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Blackhawks fall short but still contenders

With core intact, Chicago should make another run at Cup next season

by Brian Hedger / NHL.com Correspondent

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Blackhawks went into the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs focused on becoming the first team to repeat as champions since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997-98.

The Blackhawks were unable to win a round, losing to the St. Louis Blues in a Western Conference First Round series that ended with a 3-2 loss in Game 7 at Scottrade Center on Monday. 

Two days later, the Blackhawks held their clear-out day at United Center. Their focus remains another run at the Stanley Cup next season, keeping with the organization's mantra of "One Goal," but each season brings new challenges.

Their core group of veterans isn't getting younger, the NHL salary cap isn't expected to go up much next season, and the Central Division continues to be among the most competitive in the League.

"I think it's more challenging every year to be the best, because we're in a very competitive division," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. "I think that's the challenge right off the bat, is trying to make the playoffs, knowing that we're just looking at our opponents we potentially had in [the Dallas Stars] or St. Louis in the first round. That's the challenge we've got to look at. ... that it's not going to go away."

Video: Exit interview: Quenneville

The salary cap makes it more difficult for successful teams like the Blackhawks to retain key players, and that's not expected to change.

Chicago has 17 players signed for next season and nearly $69 million already committed to the cap figure, in cap charges and performance-bonus overages. Several players could be traded, but the Blackhawks' focus isn't changing. They're determined to win more championships.

WHAT THEY SAID: "It's just one of those real empty feelings. It still kind of feels like maybe we have a couple days off and then we'll get back to playing again. Pretty tough feeling. A lot of us love showing up to the rink, playing hockey and getting ready for a game, especially this time of year. It'll be tough to watch and see someone else win the award this year." -- Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane

Video: Exit interview: Kane

THE BURNING QUESTION: The Blackhawks have a glaring need for an established, veteran defenseman who can fill the void left by Johnny Oduya's departure (to the Dallas Stars) last season. That would allow Trevor van Riemsdyk to play the role of fifth defenseman next season. 

The question is, how can general manager Stan Bowman afford to add one without losing a key player to create room under the salary cap? 

There is also the question of whether Chicago can afford to keep Andrew Shaw, a versatile, gritty forward who plays around the net.

Shaw, who led the Blackhawks with four goals in the playoffs, will be a restricted free agent July 1. Rather than accept a $2.5 million qualifying offer from the Blackhawks to return for one season, he could decline and request salary arbitration. That's the same process that led to goalie Antti Niemi becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2010, after the Blackhawks walked away from the arbitration ruling. Shaw also could be traded.

"At the end of the day, every guy's merits are stronger than others and [Shaw's] argument is as tough as you're ever going to get, because he brings so much to the table that you appreciate," Quenneville said. "His competitiveness, his willingness to find the dirty areas, score big goals [and not] get distracted by the competition. ... I think everybody loves that feistiness he brings every game. So, he's an irreplaceable guy in that regard."

Video: Exit interview: Shaw

INJURIES: Quenneville said the Blackhawks had a few minor injuries against the Blues but went into the playoffs as healthy as they had been all season. None of the injuries from the series were thought to be serious.

One was to forward Marcus Kruger (wrist), which caused him to miss half of the regular season after having surgery in December. Kruger said his wrist isn't fully healed and plans to use the offseason to continue the rehab process.

"Hopefully no more surgeries, but definitely during the time I've been playing [since returning], I've been doing rehab for it," Kruger said. "I was out for a long time. I was in a cast for a long time, so I knew it was going to take a while. It might never be as good as it was, but that was still great for me to get out and [play] and [prove] for myself that I can play on the level I want to, and be able to do the stuff that I want to do."

WHO COULD GO: The Blackhawks impending unrestricted free agents are: forwards Andrew Ladd, Dale Weise, Tomas Fleischmann, Brandon Mashinter; and defensemen Christian Ehrhoff and Michal Rozsival. They have three pending restricted free agents: Shaw, and forwards Richard Panik and Dennis Rasmussen.

Shaw seems the most likely candidate to depart, but the Blackhawks could shed salary by not re-signing some of the unrestricted free agents, or trading away others, like they have after each of their recent championships.

Video: Exit interview: Ladd

WHO COULD ARRIVE: Considering the salary-cap situation, the Blackhawks are not expected to be big players when free agency begins July 1. 

They could bolster the defensive depth with an established veteran willing to play for a reduced salary in order to chase a championship. Former Blackhawks defenseman Brian Campbell, who helped them win the Stanley Cup in 2010, might be a possibility.

Bowman mentioned a number of prospects who could vie for NHL roster spots in training camp, including forwards Vinnie Hinostroza, Tyler Motte, Kyle Baun, Tanner Kero and defenseman Ville Pokka.

Video: Exit interview: Stan Bowman

2016 DRAFT PICKS: The Blackhawks have seven picks: one in the third, sixth and seventh rounds, and two each in the fourth and fifth. Their first-round pick went to the Winnipeg Jets in a trade Feb. 25 to acquire Ladd, and their second-round pick belongs to the Philadelphia Flyers, who acquired it in a trade for Kimmo Timonen on Feb. 27, 2015.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM: Despite facing more roster turnover, the Blackhawks have their core group of veterans who have won the Stanley Cup three times (2010, 2013, 2015). That includes captain Jonathan Toews, Kane, Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Seabrook.  

Kane (46 goals, 60 assists) became the first American-born player to win the NHL scoring title. He was second in goals and third in assists.

They also have two-time champion goalie Corey Crawford locked up, and added dynamic rookie forward Artemi Panarin to the mix this season. Forward Teuvo Teravainen is young and has a lot of promise. It's as talented of a core group as there is in the NHL.

"The teams that have a lot of cap flexibility are teams that really haven't accomplished anything," Bowman said. "So, if your goal is to just have cap flexibility, there's certainly ways to do that. Our goal is to win, and in order to do that, you have to have players you believe in. The guys that are here long-term have proven year after year they can get the job done. They're the ones that have made this go for many years. So, I'd rather have those guys on my side than trying to find those guys."

Video: Exit interview: Toews

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