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Win or lose against Vancouver, Blackhawks will be big-time contenders again in 2012

Corey Crawford and Nick Leddy are key pieces of Chicago's future. (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)

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Corey Crawford and Nick Leddy are key pieces of Chicago's future. (Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images)

The Blackhawks aren’t dead yet. Sure, they could be after Game 6 or Game 7 – heck, maybe they even pull off a Philly-over-Boston miracle and make it to the second round. But they are likely to fall short of a repeat title this season and that’s OK.

Why? Because this team wasn’t designed to win this year. They were designed to win last year, which is exactly what happened, so mission accomplished. Some will say the team mortgaged its future for that dance with Stanley, to which my pleasant answer is an elegant ”Duh.” The plan worked and the franchise won its first championship since 1961. The salary cap crunch was a reality everyone knew of and really, the only shame in losing players such as Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd and John Madden would have been if the Hawks had lost in the conference final last season.

No, Chicago was not long for 2010-11. But that’s OK, because the climb back to the top will not take long. Sure, the Hawks will still have to make some cap-related decisions this summer, but they’re not exactly starting from scratch. More importantly, the depth they lost last summer will be ably replaced by youngsters next year. In fact, it has already begun.

New Building Block No. 1 is defenseman Nick Leddy, already playing in the top six and faring pretty well for someone who was still a teenager until late March. During 46 regular season games, Leddy averaged 14:18 of ice time and did about the same in the playoffs. But with a summer of training and perhaps an extra five or 10 pounds on his 5-foot-11 frame, Leddy will be equipped to handle a heavier workload, thus easing the pressure on minute-munching 2010 Norris winner Duncan Keith, who was leaned on far too heavily this year.

Up front, the Hawks aren’t really starving for offensive weapons, but having another dangerous option in left winger Jeremy Morin will only stretch opposing defenses even thinner. In nine games with the big club this season, Morin had two goals and three points and was impressive overall. With a cap hit of $916,666, he’s also an inexpensive option.

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The vaunted Hawks core is already locked up – Keith, Brent Seabrook, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa will be in town for a long time – so really, we’re just talking about finding the right depth players again. Given Chicago’s rediscovered status as a favored destination for free agent talent, dollars are the only question.

The only key free agent this summer is goaltender Corey Crawford, who is an RFA. Crawford may not have been nominated for the Calder Trophy this season, but I can almost guarantee he came fourth in the voting process. He proved himself as a No. 1 goaltender this year and one who can play a lot of games. Whether backup Marty Turco re-signs (he’s a UFA this summer) or not, the Hawks can make do with an inexpensive No. 2.

Sure, there will be some padding out of the roster with cheap labor, but the Hawks are in a pretty good position for next year. A healthy Dave Bolland and Patrick Sharp will both be at Chicago’s disposal again and this is a battle-tested group. Besides, one year is pretty fantastic for a “rebuild.”

Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Fridays, The Hot List appears Tuesdays and his Rookie Report appears every other Wednesday. Follow him on Twitter on twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.

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