The Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning proved to be worthy combatants for the 2014-15 Stanley Cup. The veteran Blackhawks ultimately won hockey's most coveted prize, defeating the young up-and-coming Lightning team in six games for their third title in six years. Fast forward a few months later and both teams are rightfully the favourites to win it all this season.
Chicago entered the offseason facing a challenge that has plagued it since it became the NHL's elite—to cut weight to get under the cap. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews' new eight-year contracts began to count against the cap, so the team had to get creative with how to build its roster.
Restricted free agent Brandon Saad was the biggest cap casualty. Despite Saad's career trajectory pointing toward stardom, Chicago dealt the 22-year-old to the Columbus Blue Jackets in a huge deal that netted it Marko Dano and Artem Anisimov, among other pieces. While giving up Saad stings, Dano impressed in a season split between the Blue Jackets and the club's AHL affiliate, and should join Teuvo Teravainen as a building block for the club going forward. Anisimov, who the club immediately signed to a five-year, $22.75 million contract, is one year removed from a 20-goal season. The Hawks are hoping they can mask Saad's production, and then some.
The Blackhawks also moved on from Patrick Sharp after he posted three 30-goal campaigns in four seasons. Sharp only scored 16 times in 68 games last season and with $11.8 million owed to the 33-year-old, the Hawks determined they couldn't afford to keep him around, dealing him to the Dallas Stars with prospect Stephen Johns in exchange for defenseman Trevor Daley and depth forward Ryan Garbutt. Daley posted a career-high 16 goals in 2014-15 but had awful possession numbers, was one of the most overworked defenseman in the NHL and is probably best suited for a bottom pairing role. While the move was necessary, it wasn't a great return for such an important piece in Sharp.
Chicago lost a considerable amount of depth this offseason, but its core remains intact for the most part. The team still has dynamic players in Toews, Kane (depending on the outcome of his legal situation) and Marian Hossa up front, with an intriguing mix of talent around them. Andrew Shaw doesn't provide the scoring of those three, but he's a versatile player who can be plugged all over the lineup. The wild card for the forward group is Artemi Panarin, a 23-year-old, who was one of the highest scorers in the KHL last year.
The defensive unit remains in good shape. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, who was recently rewarded with a contract extension, remain one of the top defensive pairings in the game, while Niklas Hjalmarsson is one of the NHL's best shot suppressors. There's some question marks around the rest of defensive unit, but the Hawks could do much worse than using David Rundblad or Trevor Van Riemsdyk to fill out the backend.
Between the pipes, Corey Crawford has proven to be a legitimate No. 1 goaltender. He posted a sturdy .931 five-on-five even strength save percentage in 57 games, and brought another Stanley Cup home. Scott Darling, meanwhile, is a competent backup who showed he can handle the pressure in the first-round playoff series against the Nashville Predators.
While the Blackhawks were busy retooling their roster this offseason, the Lightning remained quiet. The only notable move was signing useful depth forward Erik Condra to a three-year deal. Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman is counting on the group that gelled together to improve together, and he has plenty of reason to believe that will happen.
Tampa Bay had no issue scoring last season, posting 2.75 goals/60 minutes at even strength. The offense is of course led by the dynamic Steven Stamkos, who scored a combined 50 goals in the regular season and playoffs. This may be his last hurrah with the club, as he's an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and could bolt for greener pastures. The group that Yzerman has assembled, however, gives him plenty of reason to stay.
The Lightning are stacked offensively. The triplets (Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov) combined for 73 goals in the regular season, and poured in 31 more in the playoffs. The best second line in the NHL, they could increase that number in 2015-16. Tampa Bay also has a great mix of up-and-comers and veterans including the third overall pick in 2013, Jonathan Drouin, as well as Vladislav Namestnikov and former New York Rangers captain Ryan Callahan.
The defense is led by the 6'6" stud Victor Hedman, who's elite in every sense of the word. The former first overall pick had a breakout season playing big minutes for the club in the regular season and playoffs, and should be a Norris candidate nominee if he remains healthy. Hedman's defensive partner Anton Stralman also enjoyed a breakout season, scoring 39 points and posting the third-best Corsi For percentage (plus-minus for on-ice shot attempts) among NHL defenceman at 56.3, behind the advanced-stat kings in Los Angeles, Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin. The rest of the team's defence is a great mix of offensive and defensive weapons, including Jason Garrison, Braydon Coburn and Andrej Sustr.
If that wasn't enough, the Lightning also have two starting-calibre goalies. Ben Bishop, 28, has posted 77 regular season victories over the last two seasons alone. They also have a future star in Andrei Vasilevskiy. The 21-year-old Russian had no problem adjusting to the NHL, posting a .925 five-on-five even strength save percentage in 20 games, including a victory in the Stanley Cup, which is damn impressive for a rookie. Bishop will get a chance to fully reclaim the starting position (not that he lost it) as Vasilevskiy will miss the start of the season following surgery to his collarbone, but the Lightning have a luxury not many other teams have between the pipes.
The two teams are trending in different directions of dominance. Chicago is a dynasty in the making, which could fall off greatness at any minute, while the Lightning are on the verge of becoming the next NHL super team.
Both will challenge to be the best teams in their respective conferences, and it's totally possible, and likely, they matchup again for the 2015-16 Stanley Cup.