The NHL—in particular, the Vancouver Canucks and their fans—should enjoy being able to spend the months of May and June without having to see the Chicago Blackhawks while they can. Come next spring, Red will rise once again on the west side of Chicago.
The 2010-2011 season was a tenuous one for the Blackhawks.
Nine regulars were gone from last year’s lineup. A patchwork group was assembled just to fit under the restraints of the salary cap. There was a severe Stanley Cup hangover. The team was plagued by health issues, including injuries suffered by each of the team’s top four forwards and a brief hospital stint for its head coach.
A rookie goaltender carried the load after the free-agent signing of a veteran goaltender failed miserably. And there were 14 games in which the ‘Hawks were either tied or leading in the third period, just to blow it and come away with zero points.
Despite all of those hurdles, the Chicago Blackhawks found a way to amass 97 points—the 10th-highest total in franchise history.
It was by no means a successful season, but after taking into consideration everything this team was faced with and the fact that they pushed the President’s Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks to the brink of elimination, it’s somewhat astonishing that they were able to even get where they did.
The future remains as bright as it ever has for this franchise. They remain one of the most talented teams in the league, and many of the prospects stockpiled last offseason are NHL-ready.
Throw in some cap space to sign needed veterans, and the Blackhawks will be on the rise next season. This season was not an easy one for Chicago fans to stomach, but the pieces are in place for the team to return to the ranks of the elite next season.
Marcus Kruger, Nick Leddy, Jeremy Morin and Ben Smith all saw playing time with the big club this season. That experience will be valuable going forward as these top prospects grow into much larger roles with the team.
Leddy played in 46 games with the ‘Hawks, and showed flashes of his high upside while doing so. The 20-year-old hit his fair share of bumps in the road, but that’s to be expected for someone so young. The speed and offensive skills he brings to the table will help fill the void left by a possible trade of Brian Campbell.
Morin recorded three points and a plus-two rating in nine games before suffering an injury. Smith was one of the team’s top threats in their short playoff stint, recording three goals. Both figure to be top-six forwards in the near future.
Add former first-round pick Kyle Beach to the mix, and Chicago has a fine group of young forwards to add to the lineup. Beach would add the aggressive, physical presence that the team was sorely lacking after the departures of Adam Burish, Dustin Byfuglien and Ben Eager.
The farm system is much deeper than just those five players. Jimmy and Kevin Hayes, Shawn Lalonde, Igor Makarov and Dylan Olsen have bright futures and will help keep the Blackhawks afloat down the road beyond next season.
Ten players from the Cup-winning team were not brought back. Almost all played a key role on that team. A similar number of players from this year’s team may also depart. This time around, that’s a good thing.
Bowman was backed up against the salary cap, and had to find a way to fill out his roster. Many of the guys he did so with did not flourish, as had been the hope. Those players will be elsewhere next season.
Jordan Hendry, Ryan Johnson, Tomas Kopecky, Fernando Pisani and Marty Turco are all unrestricted free agents. They will all most likely be gone, thus freeing up $4.1 million in cap space. Restricted free agents Jake Dowell and Viktor Stalberg have also likely seen the last of their playing days as Blackhawks, freeing up another $1.375 million.
This leaves Troy Brouwer, Chris Campoli and Michael Frolik as the remaining RFAs. Of the three, only Brouwer figures to receive a very sizable raise, so all three should be affordable.
If Bowman somehow woos someone into a trade for Brian Campbell and Campbell waives his no-trade clause, his salary coming off the book would free up another seven million. However, finding a suitor for a vastly overpaid, 31-year-old defenseman who struggles in his own end is no easy task.
Unlike last offseason, Stan Bowman and Co. have the ability to make moves to improve the team, and not just field a somewhat competitive cap-compliant one. Depending on a possible trade of Brian Campbell, the team will have roughly $7-15 million to spend. That money can be spent on adding a top-six forward, another defenseman and a defensive-minded centerman that can win faceoffs.
Wingers Ville Leino and Alex Tanguay would both fit the bill as the needed top-six forward, while Jonathan Ericcson, Steve Montador, Adam Pardy and Ian White are all viable, affordable options to bolster the blue line.
As for your replacement for John Madden, it may be a year late, but his replacement should be on his way to the Windy City.
Phoenix center Eric Belanger is an intriguing option, having won better than 55 percent of his faceoffs last season, en route to posting a plus-11 rating. Other options include Maxime Talbot of the Penguins and perhaps even Madden, although he has expressed a desire to return to the Wild for another season.
Perhaps the largest question looming over the Blackhawks entering the 2010-2011 season was how would the goaltenders fare? Marty Turco justified all concern and then some, but luckily for the Blackhawks, Corey Crawford took over in the crease and never looked back.
Crawford was quite the pleasant surprise, posting 33 wins and finishing eighth in the league with a 2.30 GAA. The Blackhawks likely wouldn’t have even been in the playoff discussion if it weren’t for the Calder Trophy candidate’s performance.
Now that management has locked up Crawford for the next three years—preventing another goaltender exodus, ala Antti Niemi the previous year—Crawford should only improve and become a steady force in net at the United Center for years to come.
After winning the Stanley Cup, general manager Stan Bowman had the unenviable task of breaking up a good portion of his Cup-winning roster in order to fit under the tight salary cap restrictions of the NHL. Bowman made it clear from day one that the team’s “core” would remain intact. He stayed true to his word.
That “core," consisting of the likes of Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Patrick Sharp and Jonathan Toews all still don the Indianhead sweater.
By all accounts, it was a down season for each of those six as a whole, but they are all still growing. Long playoff runs like the one the ‘Hawks went on last year take a toll on players’ bodies, especially considering the team had six Olympians last season. The longer offseason will allow for some much-needed rest.
Disappointing individual performances combined with a disappointing 2010-2011 season as a team should light a fire inside of these guys to once again make Chicago a serious contender.