After the glory that was the record-setting 2012-13 Stanley Cup season, the Chicago Blackhawks found themselves in a struggle last year.
They picked up their game in the postseason and eliminated both the Blues and Minnesota Wild before pushing the eventual Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings to overtime in Game 7 of the Western Conference Final.
The fact that they came as close as they did against the Kings indicates the talent and determination of the Blackhawks. They are still among the elite teams in the NHL, clearly capable of winning the Stanley Cup behind Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith with just a break or two.
But the start of the offseason has not been encouraging for the Blackhawks. While they signed a potential No. 2 center in former New York Ranger Brad Richards, four of their primary division opponents have made several key moves that could make it even more difficult to re-establish regular-season dominance.
Start with the Blues, the team that led the division for the majority of the season before a late-season slump forced them to settle for second place.
The Blues signed one of the primary free-agent prizes when they picked up Paul Stastny and took him away from the Colorado Avalanche. Stastny scored 25 goals and notched 35 assists for the Avs last season and is one of the better two-way centers in the league.
He also has the talent to help the Blues on the power play with his positioning on the half-wall. He can create good scoring opportunities with his shooting and passing, which will make St. Louis more difficult to defend.
In addition to picking up Stastny, the Blues have brought in Finnish center Jori Lehtera from the KHL. While Lehtera is unproven at the NHL level, general manager Doug Armstrong said Lehtera has been impressive in international competitions like the Olympics and World Championships and could give the Blues an upgrade.
While the Avalanche lost Stastny, they have been among the busier teams in the offseason. Their biggest move was signing forward Jarome Iginla away from the Boston Bruins. The longtime Calgary Flame scored 30 goals in his first full season away from his original team and displayed plenty of willingness to hammer opponents with physical play while also scoring key goals.
Iginla, 37, signed a three-year, $16 million contract with Colorado. The Avs also traded for Montreal forward Daniel Briere and San Jose defenseman Brad Stuart. The Avs were one of the youngest teams in the league last year, and the presence of Iginla, Briere and Stuart should give them quite a bit of veteran leadership.
The Minnesota Wild dominated free agency two summers ago when they signed superstars Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. The Wild have made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, but that's not enough for general manager Chuck Fletcher and head coach Mike Yeo.
They went back to the free-agent well to sign Thomas Vanek to a three-year, $19.5 million contract. Vanek, who played for the Sabres, Islanders and Canadiens last year, is an enigmatic player. While he has scored 277 goals in his career, he appears to go through the motions far too often. On many nights he will not go to the dirty areas and take advantage of goal-scoring opportunities.
Still, when Vanek is on his game, he is capable of making big plays. He has scored 20 goals or more in all nine of his NHL seasons and 30 goals or more four times.
The Dallas Stars rallied to earn the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference playoffs, and the explosiveness of Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn was a key reason they were able to become a relevant team once again.
Acquiring Seguin last July 4 from the Boston Bruins was a huge move for general manager Jim Nill, but he made another big deal this year when he traded for Jason Spezza of the Ottawa Senators. Spezza had told the Sens he wanted to hit the reset button on his career with a trade, and Nill obliged him by sending winger Alex Chiasson, two prospects and a draft pick to Ottawa.
Spezza, 31, scored 23 goals and 43 assists last year. He is a speedy, offensive-minded center who has scored 30 goals or more four times in his career. The Stars also signed free-agent forward Ales Hemsky to a three-year, $12 million contract. Hemsky spent the first 11 years of his career with the Edmonton Oilers before moving to Ottawa last year at the trade deadline.
The Blackhawks are going to have to contend with at least four significant challenges within the division from St. Louis, Colorado, Minnesota and Dallas next season. Nashville and Winnipeg struggled last year and did not make the same kind of bold moves at the start of free agency as the other Central Division teams.
The Blackhawks are hoping that the signing of Richards and their own existing talent will be enough for them to maintain their strong position in the Western Conference.
They may be able to do just that, but their competition seems quite a bit more challenging.
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