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THN.com Blog: Salary cap crunch won’t keep Blackhawks from contending in 2010-11

The Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1961. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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The Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1961. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

In the immediate wake of, and even before, Patrick Kane’s shot slid through Michael Leighton and sent Chicago players and fans into the championship-elation stratosphere, pundits from all corners, including those at THN, were writing the team off as a one-and-done due to their dire cap situation in 2010-11.

Not so fast, though. The Hawks will certainly take a step back next season; there’s no way they can’t with the players they’ll be forced to part with in the off-season. But the regression won’t be substantial enough to keep the team from being a serious contender and the favorite in the West against next season.

Heading into the summer, Chicago has 14 players signed and they’re already about $1 million over the cap. That’s the bad news. The good news? It can be fixed without ripping the roster completely to shreds.

All signs point to the cap ceiling rising to $58 or $59 million next season (from its current $56.8 million mark), but Jonathan Toews’ $1.3 million bonus will be tagged on to next season’s sum, eating up much of the additional room. Regardless, tough choices will be faced.

Burying goaltender Cristobal Huet’s $5.625-million hit in the minors and replacing him with Corey Crawford ($800,000) leaves $5-6 million in space to sign a goalie, two defensemen and three forwards to hit the minimum 20-man roster.

If I’m at the helm, I’m trading Dustin Byfuglien ($3 million), whose stock will never be higher and whose inconstancy makes him a gamble. At $3.1 million he’s a useful player for sure, but not worth the price tag in Chicago.

And if RFA Antti Niemi’s asking for any more than $3 million? Bon Voyage. As good as he was – at times – in the regular season and in the first three rounds, he was equally as bad in the Cup final. Crawford, No. 2 on Chicago’s Future Watch list, could round into a No. 1 or co-No. 1 and there are other suitable, likely cheaper options  – Dan Ellis, Marty Turco, Jose Theodore – on the free agent market.

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(You can forget about trading Brian Campbell; there’s not a GM in the league willing to take on that albatross salary unless he’s getting a top pick or prospect as part of the package – and maybe not even then.)

With all things monetarily equal on the crease front, the Hawks would be left with $11-12 million for seven players, more than enough to ink Niklas Hjalmarsson and Jack Skille (the only RFAs definitely worth keeping) and round out the roster with money-conscious up-and-comers and veterans willing to take a pay-shave for a championship chance.

Chicago’s depth will be hurt, but no team – not Pittsburgh; not Washington – can boast a core as impressive as the one put together by former GM Dale Tallon and current GM Stan Bowman.

Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Dave Bolland make up five-sixths of a potent top-two lines and there’s realistic hope Skille or Kyle Beach could round it out.

In the backend, soon-to-be Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith, who should have won the Conn Smythe, leads the league’s best corps of Brent Seabrook, Hjalmarsson, Brian Campbell, Brent Sopel and whomever is signed to eat up No. 6 minutes.

Another consideration: most of this core is young and still improving.

Depth helps the cause, but championships are won based on high-end talent and Chicago still has that in spades.

Edward Fraser is the managing editor of  The Hockey News. His blog appears weekly.

For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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