The Chicago Blackhawks' Stanley Cup celebrations were still going when salary-cap considerations forced them to part with key players who had given them great depth and character.
Dustin Byfuglien, Brent Sopel, Ben Eager, third-liners Andrew Ladd and Kris Versteeg and goaltender Antti Niemi — all gone, in Niemi's case with no return after the Blackhawks walked away from an arbitration award.
What's left is still formidable, but as the Blackhawks hit the halfway point of the season Monday, they were outside the top eight in the West and still figuring out where they're heading.
"It seems throughout the year we've been giving games away and we haven't been finding ways to win," said winger Patrick Kane, who had 30 goals and 88 points last season and scored the Cup winner against Philadelphia but has 11 goals this season.
"All of us would like to be higher in the standings, but we know we have a challenge ahead of us. This is a new challenge than we had last year and hopefully something that we can all learn from."
Simply put: It's difficult to win the Cup two seasons in a row. If it were easy, someone would have done it since the Detroit Red Wings triumphed in 1997 and 1998.
The Blackhawks have had more turnover than most recent Cup winners. And as they ask players to fill tougher roles, they're facing teams that have special inspiration to beat the Cup champions.
They might resolve this by April, but the first half of the season hasn't been a smooth ride.
"There's still a lot of confidence in this locker room, but time does tick pretty quick in the NHL here, so we've got to keep on trying to get up with those teams in the playoff race and not lose sight of that," defenseman Brian Campbell said.
"It's not an easy league and every year there's maybe two or three teams that are ahead and then there's a dogfight for the last few playoff spots. You've got to win, and we didn't get off to a great start and that usually leads to a pretty tough time the rest of the way."
Singing in the rain
The NHL benefited from the rain-delayed start for Saturday's Winter Classic because the atmosphere of playing at night under the lights at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field added a new element to this annual showcase event.
According to NBC's recap of Nielsen Media Research figures, it was the most-watched NHL regular-season game in 36 years and was seen by 4.5 million viewers, up 22% over last year. The national rating was 2.3 and the share was 4.
That said, rain late in the game created sloppy and potentially dangerous conditions, and the pregame hype about Sidney Crosby facing Alexander Ovechkin was way over the top. Believe it or not, other world-class athletes played in that game, and as it turned out neither scored in Washington's 3-1 victory.
The NHL would love to stage the next game in New York, but Yankee Stadium won't be available because a college football game is scheduled there when the league would need access to the field for its preparations.
A game in California is a longshot, but it could be a novelty that would keep this fresh. It would also include teams besides the Penguins and make this a truly league-wide event. A portable rink and sophisticated refrigeration equipment make it possible, but the NHL seems to prefer a wintry atmosphere to the sight of palm trees next to the ice.
The Lightning's acquisition of goalie Dwayne Roloson from the New York Islanders on Saturday was a surprise. Tampa Bay reportedly had considered free agent Evgeni Nabokov to stabilize its goaltending but instead traded defense prospect Ty Wishart for Roloson, who has had a solid season at age 41. The Islanders aren't much above the salary floor of $40.8 million and they're staying above the minimum mainly because they're still paying for a buyout of Alexei Yashin and because they must count all achievable player bonuses.