Blackhawks' master plan looks very different this time

Within days of the parade in 2010, the Stanley Cup champs began the painful process of getting under the salary cap.

A result of poor planning and out-of-control spending, some $18 million had to be found and discarded before the Blackhawks could put a team on the ice and defend their title.

By this time three years ago, Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager and Brent Sopel had been traded to Atlanta, Kris Versteeg dealt to Toronto and Colin Fraser to Edmonton.

Adam Burish had already signed as a free agent with Dallas, and John Madden and Jordan Hendry had been told to look for work elsewhere.

The Hawks had matched the offer sheet for defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, and knew an arbitration hearing at the end of the month for Antti Niemi would almost certainly bring an award they would have to walk away from because of the Hjalmarsson decision and the cost of that offer sheet.

All of this occurred in the time it took to sweep up the confetti.

Hawks fans were shocked and disgusted with the breakup of a team that would have no chance to repeat, and sickened by the departure of half a squad, knowing the banner ceremony would also mean a lot of leftover rings to be distributed out of town.

What a difference three years makes.

The days of driving down a country road on a cloudy night with the lights off are over, and the credit for the planning goes to general manager Stan Bowman, who is usually getting beat like a drum in Chicago when he's not getting blamed for the rain or the wildfires.

For the last three years, Bowman and his guys have been working to ensure not just another shot at a Cup, but also a chance to get back to the final four every year, something a team can't possibly do if it has to subtract 10 players in the summer.

“We've been mapping this out for a long time, trying to determine which players we were going to keep,” Bowman said. “We knew we had to move a couple players out of here, but if you look at the group we had last year, we have a very similar group coming back.”

The Hawks quickly re-signed Bryan Bickell, albeit for probably twice as much as they figured before Bickell's spectacular playoff run.

But part of planning is knowing there will be surprises and having money available for them. After seeing the market develop after Bickell took the deal, and assuming he performs like a top-six player, Bickell's deal looks like a bit of a bargain.

The Hawks re-signed restricted free agents Nick Leddy and Marcus Kruger, and brought back free agents Michal Handzus and Michal Rozsival, both of whom will need a lot of time off if they're to stay healthy and again be ready for a long playoff run.

That's where the kids come in. They not only have to spell aging veterans, but they also have to replace the likes of Dave Bolland, Michael Frolik and Viktor Stalberg.

Bolland's edge and guts and Frolik's speed and penalty killing will be missed, but if you can't replace fourth-line players in the salary-cap era, then you aren't drafting and developing — and you have bigger issues.

“If I had my choice, I would do it the way we've done it recently,” Bowman said, “which is develop from within, have young players emerge over time, don't rush them to the NHL and use the draft and the development of young players as a way to find really good players.”

So the Hawks will take a long look this fall at Brandon Pirri, Ben Smith, Jeremy Morin, Drew LeBlanc, Phil Danault, Mark McNeill, Ryan Stanton and Adam Clendening, to name just a few.

Sometimes you get surprises, like Andrew Shaw and Brandon Saad arriving faster than the Hawks expected, and contributing in a big way without a lot of experience.

“I think we've got some young players ready to be given the opportunity,” Bowman said. “I'm pretty excited about that. It's nice to have youth and the excitement they bring.”

Hungry players who haven't won a Cup add to a group that might be a bit stale after a short summer and a long party.

“I think we've set ourselves up going forward,” Bowman said. “We have a combination of experienced guys here who have had success as a group and young players who are ready to push and work for jobs.”

Stalberg's speed is not easily replaced, but his production never matched his skating ability — and while the Hawks would have rather kept Ray Emery instead of signing Nikolai Khabibulin, no one can fault Emery for wanting to be a No. 1 goalie again.

Of course, there is always work to do. Coach Joel Quenneville will soon get an extension and the Hawks have in mind that Hjalmarsson and Corey Crawford will be unrestricted after next season, and two years from now it's Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane.

It means that in the next year to 18 months, more kids must replace some old Hawks favorites. It's often painful, but a function of the new NHL reality.

And it's all part of the plan.

ŸListen to Barry Rozner from 9 a.m. to noon Sundays on the Score's “Hit and Run” show at WSCR 670-AM, and follow him @BarryRozner on Twitter.

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