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Champion Hawks have undergone major overhaul

by Dan Rosen
Usually when the championship banner goes up to the rafters it means the Stanley Cup celebration is officially over and it's time to focus on the present and future, such as defending.

The Chicago Blackhawks have instead been flooded with those concerns all summer, and as a result their celebration -- 49 years in the making for fans in the Windy City -- has been overshadowed by one of the most remarkable and stunning roster overhauls in recent memory.

Of the 20 players that dressed for the Cup-clinching Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final on June 9 in Philadelphia, it's likely that only 11 will be standing along the blue line at United Center on Oct. 9 watching the banner go up.

The salary cap reared its ugly head in Chicago, forcing GM Stan Bowman to strip away pieces of his championship roster that otherwise would have still had a place in the happy homes of the Indian head followers.

However, Bowman knew D-day was coming and promised he would keep the Hawks' core intact. He held true to his word, choosing to leave well enough alone with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith, Patrick Sharp, Dave Bolland, Marian Hossa and Brian Campbell.

San Jose drove the price up on Niklas Hjalmarsson by signing the young Swede to an offer sheet, but Bowman wanted him back badly enough that he matched it. Troy Brouwer and Tomas Kopecky are also still Blackhawks, but so many are not, including Cup-winning goalie Antti Niemi and playoff star Dustin Byfuglien.

Bowman had no choice but to make moves because the $59.4 million salary cap is hard and true. If the old system were still the rule, the Hawks would have likely returned intact, save for maybe a few minor moves, but this is the new NHL and the Blackhawks don't get any special privileges.

That being said, don't be so fast to assume things will be drastically different for the team that won the Central Division and finished second in the West with 112 points last season.

Toews, Kane, Keith and Seabrook -- the Core Four -- are a year older, wiser and assumingly better, too. Hossa has a year in Chicago behind him, so he should be more comfortable. Sharp, who was considered to be potential trade bait, doesn't have to worry about his future.

The Hawks replaced Niemi with soon-to-be 35-year-old Marty Turco, who has won 31 or more games in six of his seven seasons as the No. 1 in Dallas. And several of the Hawks' top prospects will finally get their chance to show they, too, can skate with the big boys.

Let's just go in chronological order.

The first shot was fired just before the Entry Draft when Bowman pulled off a seven-player, two-draft pick trade with Atlanta that sent Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager, Brent Sopel and prospect Akim Aliu to the Thrashers. Chicago got back Marty Reasoner, Joey Crabb, Jeremy Morin and two draft picks.

Shortly after that blockbuster, Bowman shipped Colin Fraser, a healthy scratch in the Stanley Cup Final, to Edmonton for a sixth-round draft pick.

Just before the free agency signing period began, Bowman dealt popular third-line wing Kris Versteeg and prospect Bill Sweatt to Toronto in exchange for Viktor Stalberg, Philippe Paradis and Christopher DiDomenico. Versteeg had 20 goals and 24 assists in 79 games last season.

A day later, the Blackhawks and Thrashers came together on another trade. Andrew Ladd was sent to Atlanta in exchange for prospect Ivan Vishnevskiy and a 2011 second-round draft pick. Ladd had a career-high 17 goals as well as 21 points for the Hawks last season.

Crabb also signed with Toronto on July 1.

Three weeks later, the Hawks shipped the recently acquired Reasoner to Florida for center Jeff Taffe. Arguably the biggest change was still a week and a half away, though.

Bowman said he "exhausted all of his options" in trying to re-sign Niemi, who was awarded $2.75 million for one year by an arbitrator, but the two sides could never come together on a deal. Niemi was left to walk away and become an unrestricted free agent and the Hawks simultaneously signed Turco to a one-year contract reportedly at half the price of Niemi's award.

Although no decision has been made, it is likely that the Blackhawks won't be bringing goalie Cristobal Huet back either. Bowman said now the Niemi situation has been resolved he would turn his focus to Huet, who will likely be assigned to the AHL or loaned overseas in order to get his $5.625 million cap hit off the books.

The Hawks let Adam Burish leave to sign a deal in Dallas and Bowman has also chosen to part ways with veteran center John Madden, who played one year in Chicago, as well as defensemen Nick Boynton and Kim Johnsson.

To recap, gone from last season's NHL roster are Byfuglien, Eager, Sopel, Fraser, Versteeg, Ladd, Niemi, Burish, Madden, Boynton, Johnsson and soon enough Huet. Fraser, Burish and Johnsson are the only three that didn't dress in the Cup-clinching game.

As much as they lost, the Hawks at least gained back two players that could play key roles in defenseman John Scott and Stalberg, a 24-year-old Swedish forward.

Scott, a towering 6-foot-8, 260-pound stay-at-home blueliner, played 71 games for Minnesota over the past two seasons, including 51 last season. He turned pro in 2006 after playing four seasons at Michigan Tech. Scott has only 3 NHL points, but 111 penalty minutes.

Stalberg is a powerful forward at 6-3 and 210 pounds. He had 14 points in 40 games with the Maple Leafs last season, proving his size and skating ability were good enough to play in the NHL. He could replace Versteeg as a third-line wing.

Taffe is viewed as addition by subtraction because his cap hit is lower than Reasoner's, but if he makes the team he could provide the Hawks some energy minutes in a fourth line role. The 29-year-old has played in 174 NHL games with four different clubs since debuting in 2002-03.

A major key to the Hawks season could be the development of prospects Kyle Beach, Jack Skille, Jake Dowell and Corey Crawford. All have been biding their time in the minors -- though Dowell, Skille and Crawford, who is expected to be Turco's backup, have a combined 61 NHL games between them -- and the moves this summer indicate they will get their chance now.

Skille and Beach were both first-round selections, with Skille as the No. 7 pick in 2005 and Beach as the No. 11 pick in 2008. Skille has 8 points in 30 games with the Hawks dating back to 2008 while Beach just finished his junior career in the WHL last season, scoring 52 goals for the Spokane Chiefs.

Dowell, a fifth-round pick in 2004, is 25 years old. He has five points in 23 career games with the Hawks. He had 20 points in 73 games with the Rockford IceHogs in the AHL last season.

Since the Hawks have only eight returning forwards from the Cup-winning roster, including Bryan Bickell, who played only 16 games last season and four in the playoffs, Dowell, Skille and Beach will be given the chance to show what they can do.

They all could be on the opening night roster with the potential for all three to be in the lineup.

Provided Bowman goes ahead and relieves the Hawks of Huet's cap hit somehow, Crawford will assume the role as Turco's backup. He has played four full AHL seasons and Bowman likes the idea of having him move into an NHL role with Turco as his mentor.

The conclusion drawn by many is that the Hawks have taken a major hit and will not be nearly the same team that skated off with the Cup last season.

It's hard to argue with that because their depth has thinned dramatically, but after studying the current roster we challenge anyone to say this team won't be a contender provided it gets lucky in the health department.

What the offseason changes have done is bring the Hawks back to the pack and open up opportunities for other Western Conference teams. But those might have already been there to begin with.

The bottom line is Chicago still has the potential to win again, but its challenge is greater without the depth it had last season. The Hawks will need some of their prospects to blossom and for Turco to return to the form that has been missing from his game the last two seasons.

They have questions heading into the season, but what team doesn't? There questions are magnified because they won the Stanley Cup.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl

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