STATE OF THE UNION
A successful spring led directly into a whirlwind summer for the NHL's newest "it" team, but the Chicago Blackhawks remain on strong footing despite the somewhat surprising change at the top from Dale Tallon to Stan Bowman.
"It's fair to say expectations are high," Bowman, the Blackhawks' new general manager, told NHL.com. "I like our team."
There's a lot to like, what with the additions of Marian Hossa, John Madden and Tomas Kopecky to last season's Western Conference Finalists. Bowman's task now is to keep it all together.
How he plans to do that seems to be the biggest question around the Blackhawks today.
The general assumption is the salary cap will go down for the 2010-11 season, leaving the Hawks, who are operating at upper limit of the salary cap now, in quite a bind with Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith all requiring new contracts after this season.
"I think it's dangerous to speculate because it doesn't really benefit anybody," Bowman said. "We're going to plan for a few different scenarios, but all last year we heard how the cap would go down and it didn't. Now we're hearing it's going to go down next year. It might, but we haven't played a game yet and next year's cap is based on this upcoming year's revenue. Let's wait before we say the sky is falling."
Nevertheless, the organization's stated goal is to keep its young core intact, which means Bowman may have to make some major moves in the coming months to prepare for a falling salary cap. The Hawks just won't have enough coming off the books in order to accommodate signing Kane, Toews and Keith to new contracts.
Could that mean Bowman will put Patrick Sharp on the trading block? What about Brian Campbell and his big contract? Would he try to move goaltender Cristobal Huet if Corey Crawford and/or Antti Niemi step up?
"There is no pressure now," Bowman said. "We don't have to make a move to affect our team for this season. We may choose to as we look down the road."
"I think it's dangerous to speculate because it doesn't really benefit anybody. We're going to plan for a few different scenarios, but all last year we heard how the cap would go down and it didn't. Now we're hearing it's going to go down next year. It might, but we haven't played a game yet and next year's cap is based on this upcoming year's revenue. Let's wait before we say the sky is falling."
-- GM Stan Bowman on the Blackhawks salary cap situation going forward
The Hawks reached the conference finals last season, and at least on paper, got better by adding Hossa, Madden and Kopecky -- even though Hossa likely won't play until December due to recent shoulder surgery.
The other part of the equation is the fact that relatively unheralded youngsters like Kris Versteeg, David Bolland, Troy Brouwer, Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Cam Barker, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Seabrook are one year further in their development.
"We had some young players contributing (last season), but hopefully they will be even bigger contributors now," Bowman said. "Hopefully they will take on even bigger roles."
One veteran that has to take on a bigger role is Huet now that Nikolai Khabibulin is gone.
Huet signed a four-year contract last summer, but couldn't get into a rhythm last season because he could never supplant Khabibulin on the depth chart. He played well, posting a 2.53 goals-against average and 20 wins, but Bowman believes he'll thrive as the No. 1 goalie based on his history.
"He had his most success in Washington two years ago when he was their guy," Bowman said. "The one stretch last season when he did get into a rhythm was in February and early March when Khabibulin was injured. He probably played his best hockey at that point. With the change to him being the guy he'll be able to get in that groove a little bit easier."
Provided he does, the short term looks very good for the Hawks. The long term remains a mystery that Bowman has been hired to solve.
"How we determine the best course to handle the future remains to be seen," Bowman said. "I'm not pretending to know where the cap is going to be a year from now, but I also don't want to get ahead of myself."
Chicago's organizational depth appears to be on par with its depth at the NHL level -- both look quite good.
The Blackhawks' years of destitution before the current regime took over weren't a total loss. The Hawks drafted wisely and now have a system stocked with promising players waiting for their chances.
With potential salary cap restrictions heading their way, the Hawks may have to use some of these prospects sooner rather than later.
Here are the five prospects that could crack through the NHL door soon:
Kyle Beach -- Chicago's 2008 first-round pick (No. 11) is developing at the right pace. Beach, who will turn pro this season, has improved his skating and strength, but Kelley said he still needs to get better in both areas to be an NHL player. When that happens, Beach could develop into a coveted power forward. He will be one to watch in training camp.
Akim Aliu -- A second-round pick in 2007, Aliu made his pro debut last season with Rockford in the AHL and he had 2 goals in five games. He also scored a goal in one AHL playoff game. He's a rugged forward who doesn't mind mixing it up; he even fought at Chicago's prospects camp last summer. Kelley said Aliu needs to show more consistency on a shift-by-shift basis before he becomes a regular NHL player, but he should be available on a call-up basis this coming season.
Shawn Lalonde -- A third-round pick in 2008, Lalonde could wind up as the Hawks' seventh defenseman this season if the team chooses to go that route. If not, he'll be sent back to the Belleville Bulls of the OHL. How he performs in training camp will determine that. Kelley said he still needs to mature physically a bit.
Dylan Olsen -- The Hawks' first-round pick in June's Entry Draft, Olsen, a defenseman, has to let his body develop before he's NHL ready. He'll do that at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Kelley said he thought Olsen was one of the best skaters in the 2009 draft and praised his first-pass ability and presence at both ends of the ice. He likened him to Brent Seabrook.
Bill Sweatt -- Sweatt is headed back to Colorado College for his senior year, so the Hawks have to sign him or risk losing him to unrestricted free agency next summer. His speed always has set him apart, but now Kelley said Sweatt has learned to harness it and be deceptive with it. His speed, Kelley said, will cause havoc on the forecheck.
The Blackhawks figured out in mid-February they wouldn't be picking as high as they had been accustomed. While that's obviously a good thing, it also forced the scouting staff to expand its perimeter as they searched for centers and defensemen.
Five of the Hawks' eight picks are headed to college, but with their recent success in drafting, developing and supplementing with shrewd free-agent signings and trades, there is no reason to rush any prospect.
"We were trying to target centermen and defensemen, and so if you look back at the draft you'll see we have six centermen and two defensemen," Mark Kelley, Blackhawks director of amateur scouting, told NHL.com. "We were a little fortunate when we were going to make our picks in each round the player we liked kind of fit into what we were trying to do with our depth chart."
Here is a look at the eight selections the Blackhawks made in Montreal this June:
Dylan Olsen -- Olsen, who played for the Camrose Kodiaks of the Alberta Junior Hockey League, is committed to the University of Minnesota-Duluth. He's 6-foot-2 and 206 pounds, but Kelley says he has an "immature body and room to grow." He is in the mold of a Brent Seabrook with his ability to pass, skate and play the body.
Brandon Pirri -- The 6-foot, 160-pounder jumped on the Hawks' radar with a strong season (94 points in 44 games) in the Ontario Junior Hockey League. Pirri will attend RPI in the fall. He was given the OJHL's B.J. Munro Memorial Award, which is awarded to the player with the most potential to play hockey at the professional level.
Daniel DeLisle -- Out of Totino-Grace High School in Fridley, Minn., DeLisle will join Olsen at Minnesota-Duluth. With his bruising 6-4, 222-pound frame, he totaled 30 goals and 22 assists in 24 games last season and was a finalist for Minnesota's prestigious Mr. Hockey Award.
Byron Froese -- As an undrafted rookie in the Western Hockey League, Froese had 38 assists and 57 points for the Everett Silvertips. He played with Olsen at the Under-18 World Championships and had 4 goals and 7 points.
Marcus Kruger -- A native of Stockholm, Kruger made his Swedish Elite League debut last season and posted four points in 15 games for Djurgarden. He's expected to play for Sweden at the 2010 IIHF World Junior Championship.
David Pacan -- The lanky (6-3, 187) Pacan comes out of the Central Junior 'A' Hockey League, where he had 94 points and 108 penalty minutes in 118 games over the past two seasons.
Paul Phillips -- The young defenseman, who is from Illinois, spent had 33 points in 60 games last season with Cedar Rapids in the United States Hockey League. He's committed to Denver University.
David Gilbert -- He's played the last two seasons for Patrick Roy with the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL. The 209th pick had 43 points in 67 games last season and won 54 percent of his faceoffs.