NEW YORK – Forget about celebration hangovers and short summers, the biggest threat to the Chicago Blackhawks' hopes to repeat as Stanley Cup champion might be the salary cap.
The cloud that has hung over the NHL since the end of the lockout in 2005 literally shadowed the Blackhawks' parade just days after they claimed their first title since 1961 with a six-game win over the Philadelphia Flyers.
Gone is 25-year-old postseason hero Dustin Byfuglien, who scored a team-high 11 playoff goals — including five game-winners, top goalie Antti Niemi, and others who provided key roles in the run to the championship. In all, the Blackhawks sent away eight players to get under this season's salary ceiling of $59.4 million.
"Everybody was talking about players getting traded and what the team was going to look like next year, while at the same time we're trying to enjoy what we just did," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. "It's not easy for those guys and it's not easy for the rest of our team. Now we're at that point where it's all behind us: the salary cap, the trades and this and that. We're ready to move forward with the guys we do have."
While Chicago was clearly the best team in June, the Blackhawks certainly will face strong claims to that distinction as hockey gets rolling again Thursday when the regular season opens with a five-game slate.
"That's the worst part about it, seeing some of your best friends leave," star forward Patrick Kane said. "Not that they were some of our best players, but they were obviously instrumental in what we did.
"If you look at our team this year, it's kind of a new team. It's a new challenge. Of course you want to keep that team together, but it's just not the way the NHL works anymore. You've got to make changes."
And the rest of the league has noticed.
The Detroit Red Wings, the NHL's last repeat champion in 1997 and 1998, might be poised to reclaim the Western Conference title they held the two previous years. They also might have an advantage with a less condensed schedule instead of last season's jam-packed one that accommodated the long break for the Vancouver Olympics.
With Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and ageless defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom healthy and hungry, the Red Wings are happy to slip under the radar and let the Blackhawks carry the burden of the bull's-eye. Detroit was knocked out in the second round by regular-season Western champion San Jose and now seems to have lost some of the intimidation factor.
"I don't know. I was reading the other day that we're not that good," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said with a smile. "We are good. I just know that we're going to end up with a lot of points."
That will be necessary again in the wide-open West, where it took 95 just to qualify for the postseason.
Seventh-place Nashville got in with 100 points, and clubs such as the Colorado Avalanche, Los Angeles Kings and Phoenix Coyotes that finished at the bottom of the standings in 2009 all made surprise trips to the playoffs.
"It's not a whole lot of point differential between eighth and fifth," Kings forward Anze Kopitar said. "It's one of those things where we can all thrive on it and take it to our advantage because everything is so close in the West. Pretty much anybody can win."
Out East, the Flyers and Montreal Canadiens nabbed the final two places with only 88 points — one more than the ninth-place New York Rangers — but then surged all the way to the conference finals over overwhelming favorites such as the Washington Capitals, New Jersey Devils and Pittsburgh Penguins.
Montreal knocked out powerhouses Washington and Pittsburgh in the first two rounds. Philadelphia ousted Boston to reach the conference finals after trailing the series 3-0, and then 3-0 in Game 7.
The Penguins reached the Stanley Cup finals in 2008 and 2009, splitting the final series with the Red Wings in those seasons, but were stunned in the second round by the upstart Canadiens. The only thing that kept that from being the most surprising result in last season's playoffs was Montreal's comeback from a 3-1 deficit to Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington in the first round.
"I think teams are still hunting us down during the regular season," Capitals defenseman Mike Green said. "We did well in the regular season, but once the playoffs came around for whatever reason we couldn't succeed. That might play into our advantage come playoffs. Maybe they'll underestimate us and you never know."
Not likely with Alex Ovechkin still lurking in the nation's capital.
Ovechkin might have the individual statistical edge over Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby — the Washington star's biggest rival — but he hasn't turned that into playoff success.
The Capitals have won the Southeast Division for two consecutive years, including posting the NHL's best mark last season for the first time, but they haven't gotten as far as even the Eastern Conference finals since Ovechkin came to town after the lockout — the same year Crosby landed in Pittsburgh.
Ovechkin and Crosby will be the featured stars in this year's Winter Classic in Pittsburgh on New Year's Day. The buildup will be even bigger this time with a multipart HBO reality series in advance of the outdoor game at Heinz Field.
"We have the motivation we need in the organization. We have to realize it's time to move forward," Ovechkin said of the Capitals. "We have to improve our mentality. We know we can play good offensively, but we have to play good defensively if we want to win."
The want to win is always there. The belief that any team can is stronger than ever.
Five teams have new hope with new coaches, including four clubs that missed the playoffs; Atlanta (Craig Ramsay), Columbus (Scott Arniel), Edmonton (Tom Renney) and Tampa Bay (Guy Boucher). John MacLean, the Devils' career leader in goals, was promoted by New Jersey from the AHL to take over for the retired Jacques Lemaire.
The Tampa Bay Lightning dipped into Detroit's deep pool of success and hired Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman to be their general manager. That move can only help the development of 20-year-old forward Steven Stamkos, who in his second NHL season tied Crosby for the league lead with 51 goals.
With hulking youngster Victor Hedman anchoring the defense, and veteran forwards Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis still providing offensive punch, the Lightning might not be too far away from getting back to an elite level.
"The hiring of Steve Yzerman has definitely made our team more popular," Stamkos said. "Tampa is not your traditional hockey market, but having won the Cup in '04 and having guys like Vinny and Marty there as well as myself, we are a fun team."
For the fourth straight year, the NHL regular season is opening on two continents. This time a record six teams are getting started with two games outside of North America: Carolina is taking on Minnesota in Helsinki, Finland; Columbus faces San Jose in Stockholm, Sweden; and Phoenix and Boston are playing a set in Prague, Czech Republic.
Everyone will be getting used to a pair of new rules.
The ban on blindside shoulder hits to the head, adopted during last season's playoffs, now carries a five-minute major penalty and a game misconduct along with being subject to supplemental discipline.
The NHL has also instituted size specific goalie pads. Before this season, the rule provided only for a maximum pad length of 38 inches. Now the rule specifies a maximum "limiting distance size" for each goalie.