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Hawks chasing Wings for division supremacy

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After the great season the Chicago Blackhawks gave their long-suffering fans, the argument can be made their recent offseason was even more exciting and entertaining.

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Cristobal Huet(notes) assumes the No. 1 goaltending role and looks to live up to a big contract.
(Luc Leclerc/US Presswire)

Not only did the Blackhawks return to the postseason for just the second time in 11 seasons, they advanced all the way to the conference finals with basically a young roster, many making their first foray into the pressure cooker known as the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The organization wasn't prepared to rest on its laurels, making a quick roster assessment and reacting accordingly. Chicago snatched up checking-line center John Madden(notes) and young forward Tomas Kopecky(notes), and then stunned the hockey world by securing free-agent winger Marian Hossa(notes), who continues to chase the Cup.

The Hossa signing wasn't without its share of controversy, though, a continuing theme throughout the summer. The league didn't like the terms of the 12-year deal, front-loaded and a contract that wouldn't cost much to get out from under in later years. Yes, the Blackhawks like others had learned the latest loophole in the current collective-bargaining agreement.

In addition, Hossa was damaged goods – he played with a shoulder injury in the Stanley Cup Finals – and required rotator cuff surgery that will force him to miss at least the first two months of the new season. The 'Hawks didn't issue Hossa a physical until after the big deal was signed. Oops.

Speaking of contracts, Dale Tallon was tardy in meeting the deadline to extend qualifying offers to a number of restricted free agents. The snafu resulted in the players becoming unrestricted free agents for the short time they were unsigned, but it cost the team more to square away new deals, a ghastly error in the salary-cap era.

That was the final straw for Tallon, who was relieved of his general manager duties and replaced by Stan Bowman, the son of legendary coach Scotty Bowman. The elder Bowman joined the Chicago organization the summer before, by coincidence, as a senior advisor.

Just as the team was taking on more money, big money went walking out the door. Veteran goalie Nikolai Khabibulin(notes) found a new home in Edmonton. The Hawks had too much money tied up in the goaltending position, and they were looking to deal Khabibulin early last season, but he became a very valuable member of the team as the season played out. It's hard to argue Chicago would have gone as far as they did without Khabibulin.

The decision to sign Hossa meant there was no room for Martin Havlat(notes), and the veteran winger had plenty of not-so-nice things to say about the organization on his way to Minnesota.

Finally, just as it looked like things were finally calm, Patrick Kane(notes) was accused of physically harming a taxi driver over a fare in his hometown of Buffalo. The young Blackhawks star and a cousin pleaded guilty to a non-criminal charge and must keep their noses clean for a year to avoid any penalties.

The mishap came just a week before Kane was a headliner during the U.S. Olympic hockey team's three-day orientation camp in suburban Chicago. Kane is joined by captain Jonathan Toews(notes) and minute-munching cornerstone defenseman Duncan Keith(notes) as three young stars all going into the final year of their contracts. So if they don't get extensions during the season – not that there's any cap room for that – that becomes the topic A for next offseason.

Last season: 46-24-12 (104 points), second place Central Division, fourth in the Western Conference. It was the most wins and points since Chicago won 47 times and piled up 106 points to win their last division title in 1992-93. The team's first venture into the Stanley Cup playoffs in six seasons went well, too. The Blackhawks weren't intimidated by postseason hockey in the least, beating Calgary in six games during the opening round and rallying from a 2-1 deficit against Vancouver to again advance in six games. The conference finals against division-rival Detroit were different, however, as the defending Cup champion and more experienced Red Wings rolled to a five-game triumph.

Imports: RW Marian Hossa (Detroit), C John Madden (New Jersey), C Tomas Kopecky (Detroit), D Richard Petiot(notes) (Tampa Bay).

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Madden

Exports: G Nikolai Khabibulin (Edmonton), LW Martin Havlat (Minnesota), C Samuel Pahlsson(notes) (Columbus), D Matt Walker(notes) (Tampa Bay),

Re-signings: D Cam Barker(notes), RW Kris Versteeg(notes), C David Bolland, C Colin Fraser(notes), LW Ben Eager(notes), RW Troy Brouwer(notes), D Aaron Johnson(notes),

Salary cap: It didn't take long for his young roster to push things to the limit – the Hawks are slightly below the ceiling with approximately $58.1 million committed, yet subtract the bonus cushion and there's just under $3M left to spend. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith are all set to become restricted free agents next summer so Chicago has some forward planning to worry about.

Three keys: All the offseason controversy aside, the biggest challenge facing the Blackhawks' young corps is learning how to handle success. All they've read this offseason is what a great season they had, what a bright future lies ahead and how they'll be Stanley Cup contenders if not favorites.

The Blackhawks won't sneak up on anybody, and they'll have to channel their confident, borderline cocky attitude in the right direction as they try to chase down Detroit for division supremacy. They can't look too far down the road, however, because St. Louis and Columbus are quietly moving up the ranks as well.

Secondly, Cristobal Huet is due to earn $5.625 million each of the next three seasons, so at age 34 he has pressure to live up to a contract and there's not much experience behind him to pick up the slack. Huet is a late bloomer, and he had his moments last season – both good and bad. Assuming he'll have his health, Huet will have every chance to get on a roll and play a lot of games.

Third, everyone is aware of the big names but the Blackhawks got contributions from throughout the lineup last season, and that's key for anyone's long-term success. Kris Versteeg was arguably the best rookie forward in the league last season. Troy Brouwer, Dustin Byfuglien(notes) and Dave Bolland(notes) unselfishly play support roles.

The defense is rounding nicely into form. Brian Campbell(notes) gets a lot of attention because of the big contract he signed the year before and the kind of game he plays, but Brent Seabrook(notes), Cam Barker, Brent Sopel(notes) and Keith do most of the heavy lifting.

On the hot seat: Kane has the reputation of being a bit cocky, which is fine on the ice. But as a result of his off-ice incident he's going to have to curb that reputation and just concentrate on playing strong hockey. For all the accolades, Kane's numbers are solid but not really eye-popping. He followed his 72-point Calder-winning rookie season with 25 goals and 70 points last season. He'll want to eclipse his first two years' stats as he looks for a multi-year extension.

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Brian Campbell masks his defensive shortcomings with creative ways with the puck.
(Luc Leclerc/US Presswire)

Poised to blossom: People haven't heard a lot about Niklas Hjalmarsson(notes), but they're about to hear a lot more. The 22-year-old Swede, a 6-foot-2, 200-pound defenseman, appeared in 21 games late last season. He's a gifted two-way skater with offensive upside who can and isn't afraid to use his body and play in all situations.

Time has passed: Campbell was the flavor of the month when Chicago was desperate for a "marquee" defenseman and he was available on the free-agent market the year before last, but the fact is he's 30 years old and taking up $7.14 million in annual salary for this and six more seasons. He needs to be a 60-point producer at the minimum, and vie for a Norris Trophy here or there to validate that kind of commitment. While Campbell can dazzle with his skating ability and creative ways with the puck, he'll never be confused with a Scott Stevens, and for that reason the Hawks always need a steady partner by his side.

Prediction: It's hard not to get sucked into the hype, but it's really hard to be considered a top-flight Cup contender without a more proven goalie so that's where the Hawks fall short. Chicago will finish second in the division again, slip to between fifth or sixth in the conference and won't last long in the postseason.