A dismantling or a fine-tuning? You say BUFF-lin, I say Bye-FUG-lien.
First, will it hurt the Hawks? Secondly, is it good for the game?
The answer to No. 1, from this corner’s perspective is yes, Chicago will feel the losses, short-term, of forwards Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg and Andrew Ladd (and to lesser extents Ben Eager and defenseman Brent Sopel), but not as much as some are speculating.
Each member of the Byfuglien-Versteeg-Ladd trio contributed tangibly to Chicago’s first Stanley Cup in 49 years, particularly in the post-season, delivering key goals, hits and defense. That each is 25 or younger portends that their best awaits; one or more may develop into a bona fide first-liner.
But at this point in their careers, they’re all simply good NHL players. None was among the Hawks top five forwards in any key category this past season – goals, points, ice time, penalty-killing minutes. The 54 regular season goals they combined for may be tough to immediately replace, but not overwhelming. Prospects such as Kyle Beach and Jack Skille could blossom; ditto for incoming sophomore Viktor Stalberg, who showed flashes of promise as a rookie in Toronto. Ivan Vishnevskiy, meantime, the incoming booty for Ladd, is a highly regarded defense prospect.
Naturally, the biggest risk for Chicago is the dispatching of Byfuglien, the volcano of a man who played like Vesuvius at times during the playoffs – the key phrase being “at times.” At others, he was curiously average. If he develops consistency to his game, Atlanta (or whatever city the franchise is in a few years down the road) is in for a treat. If not, they’ve got a salary cap leech on their hands.
Big-picture, Chicago’s core is intact, which has to be pleasing if you’re a fan of the Original Six cornerstone.
Even if the Hawks backslide, however, it’s not a damnation of the state of the NHL. In fact, it’ll spotlight something the league did indeed get right. While the economic scheme negotiated in 2005 has some obvious flaws, the pressure the salary cap bears on successful teams is not one of them.
Back in the day, when four of six teams made the playoffs (or eight of 12 or 16 of 21), dynasties were fine. The vast majority of clubs still knew they were playoff-bound and at the very least could play the ‘you never know’ game as far as a Cup was concerned.
In a 30-team league, in which your chances of competing past early April are slightly better than 50-50, domination by one or a small handful of clubs is dangerous. It’s important teams have the opportunity to improve, relatively quickly, and that champions aren’t allowed to horde top-end talent.
This league, because its following in the United States is still niche, needs to be able to sell optimism to attract the more casual fan in virtually every market. The redistribution of some of Chicago’s Cup winners helps achieve that end. Fans of the Thrashers and Maple Leafs have more reason to believe their teams will make the playoffs in 2010-11.
And in Chicago, while the club still has some cap dancing to do this summer, the superstars aren’t going anywhere. There’s still plenty of hope for another magical run.
Jason Kay is the editor in chief of The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears regularly.
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