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Blackhawks ready to go after playoff disappointment

by Brian Hedger / Chicago Blackhawks

CHICAGO -- Four months later, it remains a goal that stings the Chicago Blackhawks.

Scored by Los Angeles Kings defenseman Alec Martinez 5:47 into overtime of Game 7 in the 2014 Western Conference Final, it sent the Kings to the Stanley Cup and left the Blackhawks with a summer of "what ifs?" to ponder.

What if they'd protected those two-goal leads in that game? What if defenseman Nick Leddy's stick hadn't been knocked to the ice seconds before Kings forward Justin Williams retrieved the puck and sent it out to Martinez?

What if Blackhawks forward Ben Smith, who missed his seventh blocked shot by mere inches, had gotten his stick or skate on the shot? What if Leddy had trapped the puck between his right arm and side, instead of it slipping through and fluttering into the net?

PROJECTED LINEUP

FORWARDS
P. Sharp J. Toews M. Hossa
B. Saad B. Richards P. Kane
B. Bickell A. Shaw K. Versteeg
B. Mashinter M. Kruger B. Smith
Extras: P. Regin J. Morin
DEFENSEMEN
D. Keith B. Seabrook
J. Oduya N. Hjalmarsson
N. Leddy M. Rozsival
Extras: D. Rundblad
GOALIES
C. Crawford
A. Raanta

"It's something I thought about a lot this summer," Smith said a couple of days into training camp. "It's something that, if given that same opportunity, maybe [you] do whatever you can to get in front of that one. Obviously the way it played out, the bounce and everything ... to have been able to block that one at the end, you never know what could happen after that."

The series, and an entire season's worth of work, came down to a couple of bounces. An inch here or there was all that stood between the offseason and the Blackhawks playing for the Cup a second straight season.

It was tough to swallow, but it fanned the inner flame for a team that's already been mentioned as a dynasty.

"It's a game of inches," Smith said. "The difference between winning and losing that series was so small. It comes down to little things like that. It was a frustrating summer looking back on that, but you turn the page and know if you're in that position again you're going to come through."

As currently constructed, the Blackhawks again look capable of getting that desired "do-over" opportunity.

They'll probably trade somebody before the regular season to get the payroll below the $69 million NHL salary cap, but will still have plenty of talent left.

After adding 34-year old center Brad Richards via free agency, they're deep in skilled forwards again, particularly centers. They still have goalie Corey Crawford, and the defense in front of him should again be solid, even if a trade subtracts somebody from the back end.

Everything's in place for the Blackhawks to compete in the Central Division and maybe take another run at Los Angeles in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. They plan to draw power from that hollow feeling they had this past summer and see if this time those crucial inches go their way instead.

"One play ... you can torture yourself with one play," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "I don't think you want to say it's one situation. We got beat by a good team, but I liked how we played that game and there's a lot of positives in that game, which made it tougher than saying, 'Well, we threw it away.' I thought we played the right way and it came down to a bounce like that, so that's how close it was. We left one out there for sure, but give L.A. some credit."

Here is a breakdown of how the Blackhawks can avoid leaving another one on the table:

Forwards

HAWKS AMONG FANTASY TOP 275

The 2014-15 season is drawing closer by the day, so NHL.com has you covered with all the fantasy hockey advice you'll need on draft day.

Below are Chicago Blackhawks players who qualified for NHL.com's top 275 fantasy list. Each player's aggregate spot was determined by averaging the individual rankings of Matt Cubeta, Pete Jensen and Matt Sitkoff. Also listed are each player's Yahoo position eligibility and any offseason NHL.com fantasy content that breaks down projected value for 2014-15.

10. Patrick Kane, C/RW (Top 50 breakdown)

15. Jonathan Toews, C (Top 50 breakdown)

23. Patrick Sharp, C/LW (Top 50 breakdown)

39. Duncan Keith, D (Top 50 breakdown)

42. Marian Hossa, RW (Top 50 breakdown)

59. Corey Crawford, G

120. Brandon Saad, LW/RW (Jensen's breakout pick)

128. Brent Seabrook, D

192. Brad Richards, C/LW (Jensen's sleeper)

204. Andrew Shaw, C

248. Antti Raanta, G

If general manager Stan Bowman can get his payroll under the salary cap and not lose a top-six forward, the Blackhawks could have an unrivaled top two lines.

Less than a week into camp, the combination of Brandon Saad, Richards and Kane had already shown signs of becoming a special combination.

And that's the second line.

The top group starting camp consisted of left wing Patrick Sharp, center Jonathan Toews and right wing Marian Hossa, who played together much of last season and finished with a combined 92 goals and 206 points.

The opportunity to play with so many high-end forwards was a big reason Richards, after being bought out of his prior contract by the New York Rangers, signed a one-year contract July 1 with Chicago, worth a reported $2 million.

"In July, when they called, I kind of put everything else on hold and tried to figure out if this could work because of the opportunity," Richards said after playing a scrimmage inside a packed United Center for the Blackhawks' annual Training Camp Festival on Sept. 22. "It goes without saying it was a great opportunity and a lot of players would love to get an opportunity that I'm getting. It's a great thing for me, just being in the [Cup] Final and being so close, knowing this is a legitimate chance [to win the Cup]."

The bottom-six forwards aren't exactly fill-ins either.

Should 28-year old Kris Versteeg bounce back from a down season, the Blackhawks' third line could be a real pain to defend. Power forward Bryan Bickell is likely to start at left wing, gritty Andrew Shaw will be in the middle and Versteeg will probably be on the right side.

Improving center Marcus Kruger and Smith will be stalwarts of the fourth unit. They'll probably play with a number of players filling the left wing slot, from the physical Brandon Mashinter to the speedy Peter Regin to ever-promising scorer Jeremy Morin.

There may even be room at some point for highly-skilled rookie Teuvo Teravainen and two-way grinder Joakim Nordstrom.

Defensemen

The most recent banter about preseason trades is focused squarely on the blue line, where Quenneville and the front office feel there is the most organizational depth.

SUMMER MOVES

ADDITIONS: Brad Richards, F (free agent, Rangers); Michael Leighton, G (free agent, KHL); Kyle Cumiskey, D (free agent, SEL); Dennis Rasmussen, C (free agent, SEL); Cody Bass, F (free agent, Blue Jackets); Pierre-Cedric Labrie, F (free agent, Lightning); Scott Darling, G (free agent, Predators)

SUBTRACTIONS: Michal Handzus, F (free agent); Sheldon Brookbank, G (free agent); Brandon Bollig, F (trade, Flames); Nikolai Khabibulin, F (free agent)

PROMOTION CANDIDATES: Teuvo Teravainen, F; Adam Clendening, D; Stephen Johns, D; Mark McNeill, F; Phillip Danault, F

The top pairing of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook almost certainly are entrenched as part of Chicago's "core group," along with Niklas Hjalmarsson. Every other NHL defenseman on the roster could be a possible trade candidate.

That list includes 32-year old Johnny Oduya, 36-year old Michal Rozsival and even 23-year old Nick Leddy, who's heading into his fifth season. According to CapGeek.com, Rozsival, in the final year of his contract, has a $2.2 million salary-cap charge. Oduya has a $3.375 million charge. Leddy, who's set to become a restricted free agent July 1, 2015, has a cap charge of $2.7 million.

CapGeek reports that the Blackhawks are over the cap by an estimated $2.2 million with a full roster of 23 players. Trading one or more of those three defensemen would make Chicago compliant.

It could also open an NHL role for a rookie defender. Candidates include puck-moving Adam Clendening, a slick power-play quarterback, and hard-hitting 6-foot-3, 229-pound Stephen Johns, who possesses a heavy right-handed shot.

Also in the mix for increased playing time is 23-year old David Rundblad, who's been traded three times since being selected by the St. Louis Blues with the 17th pick in the 2009 NHL Draft.

Goalies

One of the Blackhawks' biggest strengths in their run to the 2013 Stanley Cup was outstanding goaltending.

Crawford and then-backup Ray Emery combined to win the William M. Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed in the regular season, and Crawford then backstopped the Blackhawks to the Cup. Emery left as a free agent last summer, and Crawford was backed up by veteran Nikolai Khabibulin and then rookie Antti Raanta. Khabibulin played in four games before a shoulder injury ended his season. Raanta, 25, had some highs and lows during his first season, posting a 2.71 goals-against average and .897 save percentage.

Crawford, 29, saw his numbers fall off after signing a six-year contract extension that starts this season. He went from a 1.94 GAA in 2012-13 to 2.26 last season, and his save percentage went from .926 to .917. In the playoffs, Crawford went from a 1.84 GAA and .932 save percentage in 2013 to 2.53 and .912 last spring.

The Blackhawks experienced more defensive breakdowns in front of him last season, but getting Crawford's numbers closer to what they were in 2013 will be key. Chicago hired Jimmy Waite as its new goalie coach in the offseason, which could be a boon to Crawford. Waite is the younger brother of Stephane Waite, who worked well with Crawford during the Blackhawks' 2013 Stanley Cup run.

"We'll get to know each other more once we start to get more practices in," Crawford said. "We've gotten along together before. I went to Stephane's goalie schools. He's a great guy. He's played in the League. He knows what it's about. I'm sure we'll get along fine."

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