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Blackhawks' veterans will soldier on

by Brian Hedger /
CHICAGO -- Patrick Sharp lost his road roommate. Patrick Kane and Troy Brouwer lost their buddies. TV announcer Pat Foley lost his signature "Niemi says no!"

The 2010 Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks collectively lost a lot of talent.

One by one, piece by painful piece, Blackhawks Vice President and General Manager Stan Bowman strategically dismantled a large chunk of the team's talent-loaded, payroll-bloated roster this summer.

It wasn't Bowman's preference, of course -- especially after the team delivered Chicago its first Cup since 1961 and became beloved by Hawks fans. It was just a dubious task on Bowman's to-do list as a result of the League's $59.4 million salary cap -- a figure that, while slightly higher than last year, wasn't nearly high enough to keep the Hawks under it without shedding contracts.

"I don't know if anyone was ready for that. You knew something was going to happen, but I don't think anybody knew exactly what our issues were, except for the guys making the decisions."
-- Troy Brouwer whose close friend center Colin Fraser was traded to Edmonton

As a result, about half of last season's NHL roster isn't returning to defend the Cup -- with a total of 11 players either traded or allowed to sign elsewhere.

"I don't know if anyone was ready for that," said Brouwer, whose close friend center Colin Fraser was traded to Edmonton for a draft pick. "You knew something was going to happen, but I don't think anybody knew exactly what our issues were, except for the guys making the decisions."

The payroll purge began in a big way just before the 2010 Entry Draft in late June. Bowman traded Dustin Byfuglien, grinder Ben Eager, shot-blocking defenseman Brent Sopel and prospect Akim Aliu to Atlanta for Marty Reasoner, Joey Crabb, high-scoring prospect Jeremy Morin and draft picks.

Byfuglien's 11 playoff goals tied him with Sharp for the lead in that category, and his big body added a huge physical presence in front of opposing goalies. Eager combined with another of the departed, Adam Burish, to draw the Vancouver Canucks out of their game with abrasive tactics and verbal barbs, while Sopel sacrificed his body to block shots.

That deal was followed by one that sent another dressing room favorite, Kris Versteeg, to Toronto along with the draft rights to Bill Sweatt in exchange for young Swedish forward Viktor Stalberg and two promising center prospects. Fraser and gritty forward Andrew Ladd were the next to be voted off Hawks Island -- Ladd after winning his second Stanley Cup at the age of 24 and playing Games 5 and 6 of the Cup Final with a fractured shoulder.

Also departing via free agency were veteran center John Madden and defenseman Kim Johnsson, while goalie Cristobal Huet is working on a deal to play for a Swiss team this season -- which would remove his salary from the Hawks' cap tally.

"It just seemed like names kept dropping off the list," said forward Patrick Kane, who seemed to take all the changes hard during the team's summer fan convention.

However, Kane is now focused more on the season ahead that the past.

"If you think about it too much, it's only going to haunt you," he said. "You've just got to drop it, move on, get ready for next season and who we're going to have. Hockey's a business, and some moves had to be made. It's just the way things work."

Brouwer agreed.

"It's something that you can't worry about anymore," he said. "There's a lot of talk about it and there were a lot of questions about it in the playoffs. The guys did a great job of setting that aside and focusing on winning a Stanley Cup. But then afterwards, someone had to go."

That included Niemi, who became a fan favorite by backstopping the Hawks to a Cup title as an unheralded rookie who barely beat out prospect Corey Crawford to make the team last fall. Now, after taking the Hawks to salary arbitration as a restricted free agent and winning a $2.75 million one-year contract award, Niemi is a San Jose Shark. Bowman let him become an unrestricted free agent instead of paying the arbitration award, then signed veteran Marty Turco as a cheaper replacement. Now, with the Hawks starting training camp, Turco's puck-handling skills are being looked at as an advantage that Niemi didn't provide -- proving that things are only as bad as they way they're presented.

"You've got to look at it in a positive way," Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith said. "We all know it's sad to see our teammates move on. They played their hearts out to win the Stanley Cup, but it gives a lot of guys an opportunity to play now. Bringing some new faces in here always creates a little competition for jobs and that sort of thing, and I think that's good for our team."
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