They finished one goal short of reaching the Stanley Cup Final for the second straight season, and the focus hasn't dipped for the Chicago Blackhawks.
They still have their eyes on the Cup and took steps in the offseason to compete for it in the short and long term. They signed 34-year-old free-agent center Brad Richards to help out this season, and then negotiated identical eight-year contract extensions for Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, the faces of the franchise.
"Whenever you see someone [else] lift the Stanley Cup, once you've done it once yourself, it kind of fuels the fire a little bit," left wing Patrick Sharp said. "It's definitely difficult to win it back-to-back, I think that's been proven over the years. Not only myself but the group of players we have, we're all excited to get back to training camp and go get that thing again."
Here are five questions they'll need to answer in order to do it:
1. Who won't be part of the equation once the offseason dust settles? -- Richards' contract is salary-cap friendly with a charge of $2 million for one season, but it puts the Blackhawks in a cap conundrum. According to CapGeek.com, they're about $2.2 million over the $69 million hard cap with a full roster under contract.
That means somebody's probably going to be traded before the Oct. 9 season opener at the Dallas Stars, barring an injury that would allow general manager Stan Bowman cap relief via injured reserve.
The most discussed names as potential trade candidates have been Sharp and defenseman Johnny Oduya. Sharp, whose agent says Bowman told him he won't be traded, has an annual cap charge of $5.9 million for the next three seasons. Oduya, who will be an unrestricted free agent July 1, 2015, has a cap charge of $3.3 million.
Chicago, however, would likely be hard-pressed to replace what either provides.
Others who've been mentioned in speculation include 35-year old defenseman Michal Rozsival ($2.2 million), 28-year old forward Kris Versteeg ($2.2 million) and 28-year old left wing Bryan Bickell ($4 million).
2. Will Richards add enough depth at center to contend with the Los Angeles Kings? -- The Blackhawks still don't have the assortment of quality centers that powers the Kings, but it should be a fairer fight down the middle if the burgeoning Western Conference rivals meet again in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Adding Richards will reset the scoring balance on all four lines for coach Joel Quenneville, who used that kind of depth in 2010 and 2013 to win the Stanley Cup. Starting out, captain Jonathan Toews will center the top line followed by centers Richards, Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger on the next three lines.
Chicago also has Peter Regin and Ben Smith who could play center, and might have forwards Joakim Nordstrom and Teuvo Teravainen at some point. Each has center experience.
3. Will a full offseason of training help Versteeg regain his previous form? -- Prior to a major knee injury while playing for the Florida Panthers in 2012-13, Versteeg had reached the 20-goal and 40-point plateaus in all four of his full NHL seasons. He was injured 10 games into the shortened season and missed the remaining 38 games following reconstructive surgery. He spent months, including last summer, rehabbing his knee rather than doing normal conditioning and training.
Subsequently, Versteeg had his worst season in the League in 2013-14 (12 goals and 24 assists in 81 games). He got into 15 games during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but struggled mightily and wound up in Quenneville's dog house.
Versteeg, who got married in July, said he was looking forward to a regular summer of conditioning to see what effects it would have on his play.
4. What role will Teravainen have? -- Unless the No. 18 pick of the 2012 NHL Draft lights it up in the preseason, he probably won't get a role in Chicago to start out. Richards' presence buys time for Teravainen to develop at Rockford of the American Hockey League in his first full season in North America.
Expect the Blackhawks to take the conservative route, but the 19-year-old's high-end talent might force their hand at some point.
5. What must the Blackhawks do better in order to win the Central Division? -- The short answer is to win more games against division opponents. They were stellar against the Pacific Division in 2013-14, going 14-1-6, and had good success against both Eastern Conference divisions. Chicago went 13-13-3 in the Central.
If they want guaranteed home ice in the first round of the playoffs by winning the Central, they need to step it up in their own backyard, particularly against the Colorado Avalanche and St. Louis Blues.
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