CHICAGO – The first thing that struck Chicago Blackhawks president John McDonough when he looked out at the mass of humanity on the United Center ice was how many players were cradling their little ones and putting them in the Stanley Cup for pictures.
“Most of our guys when I started here were single,” McDonough said. “Now there are babies all over the place.”
That’s what happens when you have a dynasty.
When the Blackhawks won their first Stanley Cup five years ago, Duncan Keith was a 26-year-old with a brilliant future ahead of him. In 2015, he was carrying his future, his two-year-old son Colton, around the ice, with Colton pointing at Keith and saying “Daddy,” as Keith made his way through the crowd. (Colton later peed on Duncan’s father’s Blackhawks sweater, a story that will undoubtedly make the rounds at his wedding someday.)
The Blackhawks have all growed up and they’ve become a modern-day dynasty. The moment the clinched their first Stanley Cup on home ice in 77 years, they also clinched their place in the annals of the truly great team’s in the game’s history. The rules of engagement for a dynasty have changed, but to win three of them in a six-season span in the salary-cap era qualifies to be in the discussion.
And it’s no coincidence that the Blackhawks three core players – Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Keith – now each has a Conn Smythe Trophy to his credit. The three of them were the engine for the Blackhawks resurgence from irrelevance to contender to winner and they’ll continue to be the driving force behind the Blackhawks as they somehow continue to redefine themselves and drive for more dates with Stanley.
“I think ultimately your best players being able to raise their level in the big games,” said GM Stan Bowman. “And we’ve got a group of them. We don’t just have one or two. We have six or seven, they’ve done it. They know what they can do and we know what they can do.”
And that, more than anything, is the key to Chicago’s success. The Blackhawks have realized that secondary players are important, but your success as a franchise is going to be driven by your star players, for better or worse. So you tie them up into long-term contracts, the way Bowman has done with his Big Three and then you continue to change your team on the fly, making adjustments and picking up hungry, cheap players and veterans who will be willing to take less money for a chance to hoist the Cup over their heads.
And this is a team that is driven by its three best players. There’s a good chance that some very loyal players such as Patrick Sharp and Bryan Bickell have played their last games in Blackhawk sweaters. As was the case when the Blackhawks won their last two Cups, room will have to be made to accommodate bigger salaries to other players – in this year’s case Brandon Saad. Teuvo Teravainen will have to make progress, as will the likes of Trevor van Riemsdyk. The carousel will continue to turn and changes will be made, but the foundation that has made this organization so successful will remain.
“We don’t have any intention of slowing down,” Bowman said. “This is why we play, for days like today. When you accomplish this, you want to do it again. We’re hungry, and there will be changes for next year, but by no means do we intend to take a step back. We’re going to push to even be better next year.”
In the other dressing room, there was a star player who watched his opponents lift the Stanley Cup and it was not easy. Steven Stamkos stood at the Tampa bench and hugged each of his teammates as they came off the ice, before going off to the dressing room. But you could see that he watched enough of the Blackhawks celebrating for that feeling to stay with him for a long time.
Stamkos didn’t score a goal in this final and it can’t be disputed, it simply can’t, that a couple of goals by one of the league’s most dynamic players and top scorers might have made a difference in the series. In Game 6 alone, Stamkos had all sorts of chances, including a glorious opportunity 1-on-1 against Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford that he couldn’t convert into a goal.
“Well, I felt sick for him,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said of Stamkos. “That’s just kind of how his series went. Wasn’t for lack of effort. The kid was trying.”
Stamkos and the Lightning will be better for this. Assuming the Lightning can get him signed to a long-term contract extension this summer, and that’s certainly not an iron-clad guarantee, they should both be back. And perhaps the result will be different next time. As Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook said, “They’ll be doing for the next six years what we’ve done for the past six years.”
Well that should be a lot of fun to watch.