Hawks seek championship contender status again

There were so many familiar faces gone from the Chicago Blackhawks' run to capture the Stanley Cup in 2010 that there was plenty of mystery about the 2010-11 edition.

As the regular season progressed, it was clear the Blackhawks weren't the same consistently excellent team that had won the Cup the previous spring. The hope was just to get into the playoffs and see if some of that Cup-winning experience would have a residual effect. Chicago almost didn't make it -- the Blackhawks needed Dallas to lose on the final day of the season just to back into the eighth seed in the Western Conference.

After dropping the first three games to rival Vancouver in the opening round, the Blackhawks rallied to force a Game 7 and pushed the eventual conference champs to the limit before losing in overtime.

A few players took key steps forward in 2010-11 -- most notably goaltender Corey Crawford. After years of waiting, Crawford finally became Chicago's No. 1 guy and went 33-18-6 with a 2.30 goals-against average.

Nick Leddy didn't turn 20 until March, but he proved he belonged at the NHL level and could be a fine No. 3 defenseman behind the top duo of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook before too long.

There were several forwards to replace, and Bryan Bickell's 17 goals and 37 points were a welcome addition to the lineup. A midseason trade for Michael Frolik could pay bigger dividends this coming season.

The emergence of Leddy and Bickell allowed Chicago general manager Stan Bowman to trade defenseman Brian Campbell and forward Troy Brouwer at the draft to open up more salary cap space. Brouwer was a restricted free agent and Bowman received a first-round pick from Washington for the rugged forward. Removing Campbell's huge contract in a deal with Florida allowed Bowman to make several moves to improve the club's depth.

Free-agent forward Tomas Kopecky joined Campbell with the Panthers, while center Jake Dowell signed with Dallas. Defenseman Chris Campoli was a restricted free agent but the Blackhawks walked away from his arbitration decision.

Given how the full the roster is, remaining free agents Fernando Pisani, Ryan Johnson, Jordan Hendry and Marty Turco are not likely to return.

Bowman's additions were a clear sign he wanted Chicago to be tougher to play against this season. Defenseman Steve Montador signed a four-year, $11 million contract to join from Buffalo. A pair of former Philadelphia Flyers, forward Daniel Carcillo and defenseman Sean O'Donnell, were added on one-year deals.

The two guys who could be responsible for replacing Brouwer and Kopecky are Andrew Brunette, signed from Minnesota on a one-year pact, and Rostislav Olesz, who was the return in the Campbell deal. Brunette's goal total dipped from 25 two years ago to 18 last season and he will be 38 years old, but the Blackhawks are banking on him being rejuvenated by playing with Chicago's talented forwards.

The Hawks also added forward Jamal Mayers and defenseman Sami Lepisto on one-year contracts. Bowman did a good job of adding role players without making long-term commitments.

Bowman's latest move was also a low-risk but potentially high-reward maneuver. He added goaltender Ray Emery on a tryout contract. Alexander Salak was expected to be Crawford's backup, but Emery could prove to be a more reliable insurance policy.

A few of the other prospects Chicago has added in recent years besides Leddy could also find roles on the Blackhawks, but the roster is crowded. Jeremy Morin played nine games for the big club last season and could be ready for full-time duty. Marcus Kruger and Ben Smith were late-season additions who could also carve out more permanent roles.

The Blackhawks should show up for training camp hungry to return to contender status, and being able to rationalize last season as both a transition year because of all the new faces and at least partially a product of a Stanley Cup hangover.

Regardless of the changes made by Bowman, whether the Blackhawks are Cup contenders again is in the hands of the team's stars. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp had great seasons for the Blackhawks in 2010-11, but a few others will be looking to have bounce-back campaigns.

Marian Hossa had at least 35 goals in five of the six seasons before coming to Chicago, and he has only 49 in his two seasons (while also missing 42 games). Patrick Kane's numbers dipped a bit. Keith's production fell off dramatically.

The Blackhawks can match firepower with any team in the League, and Crawford proved to be a dependable No. 1 goaltender. Being deeper and tougher will likely help, but having the big guns all firing at optimal levels would go a lot further in helping Chicago back into the NHL elite.