There is another Blackhawks’ parade of sorts scheduled this week when the Stanley Cup champions stage a camp for prospects. The event will not be televised, and crews to clean up confetti shall not be required, as these young men are largely anonymous. But soon you will become familiar with at least a few of the names to be played later.
“We’ve got a lot of them coming in, maybe 70 or so, and some good ones,” said general manager Stan Bowman, who strongly believes that Friday’s opening session will reveal not only quantity, but quality.
Since the Blackhawks earned their first NHL championship in 49 years on June 9, Bowman has dealt with the harsh realities of the league’s hard salary cap. Months ago, he indicated that perhaps a third of the team’s roster would have to be revised. Fans who dismissed the warning might be alarmed about the number of dearly departed cogs in the Cup machine, but a hard salary cap is not a misnomer. There is no elbow room in the NHL system for detours such as the luxury tax that exists in baseball and basketball.
When wincing at the loss of favorites, one should pause to survey the landscape. Had the Blackhawks finished out of the playoffs, the situation would have been virtually status quo. Except for a couple of individual bonuses accrued through exceptional performance by Jonathan Toews
and Patrick Kane
, the Blackhawks still would have been up against the payroll limit. Again, a hard cap has no conscience when it comes to regular-season standings or surviving four post-season series.
Team historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. Verdi authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001.
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Could Bowman have operated in such a fashion so as to avoid difficult decisions in June? Absolutely. He could have traded, say, Dustin Byfuglien and Kris Versteeg in January for less expensive bodies, this alleviating the pressure from accountants. The Blackhawks could have maneuvered to a more comfortable position, well beneath the cap. But without Byfuglien and Versteeg—who are now elsewhere—would the Blackhawks have amassed 16 playoff victories and captivated the city? Not likely.
Owners and front office executives in all sports are frequently chided for falling in love with their players, to a fault, after a title is secured. We’ve all heard the hymn—it is better to move a player or players a year too early instead of a year too late. Bowman is on record as saying he would have preferred to keep the Cup roster intact and untouched. But he never had a chance, he knew as much, and in fact, fellow general managers have praised him for post-parade machinations. The circumstances facing the Blackhawks were not a secret within the NHL.
“Our key guys, our core, is still there, and not going anywhere,” Bowman said. “When I told people we would have to lose some key components, I wasn’t bluffing. I wish I was. But it’s not as though, when it comes to filling in positions for next season, that we’ve got square pegs going into round holes. We had three players on our Rockford club who we feel are NHL ready. Bryan Bickell
, Jake Dowell and Jack Skille. But I’d like to think they weren’t with the big club last year because we were that deep. We acquired a left wing from Toronto (in the Versteeg deal) who wil make the team. Viktor Stalberg
can skate like the wind, and could be on the second or third line.”
The Blackhawks also obtained two defensemen by signing John Scott, formerly of the Minnesota Wild, and Ivan Vishnevskiy, who arrives via the transaction with the Atlanta Thrashers for Andrew Ladd. Scott is a giant of a man—6 foot 8, 258 pounds—who will fight when provoked which, according to Bowman, isn’t often for obvious reasons. Vishnevskiy is mobile and possesses a wicked shot.
During the recent draft, Bowman and staff built for a more distant future foundation through the same roof. Kevin Hayes
, 18, was selected 24th overall from Noble & Greenough School (Mass.). Then they traded a choice with the Toronto Maple Leafs to snag brother Jimmy, 21, a key factor on Boston College’s 2010 NCAA championship squad. They were not drafted because they are siblings with a solid family background.
“We feel they’ll both make the NHL,” said Bowman. “Kevin is a right shot who plays left wing with the potential to be a top player. He’s 6-3 and still growing. Jimmy is even bigger. He played the right side at BC, which was loaded, and really came on last season. He’s going to be a junior. We’ll evaluate him at the end of this year. Kevin probably won’t be in school more than two years.”
When you were 18, were you packing to stay in a fancy Chicago hotel with the NHL on your radar?
“Pretty cool,” said Kevin. “To be wanted by the Stanley Cup champions. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do, be an NHL player. Here at home, though, we’re not treated as special. I still have to take out the garbage.”
“I’m older, so of course I boss him around,” said Jimmy. “We used to be Boston Bruins fans, but no more. What the Blackhawks have done in the last couple years, the attendance increase, the Cup, it’s ridiculous. It will be a blessing to be part of that winning culture.”
Bowman, a golf nut, took a brief respite recently to attend the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, Cal. Actually, it wasn’t all fun and sun, because he was put to work as walking scorer, a labor of love experienced by his father, Scotty, also a golf nut. For the final round, Stan was assigned to none other than Tiger Woods. He didn’t win, but Stan did, and sometime soon, he will have his day with the silver trophy for which he was named.
“It’s been very busy and we’ve had to make some tough decisions,” said Stan Bowman. “I don’t know that it’s sunk in just yet. It will, though. Winning the Stanley Cup, and the way people in Chicago have responded to it, I wish I could compare it to something. But I can’t.”