With playoff exit in rear view, Blackhawks poised for more success next year

No June hockey for the Chicago Blackhawks this year. Heck, even May is a blank slate.

Plenty of time for Chicago to plan for its sticky situation with the salary cap.

The Blackhawks' title defense ended Monday night when they lost 3-2 to the St. Louis Blues in Game 7 of their thrilling first-round series. Six of the seven games were decided by one goal, and Brent Seabrook and Andrew Ladd each had a shot go off both goal posts during losses for Chicago.

"It's unfortunate that we didn't give ourselves a chance to go deep again," captain Jonathan Toews said.

It's the quickest exit for the Blackhawks since they also dropped their first playoff series in 2012. They won the Stanley Cup the following year, lost to the Los Angeles Kings in an epic Western Conference finals in 2014 and won the championship again last year.

"It's hard to win for so long," defenseman Duncan Keith said. "It takes a lot. It takes everybody. It's just, at the end of the day we didn't get it done and hats off to them."

While Chicago should be able to contend for another title next season — most of its talented core is signed to long-term deals — it's also going to have to say goodbye to several players because of its ongoing wrestling match with the salary cap. Ladd, Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann — each of them acquired in deadline trades — likely will leave in free agency, and Andrew Shaw, Richard Panik and Brandon Mashinter also could be headed out the door.

The 24-year-old Shaw, who has spent his entire career in Chicago, is eligible for restricted free agency. He had 14 goals and 20 assists in the regular season, and then led the Blackhawks with four playoff goals despite being suspended for Game 5 for using a gay slur.

Coach Joel Quenneville loves Shaw's grit and presence in front of the net, but it's going to be difficult for general manager Stan Bowman to keep the pesky forward. Bowman faced a similar situation last summer with Brandon Saad, a younger, more talented player than Shaw, but also eligible for restricted free agency, and the Blackhawks traded him to Columbus on June 30.

Panik also can become a restricted free agent, and Mashinter is eligible for unrestricted free agency. Panik was acquired in a January trade with Toronto and showed promise in the playoffs against the Blues. Mashinter had four goals and an assist in 41 games this season after beginning the year with no points in 23 career NHL games.

Shedding Bryan Bickell's salary could provide some much needed cap relief, but the Blackhawks have been unable to trade the underperforming winger. Bowman likely would have to pair Bickell with one of Chicago's prospects to pull off such a deal, and the team might be inclined to ride out the last year of the forward's $16 million, four-year contract instead.

No matter who stays or goes, the Blackhawks likely will have a very similar look next season. Patrick Kane, coming off his first career scoring title, and Toews lead one of the NHL's most potent attacks, and Keith, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson anchor one of the league's best defenses.

"Right now it's just tough to swallow when the season's over, and to be thinking about enjoying a break," Keith said after Game 7. "We all wanted to keep it going in here and obviously it wasn't meant to be."

The extra time off for Chicago's biggest stars will help, but any hope of any significant improvement likely rests with the development of its younger players, namely on the blue line.

Trevor van Riemsdyk played in 82 games this season and led the team with 155 blocks. Erik Gustafsson, another 24-year-old defenseman, made his NHL debut in October and finished with 14 assists in 41 games.

But van Riemsdyk had a couple of costly gaffes in the playoffs and Gustafsson played just seven minutes in each of the last two games against St. Louis. They have to provide more support for Keith, Seabrook and Hjalmarsson for Chicago to make another deep run in the postseason.


AP Sports Writer R.B. Fallstrom in St. Louis contributed to this report.


Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap