STATS Writer

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(AP) — Not long after celebrating the end of a 49-year title drought, the Chicago Blackhawks began feeling the weight of the NHL salary cap.

Whether the Blackhawks can become the first team in 12 seasons to repeat as Stanley Cup champions might depend on how wisely they managed their money.

With several key members gone and some newcomers joining its young core, Chicago opens its Cup defense against the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday night in Denver.

The Blackhawks ended nearly a half century of futility with Patrick Kane’s overtime goal in Philadelphia, but began saying goodbye to nearly half of their playoff roster just two weeks after parading with the Cup down Michigan Avenue.

As it sought to create cap space, Chicago started by dealing playoff hero Dustin Byfuglien to Atlanta on June 23. Among the Blackhawks’ other moves included trading former Calder Trophy finalist Kris Versteeg to Toronto, refusing to accept goaltender Antti Niemi’s $2.75 million arbitration award and assigning former starting netminder Cristobal Huet to the Swiss National League.

“We knew there were going to be some moves,” forward Troy Brouwer said. “We didn’t know maybe the extent of what it was going to be. We can’t worry about it any more. What we have to do now is defend the Stanley Cup.”

With Niemi and Huet gone, former Dallas stalwart Marty Turco was signed to a one-year contract Aug. 2. The three-time All-Star is coming off two of his worst seasons – a 55-51-21 record and a combined 2.78 goals-against average – but could bounce back with a better supporting cast.

“My game is all right, but in my head there’s just some fine-tuning,” Turco said.

That support includes 23-year-old defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson, whose four-year, $14 million offer sheet from San Jose was matched July 12. He joins a group of highly regarded young players that includes Kane, Conn Smythe-winning captain Jonathan Toews, reigning Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith and fellow defenseman Brent Seabrook.

“You look at our team and we lost a lot of guys,” Kane said. “But at the same time you still have those core guys who have been here for a while.”

Four-time All-Star Marian Hossa, Dave Bolland and Tomas Kopecky also return for coach Joel Quenneville, who signed a three-year contract extension last month. Quenneville could get scoring help from Viktor Stalberg, former first-round draft pick Jack Skille and Fernando Pisani in his team’s attempt to become the first repeat Cup winner since Detroit in 1997 and 1998.

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Chicago, however, won’t have defenseman Brian Campbell on the ice for at least four weeks because of a sprained right knee. The Blackhawks could look to 19-year-old Nick Leddy, a former first-round draft pick of Minnesota, to take over Campbell’s role.

The Avalanche, meanwhile, will likely have Matt Duchene back from illness for the opener. In 2009-10, the Calder finalist led all rookies with 55 points and finished tied for first with 24 goals.

Duchene is part of a roster that’s stayed virtually intact after the franchise’s 12th playoff appearance in its 14 seasons since moving from Quebec.

The most recent trip came under first-year coach Joe Sacco, and ended with a first-round defeat in six games to San Jose capped by three straight losses. Still, Colorado’s postseason appearance may have been the most unexpected as it came off a Western Conference-worst 69-point campaign.

The Avalanche had as many as 10 rookies on their roster last season while finishing eighth in the West with 95 points. Those first-year players combined for 64 goals and 102 assists.

“I think we should be good (this season). We’re still a young team and we have a year together under our belts, so I don’t see why we can’t compete with anyone,” center Ryan O’Reilly told the team’s website.

Craig Anderson is back in net after starting 71 games during his first season in Colorado, 44 more than his previous career best. The former Blackhawk and Park Ridge, Ill., native was 38-25-7 with a 2.64 goals-against average and seven shutouts.

Paul Stastny also returns after posting a team-leading and career-best 79 points last season. Chris Stewart led the Avalanche with 28 goals, including five game-winners.

The Blackhawks were 3-0-1 last season against Colorado with two wins coming in shootouts.

Updated October 6, 2010

w1 © 2010 by STATS LLC and Associated Press.

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