It was another offseason full of change for the perennially contending Chicago Blackhawks, an organization for which salary-cap gymnastics have become a summer rite. The Blackhawks continue to set the bar high in regard to how to stay in the mix, despite dealing with moving parts year in and year out.
GM Stan Bowman is among the very best at his job, finding ways to plug holes and keep his team among the elite. In the spring of 2015, he plucked Artemi Panarin out of the KHL as a free agent, an asset-free addition, and watched as the Russian winger won the Calder Trophy last season as NHL rookie of the year. It is that kind of move that has kept Chicago ahead of the curve.
Still, the salary cap trades this past offseason of Andrew Shaw and Teuvo Teravainen are going to test that formula this year. Chicago enters the season with more question marks up front than we've seen, perhaps, in the entire Hawks run of head coach Joel Quenneville.
Did last spring's first-round playoff exit after a monster series with the St. Louis Blues signal a new, more-mortal era for the Blackhawks?
Or was it just time to reset and come back stronger around the talented core led by Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford -- a quintet I'd put up against any group in the NHL?
On a different note, I would argue that the Hawks are deeper on defense now than they've been in a long time.
This season will indeed tell the tale. Then again, as Bowman has proven time and time again, the team that begins the season won't necessarily be the same club as the one that will enter the playoffs. He's as aggressive as any GM in the NHL when it comes to making changes before the trade deadline.
Best new faces
The Blackhawks have been too thin on the blue line the past two seasons. They won a Cup in 2015 while largely playing just four defensemen and basically relied on their three top guys last year. Bowman addressed that aggressively by bringing in veteran unrestricted free agent Brian Campbell on a bargain-basement deal and beating other NHL teams for KHL free-agent Michal Kempny, who played for the Czech Republic in the World Cup of Hockey and shows all the elements of a guy who should be a steady NHL defender.
The Hawks are also very high on 20-year-old Swedish defender Gustav Forsling. With a top four of Keith, Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Campbell, a decent third pairing of Kempny and/or Forsling with Trevor van Riemsdyk, and depth at No. 8 in Michal Rozsival, Chicago is in much better shape than it was the previous season. Forsling can't be sent to the AHL -- he would have to be offered back to his Swedish team if the Hawks don't keep him on their NHL roster -- so I figure that means he will at least begin the season with Chicago.
There's other organizational depth too, in Viktor Svedberg, Ville Pokka and Erik Gustafsson. All three will begin the season in the AHL, but with 11 capable defensemen, Chicago seems better prepared to handle injuries and the long season on the back end.
The departure up front of Shaw and Teravainen, both salary-cap victims, thins out a top-nine group that had question marks last season. Don't forget that trade-deadline add-ons Andrew Ladd and Dale Weise have also moved on, as expected.
It has been a long time since Quenneville opened the season with so many question marks up front. The Hawks were largely a one-line team last season, albeit a heck of one, as the unit of Artem Anisimov between Kane and Panarin lit up the NHL. Is Quenneville concerned enough about finding Toews some help to follow through on his training camp declaration that he might break up the Kane-Panarin connection? Will rookies Vincent Hinostroza, Nick Schmaltz and Tyler Motte make an impact this season? Richard Panik, a waiver pickup last season, had a look with Toews in the playoffs. Can he deliver a sustained role?
Another unknown: how Keith will fare following offseason surgery on his right knee, which forced him to sit out the World Cup of Hockey. He had surgery to repair the knee last year, but the news that it needed rehabbing had to cause at least minor concern. The 33-year-old is one of the league's top defensemen, and the Hawks need a healthy season from him to contend again.
Crawford is coming off arguably his best NHL season and an appearance in the World Cup in which he backed up Carey Price and got to start a game. He's rock-solid in net and one of the top five goalies in the world, in my estimation.
The 1-2 punch of Kane and Toews up front is why the Hawks always have a chance. Kane is coming off a Hart Trophy season in which he led the NHL in scoring, and he shows no sign of slowing down. He's an absolute artist on the ice. During the World Cup, Toews showed yet again the kind of two-way beast and clutch player he is.
Finally, Marcus Kruger is a perfect fit as the No. 3 center. That 1-2-3 punch serves as an anchor around all the other uncertainty up front.
The Blackhawks are playoff-bound, for sure, but what remains a mystery at this point is whether they can regain their Cup-contender status among the top-five teams in the NHL. They have the kind of questions up front that we haven't seen in a long time. Mind you, the blue line is better, and this team is rock solid in goal. Winning the division is never a priority for the Blackhawks. Another Cup run? That wouldn't surprise me. Third in the Central.