Photo: Chicago Breaking Sports

The Blackhawks’ off-season has begun, sooner than any of us would want, to be sure. But this is when us erstwhile robo-pundits take off our pants and open up the spreadsheets. Who is coming back? Who is being let go? Who is getting a qualifying offer, and who isn’t? Which free agents are available? Who is trade bait? And which of the farm team wanna-be’s are going to be part of the rookie class of 2011-12?

All of it makes for a worn-out keyboard, angry spouses, and sore… umm, hands…

Fortunately the news for the Chicago Blackhawks is not nearly as apocalyptic as it was last season. We were all still hung over from the Stanley Cup Championship parties when, almost without us noticing, five of our middle-tier players were shipped out of town. We’re not facing that kind of purge this year.

In fact, the real questions coming out of the Blackhawks’ camp have more to do with free agents being re-signed. We’ll get to that very soon. Let’s start with the easy stuff…

Who’s Coming Back?

Veteran Forwards: Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa, Dave Bolland, Bryan Bickell, John Scott

Youngster Forwards: Ben Smith, Jeremy Morin, Marcus Kruger

Veteran Defensemen: Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Brian Campbell, Niklas Hjalmarsson

Youngster Defensemen: Nick Leddy

No surprises here. The most recent signing among this crew is Brent Seabrook, whose deal was done mid-winter. So there are (depending on how you line them up) essentially either zero or one hole in our top-six forwards, and our top-four defensemen are set.

The ‘Hawks organ-eye-zation has made it known that they want a big, tough center to anchor the second line, so that puts Dave Bolland down at the 3rd line pivot slot. This big, tough center also better be able to dish to Marian Hossa, as Hoss will be underutilized yet again without somebody who can feed him 50 assists a season. Where we are going to find a big, tough center who can pass to one of the world’s most prolific snipers is a difficult question to answer. I have my personal wish list, we’ll see who the team decides to go after.

As far as the new guys, a couple of predictions. I think the left-wing slot with Kane and Toews is Ben Smith’s to lose. He proved that he is willing to get in front of the net and scoop in rebounds even while getting beat like a red-headed step-pinata. That’s the guy Coach Joel Quenneville has been looking for to round out his top line. I think we could see Smith flip in 20+ goals this coming year, and go through a hell of a lot of Icy Hot in the process.

Jeremy “Scorin'” Morin also had one hell of a call-up for 9 games last year, more’s the pity we couldn’t hang on to him. He’s another fast kid with good hands, but it remains to be seen if he can stay with the big club. Most likely we’ll see him if somebody on the top-six goes down with a lengthy injury, otherwise we’ll probably see both him and Kruger spend most of their time doing the I-90 Shuffle.

Who Gets A New Deal?

Veteran Forwards: Michael Frolik, Troy Brouwer, Viktor Stalberg, Ryan Johnson

Veteran Defensemen: Chris Campoli

The only sure bets on this short list are Frolik and Campoli. GM Stan Bowman has mentioned both of these players by name when discussing re-signing free agents. The others, it will depend on the deals their agents are asking for. Ryan Johnson should be an easy handshake, he’s not making much above league-minimum and he barely deserves more than that in a 4th-line center/penalty-killing role. The team took a chance on him last year, he’s likely grateful for that, and I expect he’ll jump at whatever bait Bowman throws his way.

Stalberg doesn’t have much room to bargain, as his performance this season was less than impressive. He was rarely productive when playing on the top-six, and took nearly three-quarters of the season to settle into his role in the bottom-six. I will say this: the possibility of having a big, fast, hard-hitting forward taking the ice as a “grinder” or “energy line” player is pretty drool-worthy. If he can learn to play that game, he’s worth the raise to $1 million.

Then there’s Brouwer. Yes, he’s top-5 league-wide in hits. Yes, he had 36 points, including 7 power-play goals and 5 game-winners. Yes, he’s reasonably consistent. Yes, he’s got decent size. But he’s not an impact player on this team, and unless he takes it to the next level, he likely never will be. So what do you do with that?

You trade him. Qualify him and then trade his rights plus a pick and the rights to Jake Dowell if anybody wants them, and get us our center. Just like Andrew Ladd, there’s no room for Brouwer to grow on this team. He’ll see a bigger role, and likely the opportunity to excel to a higher caliber of play with a different team. That’s what I’d be planning if I were Stan Bowman right now. We’ll see.

Which brings us to our next question…

Who’s Out?

Forwards: Tomas Kopecky, Fernando Pisani, Jake Dowell

Defensemen: Jordan Hendry

Goaltenders: Marty Turco

All will be free agents as of July 1st, and all will be allowed to walk. Pisani was useless, Dowell and Hendry didn’t step it up, Kopecky makes too much for what he does, and Turco was a long-shot horse that came in fourth.

But hey, that’s right — what about goaltenders?

As you no-doubt saw, the Blackhawks have re-signed we-can’t-call-him-rookie-anymore goaltender Corey Crawford to a 3-year, $8 million contract just days ago. He’s our starter for next season. Additionally, there are still not formally confirmed (but very reliable) reports that European goaltending sensation Alexander Salak has been signed to a 2-year, one-way deal. The one-way means that he earns his NHL salary even if he is playing in Rockford. That’s a pretty clear sign that Stan Bowman has already slotted Salak in as Crawford’s backup.

So here it is, your 2011-12 Chicago Blackhawks — and training camp doesn’t start for four months!

Line 1: Smith/Toews/Kane

Line 2: Sharp/As-Yet-Unknown Center/Hossa

Line 3: Bickell/Bolland/Frolik

Line 4: Stalberg/Johnson/Scott

1st D pairing: Keith/Seabrook

2nd D pairing: Campbell/Hjalmarsson

3rd D pairing: Campoli/Leddy

Goal: Crawford/Salak

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