It was moments after the Chicago Blackhawks had received the Stanley Cup Wednesday night and the ever-reliable Duncan Keith was feeling little pain. Not even the prospect of a summer sitting in a dentist's chair - to repair the seven teeth he lost in the third round - could wipe that happy, if jagged, smile off his face.
It had been a storybook season for Keith: Olympic gold, his first Stanley Cup - and no tangible break since August, when he attended Canada's Olympic orientation camp. Even for a player of his vaunted stamina, who played more minutes than anyone else for the Blackhawks this year, Keith was physically starting to flag at the end.
"I just want a break right now," Keith said. "It's been a long season."
In the way of the modern NHL, however, long seasons translate into short summers for Stanley Cup champions, and the Blackhawks need to tweak and adjust their roster so the young team assembled by former general manager Dale Tallon and now run by Stan Bowman gets a reasonable chance to defend its title.
It was an easier proposition before the NHL's salary cap era, when a team generating the sort of revenue the Blackhawks did last season could reinvest some of the profit in the product.
Now? Chicago took the necessary first step by getting its three key players signed to long-term contract extensions back on Dec. 9, when Keith, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane were all locked up, Keith essentially signing a lifetime contract, the other two committing for five years apiece.
Keith's salary averages just over $5.5-million (U.S.) a year; the other two will earn $6.3-million a season. All three contracts kick in at the start of the 2010-11 season. Considering the minutes Keith logs, how Kane scored the winning goal in Wednesday's 4-3 overtime clincher against the Philadelphia Flyers, and that Toews led all Blackhawks in playoff scoring, these are reasonable contracts by today's standards.
The problem for Bowman is that he also needs to deal with a trio of contractual albatrosses on his payroll - expensive, multiyear commitments to Marian Hossa, Brian Campbell and, especially, Cristobal Huet, who was their de facto backup goaltender in these playoffs at a cost of $5.625-million for the season.
Huet represents the greatest challenge. Two years remain on his contract, and he will almost certainly be pushed out, either through a buyout or, more likely, through assignment to the team's minor-league affiliate in Rockford, Ill., where he can collect his full NHL salary but not count against the salary cap. That step would require the blessing of ownership, but this new Blackhawk crew is not overly sentimental, nor is it afraid to make a hard business choice as needed.
Even if Huet has played his final game for the Blackhawks, they will also need to move out one or more contributing players to make the numbers work. Will it be Kris Versteeg? Patrick Sharp? Maybe Dustin Byfuglien makes the most sense - a sometimes inconsistent performer whose value on the trade market will likely never be higher than it is right now.
It was little more than a year ago, during the 2009 Western Conference final, when Red Wings coach Mike Babcock warned the improving Blackhawks that they would soon be facing the same difficult roster decisions that Detroit deals with annually.
It is a balancing act, trying to win consecutive Stanley Cups in the postlockout era, which has featured five different champions in five years.
In fact, the Red Wings of 1997 and 1998 were the last NHL team to win back-to-back titles.
The Pittsburgh Penguins failed in their attempt this year, partly because off-season departures left Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin with a decidedly average supporting cast - little depth on the wings and no one on the blue line to give them the quiet minutes Rob Scuderi or Hal Gill provided in their championship year.
Chicago's young nucleus should stay more or less intact for at least one more season (before the need to sign Brent Seabrook to a new contract will stretch them even closer to the cap).
Cheap but competent young players on entry-level contracts are the solution, and coach Joel Quenneville will work those types of players in as needed.
So as the Blackhawks players adjourn to their summer vacation homes for a well-deserved break, Bowman can go right back to work next week, hopefully with a championship glow to keep him fresh, energized and motivated. That's one in the books for him. There is still a ways to go to catch papa Scotty.