.
The big question with Kane is how and with whom to pair him to keep his small stature from becoming an issue. Kane started to get negative stereotyping as being a power play specialist, with 13 of his 25 goals coming with an advantage this season.
One potential partner for Kane would be Ladd, acquired in a great trade from Carolina last year. He scored 49 points this season and was +26 this season, a stark contrast to Kane's -2 rating.
Keith has become a stallwart defender next to Brent Seabrook (who will need an extension after 2010-11), and that tandem could become one of the best in the league if the Hawks can keep them together.
The Hawks have a lot of talent in the minors that could contribute to the success of the team sooner than later as well. Some of the players who could be at the United Center soon are:
LW Kyle Beach
Beach was the top draft pick in this year's draft and the scouting report on him was that he could score, but that he spent a lot of time in the penalty box. He hasn't disappointed in his first season with the organization.
Beach scored 63 goals in 54 games in two stops in the minors this year, with a +4 rating overall. Scouts knew he could score, but the concerns were about taking penalties. He spent 165 minutes in the expensive seats in those 54 games.
Beach might be an option with the Hawks if Havlat isn't brought back as early as next season. Tallon gave him a three-year contract just last week to ensure he's with the organization for a few years.
C Tim Brent
Brent saw limited action (two games) with the Hawks this season and could become the fourth line center on the roster behind Toews, Bolland and potentially Pahlsson.
Brent tallied 62 points in 64 games in the minors this season.
LW Pascal Pelletier:
Like Brent, Pelletier saw limited action in Chicago this season. Along with Brent, he could see time in Chicago soon if Havlat leaves because of his scoring ability; he scored 55 points in 71 games this year, including 26 goals.
RW Jack Skille
Skille is becoming the next urban legend draft pick in the system, but should see time with the Hawks soon. He was drafted seventh overall in the 2005 draft (Sidney Crosby was first that year), ahead of Anze Kopitar and Devin Setoguchi. At just 22 years old, there's a lot of time ahead for Skille.
He showed flashes of his last name being prophetic this season, scoring 45 points (25 goals) in 58 games.
Let's not forget something important: for most of the players on this Blackhawks roster, 2009 was their first time in the playoffs.
The team's average age is barely 25 years old.
And, until Sunday, they held their own with the defending Stanley Cup Champion Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference Finals.
As this summer comes and goes and this roster is evaluated and nurtured, a lot of what the team has learned in the last month will prove to be more valuable than any dollars spent on free agents.
If Dustin Byfuglien stays at a forward position, and continues to establish a physical presense both in front of the net and into the glass, he could become an outstanding player.
If Brent Seabrook continues to realize that he is one of the best defenders in the league, he'll be a force for a decade. He's big, physical and usually smart with the puck.
If he looks to be offensive as often during the regular season as he has this postseason (26 regular season points, 11 in the playoffs), he could be a significant contributor from the blue line.
If Patrick Sharp can be the player that scored two big goals in Game Three on a consistent basis, he could become an 80-point forward as well.
Throughout the playoffs this year, the Hawks have been fluid in their lines up front as coach Joel Quenneville has looked to maximize opportunities to compensate for a lack of experience.
Next year, it will be other teams that are forced to adjust their lineups to play matchups against a really good Blackhawks team.
Not a young Hawks team, or an inexperienced Hawks team. Just a really good Hawks team.
But for that to happen, Quenneville is going to have to find a way to get lines together and stick with them to build familiarity. One of the more successful lines this year was Ladd-Bolland-Havlat, largely because they played together for most of the season.
In the future, the Hawks should be able to put together four solid lines that bring matchup problems for every other team in the league. It will be up to Tallon, Quenneville and Scott Bowman to figure out where to put each player to maximize their abilities.
In my mind, there needs to be a physical forward and center combination on the ice with Kane to make him most effective.
Whether that means Bolland and Ladd or Byfuglien and a returning Pahlsson, Kane needs to have the confidence that the players around him can finish his passes and will protect him when the shoulders come for his head.
The other need is to figure out where the niche role players like Adam Burish, Ben Eager and youngsters that come up from the minors fit in.
There is no doubt that, even if Havlat leaves, there will be enough talented players on the roster to score points and win games. It's up to the coaching staff and management team to develop this team from an exciting story into a champion.
There's still at least a Game Five to be played. The story of the 2008-09 Blackhawks does not have it's final page written yet, but the future looks very, very bright in Chicago.