CHICAGO – Following a second straight first-round playoff flop last April, the Blackhawks responded with roster changes that cut all the way to their core of high-priced stars.
Chicago reacquired fan favorites Patrick Sharp and Brandon Saad in the process. Both may end up back in familiar spots, even if general manager Stan Bowman says it's time for the Blackhawks to come up with a fresh recipe for Stanley Cup success.
"We're trying to create some new chemistry and some different looks next year," Bowman said Friday at the Blackhawks' fan convention. "We're trying not to look backwards. We're trying to look forward and that goes for all of our players who are trying to get better."
The Blackhawks topped the Western Conference with 109 points last season and were expected to challenge for their fourth Cup since 2010. But they were swept in the first round by Nashville – after being ousted in their opening series by St. Louis the year before.
Shot-blocking defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, a key member of Chicago's 2010, 2013 and 2015 Stanley Cup teams, was shipped to Arizona in a deal that netted 24-year-old Connor Murphy. Artemi Panarin – and his 31 goals and 43 assists – went to Columbus in a multi-player trade to reacquire a more complete, physical forward in Saad, who contributed to Chicago's last two championships.
Sharp, who spent the past two seasons in Dallas, had hip surgery in March and signed as a free agent. The 35-year-old played 10 seasons in Chicago, where he scored 33 or more goals four times.
Top prospect Alex DeBrincat, the Ontario Hockey League player of the year, is knocking on the door. And Blackhawks are banking on improvement from last year's rookie forwards.
Coach Joel Quenneville all but promised to reunite Saad on a line with captain Jonathan Toews. The two clicked together during Chicago's 2013 and 2015 Cup runs, and this time, Quenneville envisions Richard Panik joining the unit.
"I think that Jonny's line is key for our team's success," Quenneville said. "Those three potentially being on a line really is good to see – some size, some strength, puck possession."
The 24-year-old Saad is on board.
"That's, I think, the plan and you never know with Q," Saad said. "It's always switched up to his liking. But me and Jonny had some success in the past, and I definitely feel excited to hopefully be reunited with him."
Another line could include puck magician Patrick Kane on right wing and Artem Anisimov at center. Quenneville said it's a "possibility" that Sharp, who has resumed skating, could join on the left side.
"Whether he plays up there or with Jonny is an option as well," Quenneville added. "He gives us some versatility."
Sharp said he's recovered fully from surgery.
"I had my best years playing for Coach Q, and I know wherever he puts me in the lineup is probably going to be best for me and for the team, as well," Sharp said.
Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook will again anchor Chicago's defense. Beyond that, the Blackhawks will be younger with Murphy grabbing ample ice time and prospects like 21-year-old Gustav Forsling getting chances.
"On the back end we probably are going to have some new pairs and some new looks as well," said Quenneville, a former defenseman who hasn't always been patient as a coach with young defenders. "So I think it will be fun trying to go through that process."
The Blackhawks lost one key player with no compensation.
Marian Hossa, who had 26 goals last season, will miss 2017-18 because of side effects from medication to treat a skin disorder and may not play again. The 38-year-old has 525 career goals and 1134 points.
"It's heartbreaking what he has to go through when you know it's too soon," Toews said. "He's got a ton left on the table."