During the Blackhawks’ nationally televised second-round clincher in St. Paul on Thursday night, there was a break in the action. Up popped that ubiquitous commercial with T. J. Oshie firing pucks at a rental car representative wearing civilian clothes and a frightened look.
Nobody gets hurt, but the ad might have caused pain in St. Louis because Oshie and the Blues are no longer part of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Likewise, a residue of angst exists among fans of the Nashville Predators and Minnesota Wild, both also eliminated after exemplary efforts during the regular season.
There is nothing wrong with the organizations or rosters in St. Louis, Nashville or Minnesota. Their only problem is timing, for they are contemporaries in the Central Division – the strongest in professional sports – with the Blackhawks, who are enjoying a golden era unprecedented in franchise history.
Even after the eventual champion Los Angeles Kings advanced last spring by defeating the Blackhawks in overtime of Game 7, victorious coach Darryl Sutter offered that he and his staff allocated significant hours to the task of getting through Chicago.
That was the only series the Blackhawks have lost in their last nine, and here they are again, poised to commence their fifth Western Conference Final in seven seasons. Quite likely, brain trusts in St. Louis, Nashville and Minnesota are pondering the same dilemma of which Sutter spoke.
The predicament is daunting. Regardless of what happens to the Blackhawks in this tournament, they are well fortified for years to come. Jonathan Toews is 27, not 37. Patrick Kane is 26, not 36. Duncan Keith is 31, but plays like he’s 21 and could play until he’s 41. You could go on and on, but the reality is that the core – the backbone – of the Blackhawks will remain intact for the near future.
This narrative is cyclical, of course, as the Blackhawks of 30 years ago can attest. They were loaded then with Denis Savard, Steve Larmer, Doug Wilson, Al Secord, Curt Fraser, Bob Murray and Troy Murray, among others. All of them had reason to believe they belonged to at least the second-best team in the National Hockey League. Problem: timing. They were up against the Edmonton Oilers and Wayne Gretzky.
“At any particular time, they could put six Hall of Famers on the ice,” recalls Troy Murray, currently the veteran analyst on WGN Radio and a foe Gretzky cited as one of his most efficient shadows. “You thought you were getting close to the Oilers, and then they would kick it into another gear.”
The Blackhawks were swept by the Oilers in 1983, but in 1985 they imagined they had Edmonton on the ropes, having reached a 2-2 situation after four games of the conference finals. Alas, they went to Edmonton for Game 5 and were thrashed 10-5, then returned to the Stadium for Game 6 and were walloped 8-2. Just to exacerbate the wound, the Oilers dismissed the Blackhawks and won another Stanley Cup in 1990 without Gretzky, who had been traded to the Kings.
When Rocky Wirtz took over as Chairman in 2007 and hired John McDonough as President and CEO, the professed mission was to contend annually, as those Oilers of yore and more recently the Detroit Red Wings. With Toews and Kane leading the way out of the abyss, the Blackhawks have emerged as one of the industry’s most admired and copied franchises, on and off the ice.
The elephant in the room threatening to stomp on this master plan is an unforgiving salary cap that necessitates change, and obviates any impulse by the front office to attach itself to all the players who contribute to the cause. That is simply impossible and can be healthy, because a certain amount of turnover is required to keep the line moving.
Come this summer, Vice President/General Manager Stan Bowman again will face difficult decisions. He had to make a drastic overhaul after the 2010 Stanley Cup, and significant but not as many radical revisions after the 2013 championship. Still, in parting with players such as Dave Bolland and Michael Frolik, Bowman did not take on payroll, all the better to reward the base.
Meanwhile, by securing draft choices suitable for flipping, Bowman has complemented his top players with prospects and rentals. The Blackhawks are solid in goal, at forward and on defense, with youth on the way or already here, as in Teuvo Teravainen. Bowman’s track record indicates he has pieces to the puzzle that opponents strive to solve.