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Despite changes, Blackhawks have reasons to believe

by Brian Hedger
CHICAGO – Jack Skille doesn't have to go far to hear about there being "no way" the Chicago Blackhawks will defend their Stanley Cup title after saying goodbye to multiple key players this summer.

All he has to do is answer his phone.

"I've got my own buddy saying that to me," said the 23-year old Skille, a winger who will get his first shot to play a full NHL season in Chicago after being drafted in 2005. "I've got my best buddy since I was 6-years-old saying that to me. He's like, 'Nah, there's no way. There's no way.' I get into arguments with him. I'll say 'Yeah … we will.'"

That's because Skille, like his soon-to-be Hawks teammates, genuinely believes there is still enough talent left behind to remain one of the NHL's top teams again. Judging by the noise level in the Chicago Hilton Friday during the opening ceremony of this year's Blackhawks fan convention, many fans also are believers.

The Blackhawks will be missing key contributors like Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg and Andrew Ladd -- not to mention effective role players like Adam Burish, Ben Eager, Colin Fraser and John Madden. But the Hawks still have a dynamic young core led by Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Dave Bolland and Patrick Sharp.

That's not to mention wingers Troy Brouwer and Tomas Kopecky, plus all four of the team's top defensemen – led by Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith and fellow Olympic gold medal winner Brent Seabrook.

No doubt this summer has been tough to swallow, especially for Hawks players who watched several close friends get traded -- but they're not ready to just hand the Cup to another team without a fight.

"We hate to lose more than anything," said Toews, who is eager to get prepared for next season. "When you have that attitude and that desire, you can't really stomach the thought of someone else hoisting the Stanley cup at the end of the year, if it's not you. So, we'll go forward with that attitude."

Yet, they will also go forward without some strong personalities in their dressing room, players who helped the team's chemistry. That, more than anything else might be what's missed the most, according to Kane. He was close with several players who were dealt.

"It's tough at the beginning and then it just seems like names kept dropping off," Kane said of the trades. "It was tough, but I think the biggest thing with some of those guys is they were the best friends you had on the team. Some of them were guys who I was closest to. That's probably the worst part."

It might get worse. There's still a chance that goalie Antti Niemi also will be on his way to another team soon. If an expected Saturday decision by the arbitrator in his arbitration hearing awards him a higher salary than what the Hawks deem affordable, Hawks General Manager Stan Bowman may walk away, making Niemi an unrestricted free agent. Or Bowman could accept it and then trade him to clear cap space.

Either way, the Hawks are anxiously waiting to see what happens with yet another one of their teammates.

"That's another nerve-wracking situation," Toews said. "When it comes down to it, the way that works, you wish him all the best and whatever happens … happens. But we hope that he's still going to be on our team. We all know how good he was and what he did to help us win the Stanley Cup this year. If we want to do it again, he's one of those guys you want here."

So are the guys who were traded, but they must now be replaced. Bowman and coach Joel Quenneville are hoping the inherent pep and desire of younger, more affordable players like Skille, Bryan Bickell, Viktor Stalberg, Jake Dowell and others is enough to fill the gap.

"We've got some new guys and some young guys who were here a little bit, but are maybe unknown to the casual fan," Bowman said. "A lot of these players are not babies anymore. Jack Skille and Bickell … to be honest, they probably should have been here last year. They've been playing behind a lot of good players and they've kind of been taking the short end of it. I expect them to be able to jump right in and be able to contribute. They've been pros for three years now, so they should be ready for the opportunity."

They seemed like they were Friday, each soaking in yet another impressive fan turnout for a Hawks event in a city gone mad for hockey. Many look at this team as too depleted from what it was, but Skille said that's just one side of the coin.

"You have to look at the top six guys," he said, using the logic that he uses with his disbelieving childhood bud. "We've still got the top six. And the young guys … we're hungry. We're going to be a young team, but it's still going to be a fast team. Hopefully, we're still going to be in pretty good shape."

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