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Draft, free agency can keep Blackhawks contenders

by Corey Masisak

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Blackhawks have been the NHL's best franchise in June for years, whether it has been winning the Stanley Cup three times in six seasons or building the core of championship contender through the NHL Draft.

If the Blackhawks are to stay on top after defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, general manager Stan Bowman must correctly make some difficult decisions about the roster.

Thinking this is the end of the line for Chicago because Bowman might need to make some salary cap-induced trades ignores the process and culture he has helped establish. Even with the pending cap crunch, the Blackhawks are built to continue their success.

"We'll try to enjoy this for a little while, but we'll get it done. We always do," Bowman said. "Obviously I've been thinking about that as well, but we're trying to enjoy this win as well."

The problem at hand for Bowman is simple: Chicago has more than $63 million in salary-cap space committed to 13 players. That group does not include restricted free agents Brandon Saad and Marcus Kruger and unrestricted free agents Johnny Oduya, Brad Richards and Antoine Vermette.

Much has already been written about which players among the 13 with a contract will need to be traded to, at the minimum, sign Saad and Kruger and fill out the roster. The most prominent names have included forward Patrick Sharp, who has two years left on his contract and costs $5.9 million against the cap, forward Bryan Bickell, who has two years left and costs $4 million against the cap, and goaltender Corey Crawford, who has four years left and costs $6 million against the cap.

Sharp and Bickell are two of the eight members of Chicago's core who have won the Stanley Cup three times. Crawford is one of two active goaltenders who has helped his team win the Cup more than once, along with Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings. Bickell's influence has been inconsistent, and he was a healthy scratch for half of the Cup Final.

Even if Bowman does have to subtract a key player or two, and even if none of the UFAs return, the Blackhawks can remain Stanley Cup contenders. The biggest part of Chicago's success has been a decade's worth of strong work at the draft, which is even more remarkable considering what preceded it.

In between Jeremy Roenick in the first round in 1988 and Duncan Keith in the second round in 2002, the Blackhawks were one of the worst franchises in the NHL at drafting and developing players. Dean McAmmond, who played parts of four seasons with the Blackhawks, had the most NHL points of anyone they drafted (448).

That all began to change with Keith in 2002. The Blackhawks had a player from every NHL draft from 2002 to 2012, save for 2008, among those who played in the 2015 playoffs. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were the reward for a couple of poor seasons, but the Blackhawks continued to stockpile talent through the draft without the benefit of a high pick.

"It's a challenge," Bowman said. "I mean, obviously it's a system we all play under, so we've gotta find a way to make it work. It certainly is a credit to our leadership group on the team, and also my staff has done a fantastic job drafting and developing players. The only way you make it work in this system is if you can have young players that you not only draft but you develop, or you find them as free agents and you develop them. We've got a lot of people working to put in countless hours and they can certainly make you look good."

Saad has become a world-class player and a core member, and he was a second-round pick in 2011. Forward Teuvo Teravainen is tracking in that direction, and he was the No. 18 selection in 2012. The Blackhawks do not have their first two picks in the 2015 NHL Draft, but they have a track record of finding value late, including vital role players Kruger and Andrew Shaw.

Bowman has had to use draft picks in trades, but he's also been aggressive in securing young talent through other means. Trevor van Riemsdyk could be Oduya's long-term replacement as the No. 4 defenseman; van Riemsdyk was an undrafted college free agent.

Bowman added Russian forward Artemi Panarin, 23, on a two-year contract. Panarin had 62 points in 54 games for SKA St. Petersburg in the Kontinental Hockey League, and 10 points in 10 games for Russia at the IIHF World Championship.

The Blackhawks have been reported as a finalist for former University of Minnesota defenseman Mike Reilly, a Columbus Blue Jackets draft pick who can become a free agent Tuesday and could be an impact rookie. There are several young forwards already in the system who could replenish the depth.

Chicago has become a top destination for veterans. Richards took less money to play for the Blackhawks on a one-year contract. When Kimmo Timonen asked for a trade from the Philadelphia Flyers to pursue a championship, Chicago was his preferred landing spot. More veterans are likely to want to join up with Toews, Kane, Keith and Co. on future quests for the Cup.

If Saad and Teravainen continue to improve, and a young defenseman or two from a group that will include van Riemsdyk, Ville Pokka and Stephen Johns and could include Reilly can secure regular roles next season, the Blackhawks can absorb the losses they may need to incur and remain a top team in the Western Conference. If Bowman can find another bargain or two among veteran free agents, the Blackhawks can be one of the best teams in the NHL again.

"We've already done it," Blackhawks president John McDonough said of planning for 2015-16. "We've already been planning, and it is hard to do when you are playing and do during the playoffs. The planning process in the middle of the season, and you have to have that vision. You always have to be prepared for next year.

"We have a really good focus for today, we have a really good plan for tomorrow and we don't take anything for granted."

There is a culture and a style of play in Chicago that will not wilt because a couple of players have to move on. The Blackhawks were one goal against the Kings in the 2014 Western Conference Final from possibly winning the Cup three consecutive years.

The Kings could be one of the top challengers to the Blackhawks in 2015-16, but they have salary-cap issues of their own. The St. Louis Blues haven't been able to defeat the elite teams in the postseason, but their roster remains Cup-contender quality.

The two teams most likely to dethrone them may be the two Chicago just defeated en route to the championship.

The Anaheim Ducks and Tampa Bay Lightning are the two teams best positioned with a cache of young talent and flexibility with the salary cap. A team like the Winnipeg Jets or New York Islanders could take a dramatic leap forward.

It is going to be an interesting summer in Chicago, and tough decisions are in Bowman's near future. He has an incredible amount of talent, and the people in place who have accrued, developed and managed that talent.

There might be a couple of familiar faces missing when training camp commences in September, but the Blackhawks aren't going anywhere. Not including Chicago among the teams with the best chance to win the Stanley Cup in 2016 would be a mistake.

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