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Blackhawks get new look for Stanley Cup defense

By Steve Keating

TORONTO (Reuters) - It took the Chicago Blackhawks 49 years to build a Stanley Cup winner and just one summer to dismantle it after the champions were forced to undergo a salary cap makeover for the start of the new NHL season.

The Blackhawks, who launch defense of their crown against the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday, will barely resemble the group that ended the NHL's longest championship drought in June with nine players scattering across the league as the champions juggled their books to squeeze under the $59 million cap.

While Chicago's overhaul may have been the most dramatic, few teams avoided an off-season of cap turmoil.

New Jersey added high-scoring winger Ilya Kovalchuk to their roster but paid a hefty price for the sniper with the NHL fining the Devils $3 million and draft picks, including a first round selection, for trying to circumvent the salary cap.

The Devils originally signed the Russian to 17-year, $102 million but the NHL rejected the contract believing it was designed to get around the salary cap by paying out $95 million over the first 10 years of the deal.

Eventually the two sides settled on a 15-year, $100 million contract followed by stiff fines and a warning to teams to steer clear of deals that attempt to manipulate the cap.

The new NHL season opens on two vastly different fronts with a record six teams playing games on European ice and three classic match-ups kicking off the schedule in North America.

With the league looking to expand its worldwide brand, the Carolina Hurricanes and Minnesota Wild will open in Helsinki, with the San Jose Sharks and Columbus Blue Jackets waving the NHL flag in Stockholm and the Phoenix Coyotes and Boston Bruins facing off in Prague.

The curtain goes up at home on Thursday with the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs renewing hockey's oldest rivalry while Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins will play their first regular season game in their new home against last season's surprise Stanley Cup finalists the Philadelphia Flyers.

The Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers meet in the battle of Alberta while the Blackhawks travel to Denver to take on the Avalanche.

NEW FACES

Program sales at Blackhawks games are likely to increase as fans get to know the many new faces.

Missing from last season's championship lineup is goaltender Antti Niemi, who moved to the Sharks after Chicago rejected a one-year, $2.4 million deal awarded to the Finn through salary arbitration.

Also gone are rugged forward and fan favorite Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager, Brent Sopel, Adam Burish, John Madden and Colin Fraser.

Having closed the Igloo, Crosby and the Penguins will try to christen their new home with a second championship in three years.

While the Penguins were unable to defend their Stanley Cup crown last season, Crosby consoled himself by leading Canada to a gold medal at the Vancouver Olympics and scoring a career-high 51 goals to share the Rocket Richard trophy with Tampa's Steve Stamkos.

Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals are back eager to atone for last season's stunning playoff flop.

After finishing tops in the Eastern Conference, the Capitals were expected to challenge for a Stanley Cup but instead became the first top-seeded team to blow a 3-1 series lead against a number eight seed, falling in the first round to the Canadiens.

Crosby and Ovechkin, the NHL's two biggest draws, will provide fans with a New Year's Day treat when the Capitals and Penguins clash in the Winter Classic at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field, normally the home of the NFL's Steelers.

With the Blackhawks having ended their Stanley Cup drought, that dubious distinction now falls on the storied Maple Leafs, who have not sipped from Lord Stanley's famous mug for 43 years.

A new season also brings hope to hockey mad Canadians that the Cup might finally return to its home for the first time in nearly two decades.

Not since the Canadiens lifted the last of their record 24 Stanley Cups in 1993 has the trophy been paraded through the streets of a Canadian city.

(Editing by Steve Ginsburg)