ATLANTA - The Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks have dealt a key piece to their championship puzzle.

Chicago traded power forward Dustin Byfuglien, along with defenceman Brent Sopel and winger Ben Eager, to the Atlanta Thrashers early Thursday morning.

The Blackhawks also sent prospect Akim Aliu to Atlanta for the 24th and 54th picks in this week's NHL draft. Chicago also get forwards Marty Reasoner, Joey Crabb and prospect Jeremy Morin.

The trade clears salary cap space for the Blackhawks and provides more experience for the Thrashers.

"I think what we saw in the playoffs is the Dustin Byfuglien that has been evolving for some time now. He's probably one of the premier power forwards in the league," Thrashers general manager Rick Dudley said in a conference call early Thursday. "He's capable of 20 to 30 goals, at least, and playing a good two-way game."

Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman said the move was made out necessity.

"The only reason we were trading Buff was not because of his performance or because we don't like him, it was simply a salary cap move," Bowman told a separate conference call. "In order to make it work we couldn't take players that made a lot of money back, we had to take future things back.

"From our perspective this is exactly what we had set out to accomplish, which was to get some top draft choices as well as a top prospect."

In a separate trade to get their roster under the league limit of 50, the Thrashers dealt their seventh-round pick in Friday's draft, defenceman Michael Vernace and left-winger Brett Sterling to San Jose for future considerations.

Vernace and Sterling are due to become free agents on July 1.

Byfuglien, 25, scored three game-winning goals during a sweep of San Jose in the Western Conference final that put Chicago into the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1992. He also had a hat trick in a victory over the Canucks in the conference semifinal.

Against the Flyers in the Stanley Cup, the six-foot-four, 257-pound Byfuglien struggled at times against defenceman Chris Pronger but still scored three goals over the final two games. He had 11 goals overall during the playoffs after finishing with 17 during the regular season. He has three straight seasons with more than 30 points.

"He's got very soft hands. He's probably as big a player as there is in the National Hockey League and he can skate and he's got skill," said Dudley. "That combination is so attractive and we think we got something special there."

Eager, 26, had a goal and two assists in the playoffs after recording 16 points in the regular season.

"Ben Eager, I believe, is one of the better forecheckers in the National Hockey League," added Dudley. "He's also pretty good on the pugilistic side of things and he hits with a purpose."

Sopel, 33, had a goal and five assists in the playoffs but had only one goal in each of the last two regular seasons.

Reasoner, 33, had four goals and 13 assists in his second season in Atlanta.

Morin, 19, scored 47 goals with Ontario Hockey League's Kitchener Rangers last season. He was taken 45th overall by Atlanta at last year's draft.

Chicago's Duncan Keith, who picked up the Norris Trophy as top defenceman at the NHL Awards on Wednesday night in Las Vegas, was upset upon hearing about the trade.

"It really saddens me," said Keith. "Those are my good buddies leaving our team."

Led by young stars such as Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, the Blackhawks beat Philadelphia for their first Stanley Cup title since 1961, but they were hardly a two-man show.

With one of the deepest rosters in the league, they set franchise records for wins (52) and points (112) in the regular season while finishing second to San Jose in the Western Conference. In the playoffs, they went through Nashville, Vancouver and San Jose before beating the Flyers, but with major salary-cap issues, changes were expected.

Kane and Toews signed lucrative contract extensions with the Blackhawks in December — five-year deals worth US$31.5 million each.

Marian Hossa (12 years, $62.8 million deal) and Keith (13 years, $72 million deal), who signed the same day as Kane and Toews have large long-term contracts. Defenceman Brian Campbell just completed the second year of a $56.8 million, eight-year contract. Goalie Cristobal Huet, who became a pricey backup, has two years left on a $22.45 million, four-year deal. Antti Niemi, who backstopped Chicago to the Cup win, is a restricted free agent and due a raise.

— With files from the Associated Press

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