The way their season ended left a bitter taste for the Chicago Blackhawks and the offseason hasn't erased it.
An overtime goal scored by Los Angeles Kings defenseman Alec Martinez in Game 7 of the 2014 Western Conference Final cut short Chicago's quest to repeat as Stanley Cup champions and made the Blackhawks even hungrier.
Watching the Kings win the Stanley Cup drove the point home even more.
"I watched a little bit [of the Stanley Cup Final], but not much," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said this summer, the day he and right wing Patrick Kane signed identical eight-year contract extensions. "I especially watched the celebration at the end, when the Kings hoisted the Stanley Cup again. I let that sink in a little bit. I think we all realize how close we were. That's not to say we were going to cruise through the Stanley Cup Final. There's no such thing. But we like to think that we were a goal away from getting another chance."
It's no longer just the Blackhawks' organizational credo that adorns everything from stadium programs to the locker room. It's also the razor-thin margin that stood between them and a chance to become the first team in 16 years to repeat as NHL champs.
Instead of complacency following championships in 2010 and 2013, the Blackhawks are now focused on the one that got away in 2014.
"You learn a lot when you win," Toews said. "You definitely understood how difficult it was the second time around, when we beat Boston last year, but I think you learn even more when you lose, and especially when you come that close. We know what that feeling [of winning] is like, we don't want to give it up and we came really close this year. We all wanted to win again and next year it will be the same case."
It could also be tougher to get back to that precipice.
The Central Division didn't get any worse during the League's annual offseason roster retooling and most feel it actually got better. The Blackhawks will again bring back most of their roster, but the front office has buzzed with activity this summer. Along with forging new contracts for Toews and Kane -- the mid-20s faces of the franchise -- Chicago also made a splash in free agency.
After the New York Rangers used a compliance buyout on veteran Brad Richards' contract, the Blackhawks swooped in July 1 to sign the 34-year-old center to a contract for one year and a reported $2 million.
The move should buy time for highly-touted 19-year-old Finnish center Teuvo Teravainen to develop, if needed, in the American Hockey League. It also gives coach Joel Quenneville a highly-skilled, experienced center to match with Brandon Saad and Kane on the second line.
Looking back at the conference final, the Kings' biggest advantage was down the middle, where the Blackhawks lacked a true second-line center behind Toews. Adding Richards, and possibly Teravainen, should help Quenneville regain the scoring depth among his forward lines that paved the way to Cup titles in 2010 and 2013.
"You can never have enough centermen," Quenneville said. "I think your depth at the blue line, your depth [in] the middle, always impacts and exposes over the course of a season and challenges you. I really like the centermen we have, and the ability to play in different roles and in different situations and [be] comfortable with both sides of the [ice], offensive and defensive responsibilities."
The only problem is that Richards put the Blackhawks over the $69 million salary cap by roughly $2.2 million, according to CapGeek.com. That's with 23 players currently signed for the 2014-15 season, including Teravainen, who might not make the team to start out.
They'd still be over the cap without Teravainen, which means barring unforeseen injuries Chicago will likely have to move somebody before the Oct. 9 season-opener against the Dallas Stars. Names that have been speculated about most are left wing Patrick Sharp and defenseman Johnny Oduya, but general manager Stan Bowman cautioned against predicting the Blackhawks' next move.
"I don’t know if you can handicap the timing of trades," he said. "We certainly have to be ready to go by October. That's the goal. A lot of things change between now and then. You have to display some patience. Like I said all along, we have some ideas of what we're going to do."
Chief among them is winning.
2013-14 record: 46-21-15, 107 pts, 3rd in Central Division, 5th in Western Conference
2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Lost to the Los Angeles Kings in seven games in the Western Conference Final
Subtractions: LW Brandon Bollig,
Top 2014 NHL Draft picks: C Nick Schmaltz (No. 20)
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Author: Brian Hedger | NHL.com Correspondent
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