It’s coming. And everyone knows it’s coming. Another salary cap crunch, another painful summer, another retooling of the roster. Whenever this Blackhawks season comes to a close, whether it’s in two weeks or two months, it’ll mark the end of one chapter in team history, and the beginning of another.
Both coach Joel Quenneville and general manager Stan Bowman have admitted that they felt a sense of urgency to win the Stanley Cup in 2010, knowing the cap-necessitated massacre that was looming in the offseason. They’re downplaying it now, but that better-win-now feeling is palpable in both the dressing room and the front office.
Because as flawed as the Hawks are this season, the championship window is still very much open. It might not be next season.
“We know we have a good team here, and we’ve got a chance,” Marcus Kruger said. “And we want to take advantage of that. It’s not easy, and you don’t come around teams like this very often. We have a chance and we want to make the most of it, because you never know when this chance will come again.”
Whatever happens this summer, it won’t be as gutting as it was in 2010, when half the roster was lost. But it won’t be as mild as it was in 2013, when only role players such as Dave Bolland and Michael Frolik were moved. With the matching $10.5-million cap hits of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane kicking in, a lucrative new deal awaiting Brandon Saad, and a plunging Canadian dollar leaving little hope for a significant bump in the cap number, the future is uncertain for the Hawks beyond this postseason run, which begins Wednesday in Nashville.
Will Patrick Sharp be traded? Will Bryan Bickell be moved, too? Can the Hawks re-sign an important role player in Kruger? Johnny Oduya will be gone. So will Michal Rozsival and likely David Rundblad. Antoine Vermette, Andrew Desjardins and Kimmo Timonen are rentals. Brad Richards’ Hawks career was always likely going to be a one-and-done.
No matter what happens, next year’s lineup is likely going to include a lot of new, cheap faces, with rookies playing key roles at both forward and defense.
“We’ve been through it enough times now that it’s business as usual,” Sharp said. “We don’t have any thoughts of that in our locker room. At least, I don’t. We’re just playing and worrying about [the playoffs].”
It’s a fact of life in the salary-cap era. This season, the gap between the top and bottom teams in the playoffs was a mere 16 points, the narrowest in the 16-team playoff era. And the routine dismantling of elite teams such as the Hawks has helped feed that parity. The Winnipeg Jets are in the playoffs for the first time since moving from Atlanta, led by their captain Andrew Ladd and their engine Dustin Byfuglien (both acquired from the Hawks in 2010), and supported by a 19-goal season by Michael Frolik (acquired in 2013). The New York Islanders’ turnaround was anchored by defensemen Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk, cap casualties of the Hawks and Bruins, respectively, at the start of the season.
“That 2010 team was a special team — you can see all the players that moved on, they’re elite players on their teams, captains and all-stars,” Bickell said. “But hopefully we can keep things mostly intact here, so it won’t be like before when we had to lose five or six main pieces.”
Quenneville sees the parity around the league — the wild cards in both conferences are as scary as anyone in the league — and feels that urgency as much as anyone. It took two years for Bowman to retool and plug holes after 2010 to become the first GM to win two Cups in the salary-cap era. It might take even longer this time, as the Central Division and the league as a whole are only getting better.
“You’re always worried about winning the Cup in that year,” Quenneville said. “You never know what the picture’s going to look like the next year. You look at how tough our division is, you know how hard it is making the playoffs. This year, I think every single team probably feels they’ve got a great chance of winning the Cup, better than any other year. You should always feel like that, let alone in a year that might look like your window might be closing. You’ve always got to approach it like this has got to be the year to win the Cup.”