CHICAGO – Three summers ago, the confetti and streamers from the Stanley Cup parade had barely been cleaned up when the Chicago Blackhawks set about dismantling their roster. Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Antti Niemi and Adam Burish were gone that summer and within the next year Troy Brouwer and Brian Campbell would follow.
Remarkably, Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman got very little in return for his purge, which had a lot to do with the fact his opponents knew he was dealing from a position of weakness. Of all those core players who were either traded or let go, the only current roster player the Blackhawks have to show for it is Viktor Stalberg.
But the Blackhawks got two other valuable intangibles in those deals. The first was the salary cap relief, a commodity that is still underrated seven years after the concept was introduced, which allowed them to keep the core of their team together. The second was the opportunity to work a host of other young prospects into the lineup.
And because both of those worked to perfection, the Blackhawks are one series win away from becoming the first team to win two Stanley Cups during the salary cap era. Of course, the same could be said for the Boston Bruins, but it’s indisputable the cap affected the Blackhawks more dramatically than any other team in the NHL.
The fact Chicago managed to get back to the Stanley Cup final so quickly is a testament to the work of Bowman, who is rapidly displaying the same acumen for managing that his legendary father did for coaching. First of all, even though Bowman was forced to part with some quality players, he obviously chose the right core players around whom to build his team. Secondly, he and his organization did such a good job of drafting and developing players that it lessened the blow of losing so many veterans.
Bowman was asked on the eve of the Stanley Cup final how satisfying it was to know he played such a major role in reshaping his roster.
“I get that question a lot,” Bowman said. “I try to point out that it really is sort of a team effort. It’s not just one man. It wasn’t one man back then. It’s not one man now.”
But it’s one man who loses his job if things go disastrously. And it’s one man who deserves the credit when things go so right. Bowman has lived through the off-ice indiscretions of Patrick Kane, chalking up his foibles to immaturity and keeping him in the organization when many were calling for him to be traded. Kane, in return, has emerged as a more mature and dedicated player who goes into the final playing some of the best hockey of his career. Bowman stole Nick Leddy from the Minnesota Wild. He showed confidence in young players such as Bryan Bickell, Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger and was rewarded. He showed faith in Corey Crawford after Crawford struggled last season. He stuck with Joel Quenneville as coach after two first round exits and watched as Quenneville molded a team that posted a 1970s-Montreal Canadiens-like regular season and grinded its way through the Western Conference.
“That team in 2010 was a special team on and off the ice and it seemed a week after we were hoisting the Cup, half the team was off to different teams in the league,” said Patrick Sharp. “And that’s a lot of pressure to put on the general manager. He’s made a whole bunch of changes and a couple of years later we’re right back in the same situation. His belief in us as players and surrounding us with homegrown guys has really worked out.”
It probably stung a little to see Ladd and Byfuglien go on to become integral parts of the Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets and to see Campbell become a Lady Byng Trophy winner. Brouwer became an integral part of the Washington Capitals. Bowman didn’t exactly get rid of a bunch of baggage and they were very difficult, painful trades to make, particularly after so many of them were such a big part of the 2010 Stanley Cup championship.
Bowman will face more challenges this summer when the cap goes down to $64.3 million. As it stands, the Blackhawks have about $1.6 million in cap space remaining and face the prospect of having to re-sign Bickell, who has become a playoff revelation. Kruger and Leddy are restricted free agents and Michal Handzus, Stalberg, Jamal Mayers and Michal Rozsival are all unrestricted.
So there will be changes, but they won’t even come close to the reconstruction that was required three years ago. And if there are decisions to be made, Bowman can take comfort in the fact that he has been there before and emerged looking an awful lot like a genius.
• Nine players from the 2010 Stanley Cup team are playing in the final and there is a decidedly different feel, even for those who were there the last time around. “I think a lot of us that were here in 2010, we consider we’re better players now,” said Kane. “I myself feel that I’m a well-rounded player, got a lot better defensively and without the puck as time has gone on. I feel like I’m more focused about hockey now.”
• Marian Hossa is playing in his fourth Stanley Cup final in six years, after appearing with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008, the Detroit Red Wings in ’09 and the Blackhawks in 2010. That’s a lot of hockey for a veteran player. “It never gets old,” Hossa said…
• Hawks coach Joel Quenneville was coy when asked about splitting up Kane and Toews in practice. On whether that was in response to facing Chara, he said: “It could be. It’s balance and something we’ll look at. Sometimes that can evolve over the course of a series. But it might be one of the reasons.”