Why Blackhawks fans should have plenty of faith for the 2010-11 season: reviewing the core players

Earlier this summer, the cheers of the Stanley Cup victory parade had barely faded when they were replaced by gasps of angst as Chicago GM Stan Bowman took to the roster like a chef carving a fine piece of meat: trimming the fat and shaping the team to be the best it could be within the price tag attached to it - the salary cap.

In total, almost half of the players who stood on the ice that June night in Philadelphia were traded or allowed to walk under their UFA contracts: Brent Sopel, John Madden, Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien, Adam Burish, Colin Fraser, Ben Eager, and Antti Niemi. Add to that Kim Johnsson, whose season - and possibly career - ended with a concussion injury, and Cristobal Huet, who will likely be playing in Switzerland this year to get his contract off the salary cap.

Who will the team miss the most? For sheer production, stats-wise, it would probably be Kris Versteeg, who, in 79 games, put together 20 goals (his 10.9 S% is on par between Kopecky's 10.5 and Kane/Bolland's 11.5), 24 assists, 44 points, and a regular season +8 points. Despite what the numbers indicate, Versteeg had consistency issues. Ultimately, he's is a victim of his own salary - his remaining contract cap hit was one of the more easily expendable on the team - but he should be highly productive player for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Andrew Ladd will also be missed for his consistent play on left wing. En route to winning his second Cup at just 24 years of age, Ladd racked up 17 goals, 21 assists and 38 points with an 11.5 S%. His salary hit was about half of Versteeg's, but was still too much for Chicago to keep this season.

The question about who might be missed is Dustin Byfuglien. His regular season record was 17 goals, 17 assists and 34 points (with a -7) and just an 8.1 S% across 82 games. In comparison, during 22 playoff games, he managed 11 goals, 5 assists, 16 points (total -4) and a staggering 24.4 S%. Where was this guy the rest of the year? If Byfuglien the Playoff Beast shows up for Atlanta all year, then the Thrashers may have stolen themselves a valuable player. If he reverts to his 2009-10 form, then the fans won't miss him quite so much.

Take a deep breath, and let's look at the returning core of the Chicago Blackhawks for the 2010-2011 season:

FORWARDS

Jonathan Toews:
The 2009-10 Conn Smythe winner announced his presence with authority this year, not only leading his team to the Stanley Cup, but taking home gold at the Olympics and being named the Best Forward - as well as leading Team Canada with +8 points. His Stanley Cup win put him in the highly elite membership of the IIHF Triple Gold Club (Worlds, Stanley Cup, Olympic Gold). Being in the Hall of Fame is not so much a matter of "if" but "when" for Toews - and he's only 22. Kind of staggering to realize the guy who put together 25 goals, 43 assists, 68 points and a +22 rating with a 12.4% S% is only going to get better. Toews zoomed up the ratings chart this year and is not only an outstanding player with an ongoing drive to win, but is a well-mannered, modest, hard-working, fan-friendly player who will be one of the faces of the NHL for years to come.

Marian Hossa:
Far too much breath was spent discussing the "Hossa curse" this spring. Hossa proved them all wrong. Although he only played 57 games this year, "Hoss" put together 24 goals, 27 assists, 51 points and a +24 rating (tying Patrick Sharp for highest +/- numbers for the season) and 12.1 S%. Hossa is the kind of player any team would like to have on the ice: the kind of player who is not only outstanding on their own, but makes other players around him better, too. He scored just 3 times in the playoffs, but one of them - the game-winner in game 5 vs Nashville - is probably the most important goal the Hawks scored in the post season until Kane's game 6 Final winner. Hossa performed under mountains of self-inflicted pressure this past season, and yet even with a limited season, he was one of the team's most productive on the ice. With the pressure of winning a Stanley Cup alleviated, expect the 31-year-old right wing to put up an outstanding 2010-11 season.

Patrick Kane:
The team's top producer tallied team highs for the 2009-10 season with 30 goals, 58 assists, and 88 points. He also tied Toews for the most power play goals (9), scored 6 game-winning goals (only Troy Brouwer scored more with 7), and had a 11.5 S%. All this with a mere 20 minutes spent in the sin bin across 82 games.

Patrick Sharp:
Sharp is a skilled, versatile player, fluctuating between center and left wing. The Flyers probably regret trading him to Chicago, now that he's had the room to develop and show exactly how valuable a player he is. This past season, he produced 25 goals, 41 assists and 66 points with a team-high +24 rating; as well as a 9.4 S%. Along with Toews, Hossa, and former teammate Versteeg, Sharp was one of the team's most productive on the power play and short-handed goals.

Dave Bolland:
Although sidelined for half the season due to back surgery, Bolland made his mark on the ice both as a scorer and agitator. He was as productive in 22 playoff games as he was during his 39 games during the regular season. With the summer to rest, recover, and get into shape, expect Bolland to hit the ice, ready to rumble.

Troy Brouwer:
The quiet but solid left winger had the fourth-most productive record on the team last year, with 22 goals, 18 assists and 40 points. Although the end of the season was affected by personal issues (his father ended up in the hospital), he surged back in the playoffs. Posted a team-high 19 S% for last season.

Tomas Kopecky:
Right winger Kopecky put up decent numbers for the season and has solid puck-moving capabilities. He's not afraid to add grit up front, and he and fellow Slovakian Hossa have good on-ice chemistry. Solid addition to Chicago's 2009-10 roster at a reasonable cap hit.

Bryan Bickell:
Alternating time with Rockford and limited to just 16 NHL games last season, Bickell was a bargain re-signing this summer, signing a 3-yr, very-cap-friendly $542K/yr deal. Despite his limited ice time, he produced a 15 S%, and if his Rockford numbers are any indication, he should be a solid left winger.

DEFENSE

Duncan Keith:
Blackhawks fans have been aware of Keith's skills for years, but the rest of the league learned just how talented this two-way defenseman is this year. Winner of the Norris Trophy, Keith put up the kind of numbers that would be impressive on a forward: 14 goals, 55 assists and a team-high 69 points (edging out Toews by just one point). His 6.6 S% also led the team's defensemen - while also racking up the team's 3rd-highest SOG total, 213. (Only Sharp, with 266, and Kane, with 261, made more shots on goal.)

Brent Seabrook:
Keith's primary partner on the ice racked up his own share of respective two-way numbers, but Seabrook is more of a stay-at-home defenseman, and that's where he made his mark on the ice. The Keith-Seabrook pairing is considered one of the best, if not THE best, defensive pairing on the ice today.

Niklas Hjalmarsson:
What was more surprising to fans - and the team - the fact that the San Jose Sharks extended an offer sheet, or that Hjalmarsson signed it? Either way, the Blackhawks were not about to let go of one of the most promising defensemen on the team, and they were forced to match the OS, perhaps in the process losing the cap space necessary to re-sign goalie Antti Niemi. This was Hjalmarsson's first full season with the NHL; he split the last two between Rockford and Chicago. His puck-moving abilities and willingness to block shots got him noticed this year; he's only 23, so his new 4-year contract should only see him get better.

Brian Campbell:
While Campbell's salary - a whopping $7.1M/yr, which is more than either Toews or Kane make - is regarded as an albatross legacy from the past few years, his contributions on the ice are important. When he was sidelined with injuries for several weeks, after being boarded by Alex Ovechkin, his absence was noticeable; he returned just in time for the playoffs. His speed and puck-moving abilities are outstanding, and he was the second-most productive two-way D-man on the team, with 7 gaols, 31 assists and 38 points last season.

Nick Boynton:
Boynton is a bit of a journeyman, having spent the first six years of his NHL career with the Bruins, but then spending time on five teams in the past five years. A late-season acquisition for the Blackhawks, Boynton provided solid grit. He re-signed for a year at league minimum; expect him to work hard to show he deserves to stay with the team.

Jordan Hendry:
The 26-year-old Hendry has split his last three seasons between Chicago and Rockford. His numbers combined from both teams indicate that he could potentially have the capability for two-way play that Campbell and Keith have; this year, he should get the ice time to more fully demonstrate his skills.

* * *

Fans could be forgiven for feeling a bit gloomy after the initial carnage, but there's less to worry about with the 2010-2011 team after the roster chop job than most of the casual fans might think. Five of the top six D-men are still with the team - and we have all seen how tight Chicago's blue line is. The Blackhawks also still retain several of the highest-rated, top-producing front line players in the league.

People keep asking: can Chicago repeat? The answer would be: it's a very good possibility. The team will be under pressure this year - as all teams are, when they are defending champions - but not at the same levels they were last year, when they were weighted down by a combination of 49 years of history, pending salary cap realities, and personal self-pressures.

Two years ago, the Blackhawks almost made it to the Finals when nobody expected them to even get close. Last year, they made it all the way. This year, with their strongest assets tied into multi-year contracts, and plenty of prime years still ahead for this very young team, there's no reason to believe anything except that you might want to keep some of your calendar clear in the beginning of June.