It takes a lot to reroute one’s attention from the Blackhawks’ pregame programming at the United Center, unmatched entertainment culminated by the one and only Jim Cornelison’s rendition of the "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Thursday night, Cornelison had to bow in the direction of Stan Bowman, senior vice president and general manager of the defending Stanley Cup champions. For the second year in a row, he acquired the most coveted free-agent-to-be just prior to the National Hockey League trading deadline.
Andrew Ladd, a valued member of the Blackhawks’ first of three titles in 2010, was obtained from the Winnipeg Jets.
“We’re thrilled,” said Bowman, who dealt for Antoine Vermette about this time last season. All Vermette did was star in the Stanley Cup Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning. When David Poile, president of hockey operations and general manager of Thursday night’s opposition, the Nashville Predators, heard about Bowman’s latest maneuver, an eye-roll followed.
“Phenomenal,” said Poile. “What Stan does here with the salary cap, keeping the core and building around it, he’s phenomenal.”
About a half-hour before warmups, word spread that Ladd was a healthy scratch for the Jets in their game at Dallas. Soon after, the Blackhawks issued the official release: Ladd, forward Matt Fraser and defenseman Jay Harrison were headed to Chicago in exchange for forward Marko Dano, a first-round pick in the 2016 draft and a conditional pick in the 2018 draft.
During the first television timeout, with the score tied at 0-0 and 12:54 remaining in the opening period, Gene Honda announced to the standing-room audience that Ladd was returning to Chicago.
There he was on the video board, a clip of him scoring for the Blackhawks, then a still shot of him in his red sweater. The fans roared. They remember his two-way excellence, his toughness, that goal against the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 6 of the Final, on a line with Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane.
“That’s fair,” said Bowman, when asked whether sending Ladd to the Atlanta Thrashers in the summer of 2010 was the compulsory move that hurt most. “We were up against it with the salary cap and had to make several changes, as you know. But yes, Andrew was one we would have loved to keep.
“He’s a character guy, he does everything, and he was a leader here as he was with Winnipeg, where he was captain. He checks all the boxes. He’s everything you want a player to be, he’s still got close friends on this team, he’s familiar with the coaching staff and city. We’ve been working on this for a month or so, and I hope this sends a message to our guys.”
Undoubtedly, it will. Last winter, when the Blackhawks spent money they didn’t have to spend with Kane on the injured list, Jonathan Toews said he “couldn’t believe” that Bowman was able to pry Vermette away from the Arizona Coyotes. Now Ladd is back, likely to play left wing besides Toews and Marian Hossa, maybe kill penalties as he did in 2010.
“I’ll bet Stan got Winnipeg to pay for part of this too, knowing him,” Poile quipped. No joke. The Jets are on the hook for 36 percent of Ladd’s salary, according to Bowman, who said the Blackhawks have about $2 million more available to add to the roster before Monday—a possibility he surmised to be above 50 percent.
“Very excited,” Ladd said on a conference call from his Dallas hotel room. “I had a feeling I was going to be traded, and Chicago was on the top of my list.”
Ladd, 30, had 17 goals and 17 assists in 59 games with the Jets, who are unlikely to qualify for the playoffs. Kevin Cheveldayoff, Winnipeg’s general manager and a former executive with the Blackhawks, recently extended Dustin Byfuglien, another important individual from the Blackhawks' 2010 victory mix who was purged from the roster.
After that, Ladd, an unrestricted free agent, assumed he would be moving on. Half a dozen other teams were in the hunt, but there was Bowman in Winnipeg on Tuesday night, poised to close the deal. For a blue-chip top-six forward, the Blackhawks surrendered not a soul from the current roster.
“I really like our team now,” concluded Bowman, who was asked whether Ladd is merely a rental, destined to sign elsewhere this summer.
“That’s obviously a situation we’ll address later,’’ he said. “But we’d love to keep him.”