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Blackhawks under salary cap, ready to roll

by Brian Hedger

CHICAGO -- Poise was the theme of the day for the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday and, really, for all of the preseason.

It's the reason rookie defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk has shown surprising control with the puck on his stick. It's why coach Joel Quenneville isn't afraid to break up one of his best defense pairings, Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson, for what he thinks will create better balance on the back end. It's what allowed general manager Stan Bowman to keep a calm, measured approach to the fact the Blackhawks went almost the entire offseason with a payroll hovering above the $69 million salary cap.

The trade of defenseman Nick Leddy to the New York Islanders on Saturday barely got the Blackhawks under the cap, but nobody associated with the team even broke a sweat about it, least of all Bowman.

"I've tried to be consistent," he said Tuesday at the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the team's new retail outlet, the Blackhawks Store, located on Chicago's Magnificent Mile stretch of Michigan Avenue. "We knew that we would get something done. There [were] a lot of options we had, but it was never an option to not be cap compliant."

Despite reports that bonus money totaling $60,000 from the 2013-14 season would push Chicago over the cap with a 23-man roster that included van Riemsdyk, Bowman said that's not the case. He said they are under the cap by an undisclosed amount less than $100,000 and the NHL has signed off on it.

"We had an overage of $60,000 from last year but that all gets added in," Bowman said. "There's a lot of questions. I don't know why that is, but we're under the cap and the League's approved it. We're ready to go."

Just as he's done all along in this process, Bowman answered questions about the cap figure in a matter-of-fact, measured tone. He was direct, calm and most certainly composed. There's a reason for that kind of poise, according to Blackhawks president John McDonough, who was updated by Bowman daily on the cap issue.

"Stan is incredibly thorough [and] very analytical," McDonough said. "There's always four or five different options that are being juggled and he's a great consensus builder. He asks the opinion of many people. He counts on his people to help him make these decisions, but ultimately it's on him."

Poise on the ice also factored into the decision to trade Leddy, a 23-year old who's entering his fifth season. Ever since training camp started, van Riemsdyk's play has stood out.

Quenneville and the coaching staff noticed van Riemsdyk's relaxed, calm demeanor when handling the puck and his ability to anticipate plays defensively in order to snuff them out. Others took notice too, from the hockey operations department to other Blackhawks defensemen.

"I think the biggest thing with him is his poise as a young guy coming into a new team and playing," Brent Seabrook said. "His plays with the puck, I think he's a smart player. He's good positionally. He knows where he has to be, and when he gets the puck he seems to be able to make a play."

Quenneville hasn't said whether the 23-year old van Riemsdyk, the younger brother of Toronto Maple Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk, will be in the lineup for Chicago's season-opener Thursday at the Dallas Stars. Along with 23-year old David Rundblad and Kyle Cumiskey, 27, he's sure to get an early look while veteran Michal Rozsival is sidelined with an upper-body injury.

"I chose here and I knew it could be a long process," said van Riemsdyk, who signed with the Blackhawks as a free agent March 24 after three seasons at the University of New Hampshire. "They didn't promise me anything. I just knew I had to come in and work and show them what I could do. So far it's been working pretty good."

Rundblad, van Riemsdyk and Cumiskey, who played parts of five seasons with the Colorado Avalanche and the past two in the Kontinental Hockey League, will get the initial chances to fill the void left by Leddy. Some coaches might flinch knowing a third-pairing stalwart is gone without an established replacement, but not Quenneville.

He's also taking a measured approach. His initial plan is to split Oduya and Hjalmarsson between the second and third pairings to give him at least one defensive stalwart on each one. Last season they were deployed together as defensive stoppers and got the most defensive-zone starts on the team.

In the new formulation Oduya remains on the left side but now is paired with has van Riemsdyk, a right-handed shot. Hjalmarsson, a left-handed shooter who played the right side with Oduya, is shifting back to the left side to play with Cumiskey.

"The one thing that's good for us, we've got a very experienced coaching staff," Bowman said of Quenneville and assistants Mike Kitchen and Kevin Dineen. "They understand how to get the most out of players and there'll be some changes of combinations and probably different looks compared to the past, but we're not trying to compare this year to last year or the previous couple years. It's a new season and we're going to let it unfold that way."

Another development unfolded during practice Tuesday.

Veteran forward Kris Versteeg, who's trying to bounce back from a rough season following major knee surgery, left the ice hobbling and in obvious discomfort. Quenneville said they will have a better idea of how serious Versteeg's issue might be Wednesday, but initial thoughts about it weren't too optimistic.

If Versteeg has to sit out it could mean extended ice time for forwards Daniel Carcillo and Jeremy Morin. It also could mean a player from the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League gets a call-up if Versteeg needs to go on injured reserve.

Bowman didn't care to speculate about that possibility, while Quenneville allayed some fears by revealing Versteeg's injury isn't a recurrence of a previous issue.

"He's very disappointed right now, but at the same time this camp showed us what he's capable of, getting back to being an elite player and a top guy," Quenneville said. "We still see that as being his mindset and our mindset and his goal this year."

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