This is what Stan Bowman envisioned.
The general manager knew that for the Chicago Blackhawks to succeed this season, the core players would have to excel as usual and the younger players would have to grow into their roles. He knew it would be a process. He knew it could be done.
Now, with less than a month left in the regular season, the core players are excelling, one above all. Right wing Patrick Kane has 76 points, tied with Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid for the NHL lead, and is threatening to win the Art Ross Trophy as scoring champion for the second straight season. He should be in contention to win the Hart Trophy as most valuable player for the second straight season as well.
The younger players are growing, most notably rookie forward Nick Schmaltz, who spent a stint with Rockford of the American Hockey League and came back a more confident, assertive player.
After wins against the Minnesota Wild, their challengers in the Central Division, and the Montreal Canadiens, who had won eight of their previous 10 games, look at where the Blackhawks are now: first in the Western Conference.
They are 14-3-0 in their past 17 games. Anyone want to face them in the Stanley Cup Playoffs?
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"The way our team has played over the last six weeks has been what we hoped," Bowman said. "I said this early on in the year, and I don't know if people didn't believe me. I really felt this year was different than other years for us because we had young players that were going to get better as the year went on.
"Most other guys, they're really good players, but their level doesn't really elevate because they are sort of established. But these young guys; what we saw in October was not what we see now. They're better players. I think if anything that's what's happened.
"Our main guys have really played better even than they did early, but we've had these younger guys sort of solidify themselves. They know they belong now."
After winning the Cup in 2010, the Blackhawks committed to their core and purged half the roster to stay under the salary cap. They rebuilt their supporting cast and won the Cup in 2013, then reshuffled their supporting cast and won it again in 2015.
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Kane, Corey Crawford, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Jonathan Toews carry a combined salary-cap charge of $48.788 million this season, according to CapFriendly.com. That's two thirds of the $73 million cap. But Bowman has filled in the roster with bargains and young players, and coach Joel Quenneville has made the pieces fit.
The Blackhawks were not at their best early in the season. But they found ways to win thanks to great goaltending and hot streaks from players like Hossa and Artem Anisimov, and their team game started to come together in January.
Kane has been the main catalyst.
Perhaps he doesn't seem as good relative to last season, when he had 106 points (46 goals, 60 assists), 17 more than anyone else, and became the first U.S.-born player to win the Hart and Art Ross trophies. The races for both trophies are extraordinarily competitive this season. When the NHL.com staff voted for the Hart with three quarters of the season to go, Kane received only one fifth-place vote.
But he has made a push lately with 27 points (16 goals, 11 assists) in 17 games and has been immensely valuable to the Blackhawks again. Kane has 31 goals, four off the League lead and eight more than any teammate. He leads the Blackhawks in scoring by 14 points. He controls the game with his usual linemates: Anisimov and Artemi Panarin.
Video: CHI@MTL: Kane snipes one in off post to beat Price
"He's beaten teams a lot of different ways," Bowman said. "He's got the puck all the time when he's on the ice, and that line tends to have a lot of shifts in the other team's end where they're on it for 30, 40 seconds, moving it around. They've got a lot of patience as a line, and they sometimes pass up good shots, but they end up getting even better shots."
The rest of the core has performed about as expected. Then there is forward Richard Panik, who has 17 goals, one less than Toews, and rookie forward Ryan Hartman, the most consistent of the young players, who has 15. Schmaltz had four points (one goal, three assists) in his first 26 games and was sent to the AHL from Dec. 4 to Jan. 14. He has 16 points (five goals, 11 assists) in 22 games since.
Anisimov injured his leg against the Canadiens on Tuesday after reaching 45 points, an NHL career high. Schmaltz stepped right into Anisimov's spot at center between Panarin and Kane; he assisted on a goal and sparked odd-man rushes. Anisimov is expected to miss 3-4 weeks, the Blackhawks said Wednesday, but should be ready for the playoffs. If the Blackhawks stay healthy, they have what it takes for another deep run.
"What I always tell people is, when you haven't been in the League, you do a lot of thinking," Bowman said. "You probably think too much. You don't just play on instinct. You don't want to make mistakes, because you don't want to get sent to the minors.
"Now I think they're all past that. They're just playing hockey now. You can't rush that. You have to just let it sort of happen."