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Bowman has Blackhawks on verge of another Cup

by Dan Rosen / Chicago Blackhawks
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BOSTON -- Chicago Blackhawks' fans everywhere watched with disappointment in the summer of 2010 as their Stanley Cup championship team was being dismantled because of the salary cap.

Blackhawks general manager Stan Bowman, however, was the guy rubbing his hands together in the corner, laughing like Dr. Evil, excited and energized by the challenge of putting the puzzle back together with some new blood and fresh faces.

"There is an element to some change that I actually think is good," Bowman told on Sunday afternoon. "If you bring the exact same team back year to year, it's awful tough to push through the grind of a schedule and a season. If you have a few guys who didn't win it and they want to get there, I think it brings some energy to the group. I don't mind the fact that you have to make some changes."

Bowman kept the core intact after winning the Stanley Cup, but that meant there eventually wouldn't be room for more than half of the players that played in Game 6 against the Philadelphia Flyers. They were depth players -- guys who played a massive role in 2010 -- and Chicago just couldn't afford them.

A little over 36 months after the demolition of a championship roster began, here are the Blackhawks again, in the same position they were in 2010, 60 or more minutes away from becoming the first team in the salary-cap era to win the Stanley Cup twice. They can do it against the Boston Bruins in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final at TD Garden on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, RDS).

Chicago got to the cusp because yes, the core stayed intact and guys like Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook improved, but mostly because Bowman and his staff replenished the lost depth by drafting, developing, signing or trading for comparable players with favorable salaries.

"It is obviously a system that worked for us before," Bowman said.

The most notable comparison can be found in net between Antti Niemi and Corey Crawford.

Chicago let Niemi go to the San Jose Sharks, choosing instead to match the offer sheet the Sharks gave to defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson three years ago.

The reason: Crawford was ready for a promotion.

"Our options were we could let Niklas go and get the draft choices, but those draft choices wouldn't have been until the 2011 draft and those players we got probably wouldn't help us until at least around now," Bowman said. "We didn't have anybody else like Niklas, a 24-year-old defenseman at the time that can jump in and play those minutes. Nor was there anybody that was readily available that could fill that hole without us having to give up assets to do it. But, we had Corey. … The only thing Corey needed was an opportunity. Here we are a couple of years later."

Dustin Byfuglien, a power forward on the 2010 team, was traded to the Atlanta Thrashers after the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, but Bowman already knew that Bryan Bickell, a 6-foot-4, 233-pound power forward, was prepared for a bigger role. Bickell, who played four games in the 2010 playoffs, earned it this season and has become one of the most prominent forwards on the team this spring and summer.

He could be the next guy Bowman has to replace. Bickell could leave Chicago via unrestricted free agency this summer.

"I can't say that we set out and said we're going to replicate Byfuglien with Bickell," Bowman said. "It wasn't necessarily player for player, but that analogy is pretty accurate."

So, too, Bowman said, is the one between defensemen Brian Campbell and Johnny Oduya.

Campbell was shipped to the Florida Panthers at the 2011 NHL Draft; eight months later, Bowman acquired Oduya in a trade from the Winnipeg Jets. Both good skaters. Both good puck movers. Both veterans. Problem solved.

Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg, Troy Brouwer, John Madden, Tomas Kopecky and Ben Eager eventually all had to leave Chicago, too. Enter Brandon Saad, Marcus Kruger, Viktor Stalberg, Michal Handzus, Michael Frolik and Brandon Bollig.

Saad, a second-round pick in 2011, is developing faster than the Blackhawks thought he would. Handzus is surprising as a second-line center. Stalberg adds speed to the lineup. Kruger and Frolik have become Chicago's top penalty-killing duo and fourth-line wingers between Dave Bolland.

"Frolik is a top-10 pick [in 2006], he scored 20 goals his first two years in the League," Bowman said. "I've seen a lot of guys with that profile who are too stubborn and too upset when they're given a role like that and they don't buy into it, they're always frustrated when they're not getting a chance. But you see Michael (Frolik), you're not going to meet a more upbeat, positive kid. That's the way he is all the time and I think that contributes to his success. He's embraced the role. It's a tough thing to do in today's game to find unselfish guys who just want to win."

Bolland is one of those guys. He was a gritty and dangerous checking-line center on the 2010 team, but has become Chicago's current faster and younger version of the defensive-minded Madden.

In turn, Andrew Shaw, a fifth-round draft pick in 2011, has taken over Bolland's role from the 2010 team.

Bowman scoffs when people say Chicago got lucky with Shaw, who was bypassed in both the 2009 and 2010 drafts before the Blackhawks took him with the No. 139th pick in 2011.

"Shaw is a guy who we really sort of targeted," Bowman said. "I remember [chief amateur scout] Mark Kelley saying, 'We're going to get this kid.' "

But even Kelley didn't want to discuss Shaw too much.

"He said, 'There's a reason for that, because I think he's a diamond in the rough and I didn't want to tip our hand,' " Bowman said. "He was a last-year draft eligible player and if the rumor gets out, all of a sudden he's not as hidden."

Michal Rozsival wasn't hidden, but he did fly under the radar when Bowman signed him in September, shortly before the lockout. He plays a similar role to the one Brent Sopel played in 2010.

Nick Leddy gives the Blackhawks something unique from what they had three years ago -- a young, developing, promising No. 6 defenseman. Nick Boynton and Jordan Hendry didn't have Leddy's skillset.

"Back in 2010, you had some guys who were probably unknown names that made names for themselves throughout that year and in the playoffs, and you're seeing that happen again this year," Kane said. "For us to be in this situation again three years down the road, especially after the breakup we had from that 2010 team, losing 10 or 11 guys, whatever it is, I think it's a great success."

Even if Chicago can win one more game, there will be changes this summer. They're unavoidable, especially with the salary cap dropping nearly $6 million to $64.3 million.

Maybe Bickell finds another team willing to give him more money. Maybe backup goalie Ray Emery (this year's better version of the 2010 Cristobal Huet) is offered a starting position or at least a more lucrative contract by another team. Maybe Handzus, Stalberg and Rozsival -- all potential unrestricted free agents -- sign elsewhere. Maybe Bowman pulls off a trade or two.

"We'll make some changes, but for the most part, we'll be in a better spot [than we were in 2010]," Bowman said.

He's right. The turnover won't be as great as it was after the 2010 run, but like Bickell and Crawford were a few years ago, the Blackhawks already have depth guys waiting, watching and ready for their chance to take a run at the Cup.

They're backed by a general manager and an organization willing to accept change. They've learned that it doesn't kill a potential dynasty.

"Whether it's Jimmy Hayes, Brandon Pirri or Jeremy Morin, they're going to be hungry," Bowman said. "They've witnessed this. They want to be the guys doing it. I think it's good to have that excitement for the challenge."

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