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Tough decisions on the horizon for the Blackhawks

In 2010, the Chicago Blackhawks ended a ridiculously long drought by winning their first Stanley Cup championship since 1961. But for financial reasons, management was forced to blow up the roster before the 2010-11 season, making a repeat all but impossible.

Now that the club has captured the title for the third time in six years, Blackhawks fans are wondering if a similar shakeup is on the horizon.

After claiming its first crown in ages, Chicago made trades that sent Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager and defensemen Dustin Byfuglien and Brent Sopel to the Atlanta Thrashers and Kris Versteeg to the Toronto Maple Leafs. Colin Fraser was shipped to the Edmonton Oilers while Adam Burish, John Madden and starting goaltender Antti Niemi were allowed to leave as free agents.

The Blackhawks went from the top of the Central Division to the middle of the pack and were eliminated from the playoffs in the first round each of the next two years. But they managed to build around a core group that included captain Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and defenseman Duncan Keith and found themselves lifting the Stanley Cup again in 2013.

It was no coincidence that Chicago’s top six scorers that postseason were members of the 2010 championship squad. Bryan Bickell, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp joined Toews, Kane and Keith to guide the Blackhawks to their second crown in four years.

The casualties from the 2013 Cup-winning club were fewer, as Dave Bolland, Michael Frolik and Daniel Carcillo were traded while Viktor Stalberg and netminder Ray Emery left via free agency. Meanwhile, blue-liners Niklas Hjalmarsson and Brent Seabrook became key contributors and joined the ranks of the core group.

Now that its third title has been secured, Chicago again faces the prospect of making changes. And two members of the core eight who have been on board for all three championships could find themselves on the outs.

Sharp had a subpar regular season, failing to reach the 20-goal mark in a non-abbreviated campaign for the first time since 2005-06. The 33-year-old has two years remaining on his contract with a $5.9 million hit against the salary cap and is the most likely to be traded.

27  May 2015:  Chicago Blackhawks Left Wing Bryan Bickell (29) [4509] in action during Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Anaheim Ducks at the United Center in Chicago, IL.

Is Bickell the next casualty for the Blackhawks?

Bickell struggled during the playoffs, registering only five assists in 18 games and finding himself as a healthy scratch several times against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Final. The 29-year-old also has two years left on his deal and costs $4 million against the cap, leaving him as another possibility to be dealt.

“It’s a challenge,” general manager Stan Bowman told NHL.com. “I mean, obviously it’s a system we all play under, so we’ve got to find a way to make it work.”

Perhaps the most surprising name being mentioned as a player on trading block is Corey Crawford. Despite his inconsistency over the years, the 30-year-old has been in net for each of Chicago’s last two championships and came up big when it mattered versus Tampa Bay.

But Crawford has five years to go on his contract and costs $6 million against the cap. And with Scott Darling and Antti Raanta in tow, the Blackhawks certainly may feel their starting goaltender is expendable.

Allowing players to depart via free agency also will help clear cap space. Brad Richards, Antoine Vermette, Andrew Desjardins and Carcillo – who was back for his second stint with the team – all are unrestricted, and several – if not all – will not return.

Brandon Saad and Marcus Kruger are about to become restricted free agents, but Chicago hopes to re-sign both forwards.

The blue line could see a major overhaul, with Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson and youngster Trevor van Riemsdyk being the only certainties to return. Kimmo Timonen called it a career after the Cup victory, the trio of Johnny Oduya, Michal Rozsival and Kyle Cumiskey are unrestricted free agents and David Rundblad is restricted.

With over $63 million committed to only 13 players for 2015-16, changes are sure to be made. The only question is, how drastic will they be?

Bowman is not quite ready to begin the process, as the Blackhawks are still celebrating their latest accomplishment. And to be honest, he’s not the least bit worried.

“We’ll try to enjoy this (Cup victory) for a little while, but we’ll get it done. We always do,” Bowman told NHL.com. “Obviously, I’ve been thinking about that as well, but we’re trying to enjoy this win as well.”

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