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 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.
“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.”
Speaking of challenges – last season in the wide-open West it took 95 points just to qualify for the postseason.
Seventh-place Nashville got in with 100 points, and clubs such as Colorado, Los Angeles and Phoenix that finished at the bottom of the standings in 2009 all made surprise trips to the playoffs.
Out East, the Flyers and Montreal Canadiens nabbed the final two places with only 88 points but then surged all the way to the conference finals over overwhelming favorites such as Washington, New Jersey and Pittsburgh.
Five teams brought in 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 took over in New Jersey for retired Jacques Lemaire.
A record six teams are getting started with two games outside of North America: Carolina plays Minnesota in Helsinki, Finland; Columbus faces San Jose in Stockholm, Sweden; and Phoenix plays Boston in Prague, Czech Republic.