The last time the Chicago Blackhawks raised a Stanley Cup champions banner to the rafters at United Center, the team they put on the ice wasn’t very much like the one that celebrated the title four months earlier.
A salary-cap crunch meant the Blackhawks started the 2010-11 season with just 10 players who were in the lineup when Patrick Kane scored his overtime Cup winner in Game 6 against the Philadelphia Flyers. That wasn’t a problem this time around, and when Chicago opens the 2013-14 season against the Washington Capitals on Tuesday it’ll have 17 players who raised the Cup in Boston.
“It’s kind of nice, especially when we went through what we did in 2010 and we lost over half of our team, over half the guys that played pretty big parts in a Cup run there,” captain Jonathan Toews said. “So it’s nice to come back and have things almost be exactly the same. It’ll be what we’re used to: the same group in our locker-room and the same group of guys that just make everything flow.”
It was a plan that started three years ago when general manager Stan Bowman had to tear a championship team apart. Up against the salary cap, he traded Kris Versteeg to Toronto, Colin Fraser to Edmonton, Ben Eager, Brent Sopel, Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd to Atlanta, let Adam Burish leave in free agency and walked away from Antti Niemi’s arbitration award.
In the process, the Blackhawks acquired forward Viktor Stalberg, re-signed winger Bryan Bickell and began building toward another Cup.
“You know you’re going to have some players coming in and staying long-term and other players you’re going to have to move along and have young guys to take their place,” Bowman said. “For that reason we put a premium on draft choices and making sure we have strong, young players coming in year-to-year and we also have a commitment to developing players that we have drafted and getting them to the NHL faster.”
A second-round pick in 2011, forward Brandon Saad, played in all 23 playoff games last year, while their fifth-rounder in that draft, Andrew Shaw, scored the triple-overtime winner in Game 1 of the Cup final.
This summer, the Blackhawks weren’t even in danger of losing much. They traded right-winger Michael Frolik to Winnipeg and centre Dave Bolland to Toronto, and rewarded playoff breakout star Bickell with a US$16-million, four-year contract.
And Bowman built for the future by extending defenceman Niklas Hjalmarsson and goaltender Corey Crawford to ensure that 14 players who won the Cup could still be on the roster on opening night a year from now.
“I guess when you put it all together this has been the type of off-season we have anticipated going back,” Bowman said. “We didn’t want to go through what we did a few years back, and we’ve been able to have some stability here, which was our plan.”
The plan moving forward, which includes working out extensions for Toews and Kane next off-season, depends largely on the salary cap. It’s expected to rise, but Bowman knows “it’s hard to play prognosticator on the cap.”
But he felt comfortable giving Hjalmarsson five years and $20.5 million and Crawford six years and $36 million no matter what happens.
“The way I look at these signings is when you find good players, you’ve got to keep them. These are important players,” Bowman said. “Niklas has played a critical role on our defence and it’s hard to find guys like him. And if you have one and you know what he’s all about and he wants to be part of your group and he’s an effective player and your coaches believe in him, I guess I would turn around and say, ‘Why wouldn’t you keep him?’
“And I think you can sort the rest out later. But it’s better to have a lot of good players on your team than to be searching for them, and I’ve got a lot of confidence in the players that we’ve committed to.”
It has also engendered plenty of confidence among players already brimming with it.
“It’s a little different since last time we won, in 2010 when pretty much half the team got split up,” Hjalmarsson said. “Now we’ve still got a lot of guys left here from last year, so we can’t really complain about anything.”
Bowman could have complained about needing to re-build after the last championship. But he had the benefit of a strong core to build around.
“With the salary cap, it definitely makes it a lot harder,” said Ladd, now the Jets’ captain. “I think you see the core guys that they have, they’re special players. From Duncan Keith and (Brent) Seabrook and Toews and Kane and Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa, those are guys, if they’re on your team, you’re going to be a good team regardless of the supporting cast. Obviously the supporting cast’s important but it’s easier to find those guys than the special type of players that they have.”
Consider those players, plus Hjalmarsson, Crawford and many others, are locked up for at least the next two seasons and it’s a recipe for another long playoff run and the chance for a third Cup.
“They’ve proven they can win, they are winners,” Bowman said. “When you have a group of players that you believe in and that has shown that they can get it done, I think it makes it much more of a good feeling to commit to them.”