Chicago Blackhawks eye repeat after cap-induced retooling
With NHL training camps in full swing, the league’s top story line is how prepared the Blackhawks are to defend their title after sacrificing 10 regulars because of salary cap issues.
“If you talk to teams that have won the Cup they warn you that you have to be concerned about complacency,” coach Joel Quenneville said. “That’s not a concern for us because we have so many new guys.”
When the dealing was done in August, Bowman had given up two of his top six forwards, a key defenseman and starting goalie Antti Niemi among the 10 players lost in the name of allowing Chicago to slide under the .4 million salary cap.
“We had to do a little bit of explaining about how the cap works and why we were doing the things we did,” Bowman said. “We weren’t just shuttling guys out of here for the heck of it. … Once we laid it out, I think fans understood it.”
To host a true 2010 championship ring ceremony, the Blackhawks would have to hold it in seven NHL cities and one European outpost.
Kris Versteeg was moved to the Toronto Maple Leafs and Andrew Ladd was sent to Atlanta. Colin Fraser received a ticket to the Edmonton Oilers. The Blackhawks walked away from an arbitrator’s salary award of .75 million to Niemi, who eventually signed with the San Jose Sharks. John Madden signed with the Minnesota Wild, and fellow free agent Adam Burish went with the Dallas Stars because the Blackhawks had no cap room to re-sign them. Chicago assigned Cristobal Huet to a Swiss team to remove his .625 million cap hit.
The explanation for how the Blackhawks came to be in this position is multilayered. They had an overflowing amount of talent, and even the younger, talented players were well-paid. But the most immediate cause was having stars Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith all due to receive new contracts starting in 2010-11.
The three went from a cap hit of .625 million in 2009-10 to .15 million this season. Performance bonuses to Toews and Kane put the team over last season’s cap. Chicago pays for that this season.
“From the fan perspective, they would like everything to remain intact,” Blackhawks President John McDonough said. “They want all the players back and we win the Cup again and everyone wears the same number and nobody ages. But that’s not the way it works. … But we have kept the nucleus together.”
That core includes Toews, Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and defensemen Keith, Brian Campbell, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson. Keeping them seems to be all that matters to fans because the Blackhawks’ season ticket renewal rate was 99.7%.
Chicago has a baseball mystique because of the beloved Chicago Cubs and historic Wrigley Field. Chicago has a basketball aura because of the Michael Jordan years. And everybody loves to talk about Da Bears. McDonough says he enjoys “being the underdog in the city.”
But in truth, the Blackhawks, founded in 1926, have never been more popular in this city. Their banner-raising ceremony Oct. 7 will be their 103rd consecutive sellout.
“It’s crazy here,” Kane said. “I can’t believe the turnaround since the first year I was here. Then, you could walk down the street and no one would notice you, and now it’s unbelievable how many people recognize you. You are treated like a prince.”
Chicago’s team website grew from 2.1 million hits to 9.3 million hits last year. Its Facebook page has 265,000 friends, making it the NHL’s largest team-controlled Facebook site.
“Longtime fans knew these changes were coming with or without the Cup,” said Blackhawks fan Gary Schumacher, 51, a business director for a health system alliance. “I don’t want to imagine how I would feel watching all of these personnel changes if they had lost.”
In the midst of the purge, the Blackhawks’ season-ticket waiting list grew by 1,500 in the last month and sits at 10,000. The Blackhawks receive about 3,000 ticket sales and service calls each week.
“It’s not fun to see your teammates go, but we are optimistic about the new look we have,” Toews said. “A lot of guys have waited patiently for their chance to step up and show what they can do.”
The toughest part of the makeover is Bowman had to trade valuable assets without taking back salaries. That meant acquiring draft picks and prospects. Unproven players who could fill the hole include top American Hockey League prospects Jack Skille, Jake Dowell and Bryan Bickell.
“There is a lot of incentive for guys within our organization,” Quenneville said. “There is not only an opportunity to play, but also to play with Toews and Kane.”
The team’s three centers — Toews, Sharp and Dave Bolland— all return, but there are openings for one winger on all three lines.
“What I feel comfortable about is that the people we have at the core of our team are people who make other players around them better,” Chicago assistant general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said.
Dowell is 25, and he was captain of Chicago’s minor league affiliate. Bickell is 24 and Skille is 23.
“In (Dowell’s) limited auditions up here, he has always made an impact,” Cheveldayoff said. “He’s one of those guys who goes to the net hard and doesn’t take the easy way out in anything. … He’s had years of maturation that will help him. He’s not going to be awe-struck when he gets here.”
On defense, Bowman has replaced Sopel, 33, with Nick Boynton, 31, whose cap hit is .8 million less. Sopel has 588 games of NHL experience, and Boynton has 554.
Sopel might be the scariest loss for Chicago because last season he was a centerpiece for a penalty-killing unit that was ranked fourth in the NHL.
Although the Blackhawks lost 54 goals in Byfuglien, Ladd and Versteeg, they don’t seem overly concerned. Skille has scored 20 goals in the AHL, and Viktor Stalberg, acquired in the Versteeg deal, netted nine goals in 40 games for Toronto.
“He’s big and he can skate, and if you look at our top three lines there are a lot of options for him,” Quenneville said. “We would like it to be like last year when some nights you didn’t know who your top line was.”
The decision to say goodbye to Niemi was the boldest, although the Blackhawks seemed to recover nicely by signing Marty Turco, who lacks a championship ring but has a history of being a successful goalie.
As much as the Blackhawks appreciated Niemi’s strengths, they liked Turco at .3 million better than Niemi at .75 million.
Kane said Turco’s acquisition is the move he is most excited about.
“He is really good with the puck,” Kane said. “I’ve seen him fire the puck up, and then there are 2-on-1s and breakaways.”
The other question for the Blackhawks is how severely they will miss the grittiness that left town with Byfuglien, Ladd, Eager, Burish and Madden. Those players brought energy.
“John Scott will help us,” Quenneville said. “(Bickell) will give us some size and presence, and Jake Dowell plays exactly like that.”
Scott, a defenseman, is 6-8 and 258 pounds and played a physical role for the Wild last season.
“He brings the intimidation factor moreso than those guys,” Bowman said. “He may not have the energy factor like a Burish, but he has the intimidation factor like no one else in the league.”
Salute to Bowman
Bowman was assistant GM under Dale Tallon when the Blackhawks were building their powerhouse, but he has made his own mark since his 2009 promotion. Many NHL general managers have big personalities, but the son of coaching legend Scotty Bowman is more buttoned-up. His managerial style seems corporate. He comes across as structured, thorough and confident in his approach.
“I thought Stan did a remarkable job dealing with this,” McDonough said. “He was juggling this while we were preparing for the draft. Stan is a great unifier. One of Stan’s strengths is that he values the opinions of his hockey operations people. Everyone is weighing in. So all of Stan’s decisions are well thought through.”
The Bowman style fits well into McDonough’s vision for how the Blackhawks should be operated. When Rocky Wirtz took over as owner from his late father, the Blackhawks began to run a more modern, fan-friendly and efficient operation.
“We had to change the culture, change the way we thought about ourselves,” McDonough said. “This is an Original Six franchise in a major market, and we need to act like that in every aspect of our business.”
In trading away Versteeg, Ladd, Eager, Byfuglien, Sopel and Fraser, Bowman was able to accumulate first-, second- and sixth-round draft picks, plus Stalberg, blue-chip prospects Ivan Vishnevskiy and Jeremy Morin and two other prospects.
“Chicago has managed its cap well this summer,” NBC analyst Pierre McGuire said. “The fact their ownership was willing to eat the Huet deal (two years, .25 million) shows they have a commitment to being an elite team for years to come.”
Schumacher said Bowman handled the team breakup well, especially given that “he was at a disadvantage” because every GM knew he had to move half his roster.
“Dealing Buff is a better move than most realize,” the fan said. “While he had an excellent playoff, he is streaky and a bit overrated. They kept Patrick Sharp, who is a better player. Most of the guys who have departed can be replaced by other vets or young guys in the system.”
The Blackhawks sent a message to fans about their desire to stay on top by matching San Jose’s four-year, million offer sheet to No. 4 defenseman Hjalmarsson. The Blackhawks are more than willing to pay their most important players.
“I don’t see a team jumping ahead of them even after all of these changes,” Olczyk said. “I see them getting back to the West finals. From there, who knows?”