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The Verdict: Bowman ensuring top-tier talents remain in Chicago

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks
VP/GM Stan Bowman worked to ensure pending free agents were re-signed, while still keeping an eye on the future (Getty Images).

Stan Bowman has been occupied with preemptive and proactive signings, but they don’t threaten the master plan. They fortify it. And regardless of whether the National Hockey League’s hard salary cap goes up, down or sideways, a couple of superstars are going nowhere.

Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane will be here forever,” said Bowman, the Blackhawks’ Vice President/General Manager. “I can’t predict what the salary cap will be in the near future, but I can tell you that Jonathan and Patrick will be on this team. Those two players put the Blackhawks back on the map, they’re up in a couple years, and whatever the numbers are, we’ll figure out the details. The notion that the money we’re spending now will affect our ability to keep Jonathan and Kane…it’s a non-issue. They will be here no matter what.”

Bowman has yet to enjoy his summer day with the Stanley Cup, the second during his reign. He has merely dabbled at his humbling hobby, golf. Instead, with a relentlessness similar to the type his players exhibit on ice, Bowman this week perpetuated the organization’s ethos of commitment by securing contract extensions with goaltender Corey Crawford and defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson.

“Quality players, quality guys who have been with us their whole professional careers,” Bowman said. “Same as Bryan Bickell, whom we signed in July. We know them, they know us. The relationship is comfortable and strong. Why wouldn’t you do what we’ve done? If your team has success, and you have the ability to keep as many of the guys who make it possible together, why wouldn’t you want to do that?”

Crawford, 28, shared the Jennings Trophy with Ray Emery last season as the Blackhawks yielded the fewest goals of any team during the regular season. In the playoffs, Crawford authored a league-best 1.84 average. To culminate his whirlwind summer—Crawford also became engaged—he brought the Stanley Cup to his home outside Montreal on Tuesday, the same day his six-year deal was announced.

Crawford is 40 games over .500 during his career, and he’d be the first to hail blue-line stalwarts such as Hjalmarsson, a fixture on the top two Blackhawk defense pairings. He was +15 during the regular season, +10 during the playoffs and, not to be outdone, he was married in late July. Hjalmarsson, 26, accepted a five-year extension.

A year ago, if outsiders had “questions” about Crawford, they were certainly not shared by Head Coach Joel Quenneville. He says he never “rode a goalie” any harder than he did in 2010-11, when Crawford was leaned on repeatedly during the second half of the schedule, his first full NHL season.

“Crow basically got us into the playoffs, which we just made on the last night, and then he was terrific when we took Vancouver to overtime in Game 7 of the playoffs,” said Q. “You look at goalies in their second year as No. 1, and the trend is for them maybe to take a little step back. But there was never a doubt that he had the ability and work habits to be the guy.”

Passionate fans agonize about “soft goals,” but they happen everywhere. If you are a goalie and don’t yield them on occasion, it’s because you’re not playing. Crawford missed a stoppable shot in Game 6 of the postseason at Detroit, giving the Red Wings a 2-1 lead. But what ensued was a defining juncture of the Blackhawks’ (and Crawford’s) remarkable 16-7 run to the Cup.

“If Crow isn’t great right after [allowing that goal], it’s 3-1 or 4-1,” recalled Quenneville. But Crawford responded, and the Blackhawks won the second of three straight potential elimination games 4-3, with a strong third period initiated by an excellent arrangement from Hjalmarsson, who pressured deep in Detroit territory and set up Michal Handzus for the tying score.

The Blackhawks do not play tentatively, as if waiting for something untoward to happen. One reason for their fast-forward, up-tempo style is confidence in Crawford and their deep back end. That teammates like to play in front of Crawford and admire him is evident. They were thrilled to win the Cup, of course, but there was a communal joy about Crawford’s triumph over skeptics and more decorated masked men.

Crawford’s demeanor is a significant factor in the locker room dynamic. Without fail, he sits or stands before his stall after every game—win or lose—answering questions from the media. He dodges nothing, including cross-examination of goals to his glove side, a storyline midway through the Stanley Cup Final. Every goal is his fault, even if it results from a defensive lapse or takes a quirky deflection off an opponent¹s gluteus maximus. Crawford is a modern incarnation of Tony Esposito, a Blackhawks Hall of Famer who accepted blame for every red light, even when it required selective amnesia. The next teammate Crawford throws under the bus will be the first. Esteem for him was underscored by Kane, who volunteered that his Conn Smythe Trophy for most valuable player in the postseason could have belonged to Crawford.

Hjalmarsson, a fearless and frequent blocker of shots, is reliable and compatible with any defense partner. He is also an excellent trigger for the Blackhawks’ transition game. A fourth-round draft choice in 2005, Hjalmarsson has grown with the organization, matured and evolved into a staple of two Stanley Cup champions. He could have waited and explored the marketplace as an unrestricted free agent next summer. But, like Crawford, Hjalmarsson realizes he already is part of a landscape in Chicago that has become a destination point.

The Blackhawks are developing their own, keeping their own, winning with their own. And their own don’t want to leave. Gone is the daze when management had to overpay veterans to come to Chicago and, quite often, play not very well.

“Corey, Niklas, Bryan and a few others on our roster could have made more money elsewhere,” Bowman said. “But what you’re seeing reflects the culture that Rocky Wirtz and John McDonough have created. Instead of maybe a few extra dollars, players value the way they are treated here, the objectives of the organization and the overall experience of being Blackhawks. Our guys are paid well and fairly, but they want to be part of something bigger than the biggest possible contract.”

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