Hawks position themselves as NHL's model franchise
BOSTON -- Facing the Detroit Red Wings in the Western Conference Semifinals gave the Chicago Blackhawks the chance to beat the team that has been the gold standard in the NHL for the better part of two decades.
When the 2013-14 season begins in October, a lot of other franchises may be looking at Chicago as the NHL's new model franchise.
The Blackhawks became the first franchise to win the Stanley Cup twice in the salary cap era Monday night by beating the Boston Bruins 3-2 at TD Garden in Game 6 of the Final. Given the construction of their roster, they might not be done.
"Two times. Two times in four years. There is something about this core," Conn Smythe Trophy winner Patrick Kane said. "We've got to stay together, because I think we can do some special things in the future."
There have been several new contenders for the title of top organization in the NHL since 2005, when the salary-cap era began. Other clubs have tried to build a consistent contender in the mold of the Red Wings, who won their fourth Cup in an 11-year span in 2008.
The Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the Red Wings to win the Cup in 2009, but haven't been back to the same level in the postseason since. The Red Wings, Los Angeles Kings and Bruins each had a chance to become the first team to win twice in the past eight seasons, but all of those teams' seasons ended at the hands of the Blackhawks.
Instead, it is the Blackhawks who have won twice in four seasons and look poise to contend for years to come.
"We're as good as it gets from our perspective that we're so lucky to be in Chicago experiencing the crowd, the enthusiasm," coach Joel Quenneville said. "The city is going to go bananas again. It's a special place to play and work and coach and be a part of because the enthusiasm in the city is a different level of excitement and just feel privileged to be a part of it. It's tough to win, even though it's not back-to-back. We had two learning curves the last two years, but I thought they applied it very well this year."
When the Blackhawks defeated the Philadelphia Flyers in six games in 2010, they became the poster child for the NHL's new financial climate. Cost reasons forced Chicago to jettison several key role players during the summer after the championship. Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg and Antti Niemi were among those who were gone before Chicago could begin mounting a title defense.
Two transition seasons followed. The Blackhawks were able to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2011 and pushed the Vancouver Canucks to a seventh game after falling behind 3-0 in the series. They lost an overtime-filled six-game series to the Phoenix Coyotes in 2012.
However, the team's core remained intact, even as general manager Stan Bowman kept tinkering everywhere else. What transpired in 2012-13 -- from a record 24 games without a regulation loss to start the season to claiming the Presidents' Trophy and then defeating the rival Red Wings, the defending champion Kings and the 2011 champion Bruins -- was nothing short of incredible.
"It is tough to do it; 2010 was a special team both on and off the ice," veteran forward Patrick Sharp said. "The fact that Stan had to make so many decisions right after we won makes this one even sweeter. He decided to keep myself [and] a couple of other guys around. I feel proud to be part of this organization and to win it again."
If winning twice in four seasons wasn't enough, the Blackhawks have now been to the conference finals three times in the past five years -- something no other organization can say.
Even better, the 2013-14 edition of the Blackhawks won't face nearly as sizable a makeover as the one the 2010 titlists went through. There are six unrestricted free agents -- two restricted, four unrestricted -- and according to capgeek.com, the Blackhawks have a little more than $2 million in cap space. However, that number includes a couple of players -- Steve Montador and Rostislav Olesz -- who are making more than $2 million per season but did not contribute to this Cup run.
Beyond Bickell, replacements for the other players could be readily available. There are youngsters such as Jeremy Morin, Brandon Pirri and Jimmy Hayes who want to earn a permanent place on the roster in the fall.