Chicago Blackhawks: Remembering the Departed Champions

Tab BamfordSenior Writer ISeptember 30, 2010

Chicago Blackhawks: Remembering the Departed Champions

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    In June, the Chicago Blackhawks ended a 49-year drought between Stanley Cup championships. Patrick Kane scored an overtime game-winner that wasn't seen by the officials, so the celebration had to be reserved for roughly 60 seconds until video replay confirmed the goal.

    The celebration was far from reserved when the Hawks came home and held their championship parade through the streets of Chicago. Chicago Police estimates are that over two million fans showed up to let their heroes know how much they appreciated the effort.

    But the parade ended.

    And the two million people went home.

    And reality set in for Blackhawks management.

    Less than a week after that incredible parade, the exodus out of Chicago began. With new contracts kicking in for the Blackhawks three best players—Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, and Kane—there was going to be significant roster changes coming for the champions.

    Let's remember who's gone.

Goalie: Cristobal Huet

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    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    He began last season as the starter.

    By May, he couldn't get on the ice.

    Huet was one of the biggest free agent disappointments in the history of Chicago, struggling on the ice and then with his demotion. It isn't easy when 23,000 people know how to score on you every night.

    Huet has taken his talents to a Swiss team this year, on loan from the Blackhawks.

Goalie: Antti Niemi

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    Brian Bahr/Getty Images

    Everyone in Chicago wanted him to be the starter beginning in the middle of October, but he didn't firmly grab the job until the end of March.

    Once he was the man, he owned the net.

    It's hard to fathom that names like Tony Esposito and Ed Belfour didn't win a Cup in Chicago, but Niemi did.

    Unfortunately for Niemi, his agent is Bill Zito, and his address is new for a third straight year. Zito rolled the dice and played a game of chicken with Blackhawks management this summer that he, and Niemi, lost. The dance ultimately cost Niemi a great job behind arguably the best top-four group of defensemen in the league and $750,000 next year.

    Niemi signed a one-year deal with the San Jose Sharks, and is (once again) battling for the starting job.

Defenseman: Brent Sopel

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Sopel, in many ways, personified the 2009-10 Blackhawks. He missed the entire previous season because of injury, and came to camp in September of 2009 with only an outside chance of making the roster.

    There were many times during the regular season that fans at the United Center wants Sopel to be on a bus to anywhere, but when the postseason started he suddenly became everything the coaching staff needed and more. He blocked shots, cleared pucks, and famously carried the puck on a lap around the offensive zone, received a pass back, and put the (deflected) shot on net that Marian Hossa scored after leaving the box against Nashville to win one of the most epic playoff games in history.

    Sopel was dealt to the Atlanta Thrashers this summer as part of a blockbuster deal.

Skater: Dustin Byfuglien

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    We're going to label Byfuglien a skater because he broke into the NHL as a defenseman, played there when the Blackhawks were hit with a run of injuries last year, and appears to be headed back to the blue line to begin his time with the Atlanta Thrashers.

    But it was in front of the net that Byfuglien launched a John Bunyon-like legend during last year's playoffs.

    In fact, it wouldn't be surprising if Atlanta's management team received a nice fruit basket or bottle of champagne from the people in San Jose and Vancouver.

    Byfuglien was nothing more than an enigma with the Hawks. He scored 11 goals in a one-month playoff run, but only managed 17 during an 82-game regular season. He also led the team in hits, but racked up significant penalty minutes in the process. In both the regular and post seasons, Byfuglien had the worst plus-minus on the roster.

    Yet fans won't remember any of that.

    They'll remember him striking a Captain Morgan pose on the ice after posting a hat trick against the Canucks, and then throwing Chris Pronger into the wall like a rag doll during the Finals.

    Byfuglien was dealt to Atlanta in a blockbuster trade early in the summer. The central figure in the package the Blackhawks received back for Byfuglien, Jeremy Morin has been the breakout star of training camp in Chicago this year, and has an outside shot of making the team as a 19 year old.

Forward: Ben Eager

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    A punishing power forward that was held to a minimal role in Chicago, Eager became a fan favorite because he was always willing to drop the gloves.

    He was the third NHL player involved in the early-summer blockbuster trade that sent him, Sopel, Byfuglien, and prospect Akim Aliu to Atlanta.

Forward: Andrew Ladd

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    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    At 24, Ladd has already won the Cup twice in two different cities.

    He's been subsequently dealt by both teams.

    He was once the fourth overall pick in the draft (following Ovechkin, Malkin and...Cam Barker?), and is developing into a solid power forward. He has good size and can skate well. Unfortunately, he was a restricted free agent that the Blackhawks couldn't afford.

    He was dealt to Atlanta in a separate deal that brought Ivan Vishnevskiy to the Blackhawks.

Forward: Adam Burish

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Not many players on last year's roster connected with Blackhawks fans the way Burish did. Despite missing nearly the entire regular season because of a torn ACL suffered during the preseason, Burish scrapped his way back into the lineup and played a significant role in the hearts of every Blackhawks fan.

    However, he was an unrestricted free agent and the Dallas Stars offered him over $1 million. He'll be very popular in Texas.

Center: Colin Fraser

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Fraser was a fringe player for the Hawks that played a solid, physical game when asked to be on the ice. He didn't see much action in the postseason, but played a bigger role than most expected during the regular season because of injuries to players like Dave Bolland and Burish.

    He was a restricted free agent this summer, and was dealt to the Edmonton Oilers for a draft pick.

Center: John Madden

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    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    The former Selke Award winner was brought in to win a championship, and he accomplished that goal. He was a gritty center that was forced into a more prominent role than he and the Blackhawks figured he would have to play when he signed a one-year deal before last season; Dave Bolland and Burish both missed big parts of last season, and Madden was pushed onto the checking line.

    He moved on, signing a one-year deal with the Minnesota Wild this summer.

Forward: Kris Versteeg

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    Claus Andersen/Getty Images

    Versteeg was a popular player on and off the ice in Chicago. He was a finalist for the Calder Trophy in 2008-09, and posted 44 points last year. When the playoffs began, Versteeg saw significant time on special teams both killing penalties and on the power play.

    He's referred to in Chicago by many as "Patrick Kane Lite" because of his ability to carry the puck through traffic and make a ridiculous move to put a shot on net. He has a lot of ability, and getting top line minutes could make him a dangerous player this year.

    The Blackhawks traded Versteeg to Toronto for Viktor Stalberg and two prospects.