April 27, 2016—They took up the ice at the United Center on Wednesday. They softened it, gathered it, melted it and deposited it in a big hole near the penalty box.
On April 27, 2015, the Blackhawks were between playoff assignments. They had just dismissed the Nashville Predators in the first round and were awaiting a sweep of the Minnesota Wild.
“It feels weird,” said Brent Seabrook as players cleaned out their lockers.
Does that mean that this season, like the ice at the United Center, went down the drain? Not if you are a student of the sport over six winter months, or were just a casual observer mesmerized by the recent series against the St. Louis Blues.
Never during the regular season did the Blackhawks indicate any belief that it wasn’t their mission statement to win the Stanley Cup again. Never during seven games against St. Louis did they operate as though they thought maybe it was somebody else’s turn.
If the tournament versus the Blues had been any closer, they would still be playing. But the Blackhawks aren’t, which is why, even after two nights to sleep off Monday night’s excruciating loss, Head Coach Joel Quenneville volunteered that there’s “a lot of disappointment going on.”
But disappointment blankets the National Hockey League. Consider that since the Blackhawks won their first of three Stanley Cups in 2010, eight different teams have made it to the Final. This year, only the Tampa Bay Lightning are still alive. Three of them—the Boston Bruins, Vancouver Canucks and New Jersey Devils—missed the playoffs. Tip your cap, like it or not, to the salary cap.
It should be a badge of honor, not that they think in such terms, that the Blackhawks have accomplished what they have despite all the talent they have been forced to let go. Can you imagine what the roster would look like if there were no salary cap? But given the ability of the front office to maintain the core while procuring enough players to remain a serious contender, there is every reason to trust that the United Center ice will be intact on April 27, 2017.
Stan Bowman, the Senior Vice President/General Manager, faces another summer of juggling numbers. He is revered around the NHL for his knack for making things work, and on Wednesday he took questions about the next wave of difficult decisions. Andrew Shaw is among them, and Quenneville did use the word “irreplaceable” in describing his feisty baron of the blue paint. But until the exact parameters of the next salary cap are established, Bowman can only ponder and pace.
When probed about the franchise salary cap “problems,” Bowman properly explained that the Blackhawks’ stars do not just make big money, they earn it. Twenty-nine other clubs are under the same restrictions, but none play beneath so many fresh Stanley Cup banners.
On the matter of statistics, digest these. Stan Mikita is the career leader on the Blackhawks with 155 playoff starts. Denis Savard is next with 131. Tied for third are Jonathan Toews and Niklas Hjalmarsson with 124. Patrick Kane is at 123. Duncan Keith, 122. All have played more playoff games than Bobby Hull, as has Brent Seabrook, 119.
Toews, Hjalmarsson, Kane, Keith, and Seabrook are part of the current team’s backbone. They have skated many miles and will skate many more, but as Toews said Wednesday, they can take their present mood of un-fulfillment, combine it with an usually long period of rest and turn it into fuel.
It is noteworthy that upon eliminating the Blackhawks, Coach Ken Hitchcock extolled what he had just witnessed. He was thrilled about the Blues and relieved to survive. But he did not stop short by merely congratulating the Blackhawks. He gushed about their pedigree, their will, their savvy, their knowledge.
Rest assured that Hitchcock is not the only coach—and the Blues not the only franchise—breathing easier with the Blackhawks out of the picture. They lost a terrific playoff series, but not their identity. Fast forward to October. Whatever permutations occur to their roster, the Blackhawks will be installed as no less than a serious force to capture a fourth Stanley Cup in eight seasons. Their window is shut for now, but not closed.
“We can use this offseason to an advantage,” Toews elaborated. “To get more ready, physically and mentally.”
Until then, the Blackhawks need to get away from it all. Don’t call them. They’ll call you.