Minus a few key pieces, the Blackhawks begin their quest tonight to become the first back-to-back champions in over 12 years with a meeting against the Colorado Avalanche at Pepsi Center.
The Blackhawks put the city of Chicago into a celebratory frenzy on the night of June 9, when Patrick Kane’s overtime tally in Game 6 versus the Philadelphia Flyers gave Chicago its first championship since 1961.
The good feelings, though, did not last through the summer as cap issues forced the ’Hawks to part ways with several players due to financial reasons. Breakout playoff star Dustin Byfuglien and defenseman Brent Sopel were among those traded to Atlanta on June 24, the start of a purge that also saw Andrew Ladd and Kris Versteeg get traded, while John Madden was among those lost through free agency.
In another shocking twist, the Blackhawks also parted ways with both goaltenders from last year’s title run. Antti Niemi, who won all 16 of Chicago’s playoff games while posting a 2.63 goals-against average, was allowed to leave after being awarded $2.75 million in arbitration, while Cristobal Huet was loaned out to a team in the Swiss National League so that his salary wouldn’t count against the cap.
To make matters worse, Chicago will also be without defenseman Brian Campbell for the next couple of weeks due to a sprained right knee suffered during training camp.
One player the Blackhawks were able to keep is young defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson after the club matched an offer sheet from San Jose in July that further put Chicago against the cap.
Given the turnover, it would be unfair to expect the Blackhawks to match their club-record 52 wins from a season ago, but it is not like the defending Central Division champs are starting over. Chicago still has an excellent core up front in reigning Conn Smyth Trophy winner Jonathan Toews, Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp, while Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith still patrols the blue line.
The Blackhawks also found a veteran replacement in net as they signed former Dallas Stars netminder Marty Turco, who is coming off a season in which he went 22-20-11 with a 2.72 GAA.
After all the talk this offseason of the Blackhawks will be missing, Toews is just ready to begin his club’s title defense.
“I think everyone is ready,” he said after Chicago’s final preseason game on Sunday. “We just need to be in that setting where it will be a little bit easier to motivate ourselves to play better hockey and really get this thing going.”
Toews and company are trying to become the first back-to-back champs since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997-98 and tonight face an Avalanche squad that will be aiming to get to the postseason for a second straight campaign.
After notching just 69 points in 2008-09, the Avalanche improved to 95 a season ago to get into the playoffs before being eliminated in the first round in six games. Still, the club improved by nine wins and will look to take another step forward this year.
“I’m pretty excited. It’s always good to get that first game out of the way. Especially playing the defending Stanley Cup champions,” center Daniel Winnik told Colorado’s official website. “You know they’ll be coming out really hard. And as a team I’m sure we have a lot to prove.”
Chicago’s new-look defense will be going up against one of the deepest group of centers in the league in Paul Stastny, Matt Duchene and Ryan O’Reilly. Stastny recorded a career-best 79 points last year off 20 goals and 59 assists, while Duchene had 24 goals and 55 points to finish third in voting for the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie.
Colorado’s success this year will also hinge on the play of goaltender Craig Anderson, who went 38-25-7 with a 2.63 GAA and seven shutouts in 71 starts a year ago in his first shot at full-time duties after signing a two-year deal in the offseason.
The Avs will open the season without forward Peter Mueller, who is sidelined indefinitely after suffering his second concussion in six months during the preseason. Mueller had nine goals and 20 points in 15 games with Colorado last year after being acquired from Phoenix.
The Blackhawks have won six of their last nine versus the Avalanche, including three of four a season ago. The lone loss came after regulation and the two clubs split a pair of meetings in Colorado.