Three major challenges facing the Chicago Blackhawks, who won’t be the champs in 2016

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The Chicago Blackhawks lost to an excellent team in the St. Louis Blues. If a few bounces had gone their way, they could’ve beaten that excellent team.

But they lost, and now, for the first time since 2012, they’re out after the first round of the playoffs.

While the future isn’t exactly bleak in Chicago, GM Stan Bowman does face some significant challenges going forward.

Salary-cap strapped

The good news is Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane are still young, each just 27 years old. The bad news is they’re really expensive now, each with a cap hit of $10.5 million.

Ask the Pittsburgh Penguins about the challenges of having two superstars take up so much of the payroll. Naturally, it’s the depth that suffers. Currently, the Penguins have a bunch of kids on cheap contracts who are contributing, and that’s been absolutely vital to their success. 

In Chicago, it was the blue line where depth was the big concern this season. The ‘Hawks couldn’t afford to keep Johnny Oduya. Instead, they relied on rookie Trevor van Riemsdyk to log top-four minutes behind Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, and Niklas Hjalmarsson.

Van Riemsdyk played well, but it was a lot to ask of him, and sometimes he faltered. Two other rookies —  Erik Gustafsson and Viktor Svedberg — never earned the coach’s trust, forcing David Rundblad into the lineup. (The Blues, meanwhile, had this kid by the name of Colton Parayko….)

If van Riemsdyk, Svedberg, and Gustafsson can continue to get better, the ‘Hawks might actually be pretty solid on the back end next season. There’s also still Ville Pokka in the minors, and perhaps they’ll pursue a veteran in free agency.

Up front is where the depth concerns could be greatest in 2016-17. Will the ‘Hawks be able to keep Andrew Shaw? What about Andrew Ladd? The former is a restricted free agent who’s in line for a good-sized raise. The latter is a 30-year-old unrestricted free agent, and Chicago really can’t afford to overpay a player at that point in his career.

GM Stan Bowman has tried in the past to move Bryan Bickell’s $4 million cap hit (through 2016-17), and he’ll no doubt try again this offseason. But no team is going to take that on for free. They’ll want something in return, like one of the Blackhawks’ prospects.

Which brings us to…

The prospect pool

It lacks elite talent — a consequence of not missing the playoffs and making trades for immediate help.

The ‘Hawks do have a handful of youngsters in the system who could one day make an impact at the NHL level, including forwards Mark McNeill, Vince Hinostroza, Tyler Motte, and Nick Schmaltz. On defense, there’s Pokka and Gustav Forsling.

But they didn’t have a first-round pick last year (they traded it to Arizona for Antoine Vermette), and they don’t have one this year (they traded it to Winnipeg for Ladd, along with Marko Dano).

The ‘Hawks know better than anyone that even great rosters need to be constantly refreshed with young talent. A number of key contributors to last year’s championship — guys like Shaw, Teuvo Teravainen, Marcus Kruger, and Brandon Saad — weren’t on the 2010 Stanley Cup-winning team. They were all drafted and developed in the years after, helping replace the likes of Dave Bolland, Kris VersteegTroy Brouwer, and Dustin Byfuglien.

The infusion of young talent is going to be doubly important now, because…

An aging core

This is a sensitive topic, but here’s the reality — Marian Hossa is among the oldest forwards in the league. He’s still a very good player at 37, but his production did decline significantly in the regular season.

Yes, Hossa showed in the playoffs that he can still bring it. He scored three times against the Blues; had a couple of assists, too. The reason that guys like Hossa, Jaromir Jagr, Pavel Datsyuk, and Zdeno Chara can remain effective for so long is that they were so great in their primes. Even after they decline, they’re still really good.

But they do decline. All of them. It cannot be avoided. Nature says so. Their fans can kick and scream all they want. Won’t help.

In a related story, Duncan Keith is 32 and Brent Seabrook is 31. Keith has played 833 games in the NHL, plus 122 more in the playoffs. Seabrook has played 844 games, plus 119 more in the playoffs. There are a lot of miles on those bodies.

To clarify, nobody’s saying those two aren’t good anymore — heck, Keith is only one year removed from one of the greatest playoff performances ever by a defenseman — but they will start to decline. Even if it’s a gradual decline, the NHL is so closely contested, and those two have been so vital to the Blackhawks’ success, that it will be felt.