Brent Seabrook remembers a time when there were teams in the NHL that were so bad, so helpless, they were viewed as easy pickings, a guaranteed two points, a much-appreciated night off in the middle of the season.
That’s because Seabrook was on one of those teams.
“You had the Detroits and the Dallases and the other top teams back then, and then you had us,” Seabrook said. “We played them six or eight times a year, and we’d lose 6-2 to Dallas or 8-0 to Detroit. One time we lost 9-1 to Dallas. You’re trying to give everything you can to try to beat that team, but at the end of the day, that team was too good.
“Nowadays, every team’s that good.”
It’s not really hyperbole. The parity created by salary-cap attrition over the years, combined with improved scouting, drafting, coaching and player development, has compressed the NHL standings to an almost absurd degree. Fourteen points separate the top 14 teams in the Western Conference, and it’s not just because of the so-called “loser point” given for overtime losses.
The 14th-place team in the West is the Oilers, who happen to have the best player in the world, Connor McDavid. The Vegas Golden Knights — an expansion team! — sit atop the Western Conference with a 22-9-2 record. The lowly Coyotes recently beat the second-place Devils 5-0. The lousy Sabres took the Blackhawks and Blues to overtime in consecutive games this month.
So as the Hawks prepare for six consecutive road games, they know they have to be at their best every night, whether they’re in Dallas or Edmonton, New Jersey or New York.
“That’s what makes every game so competitive,” Jonathan Toews said. “You’re not going to get the automatic two points where you just walk into games and expect to win. You’ve got to go out there and earn every little bit of success that you get.”
While the salary cap clearly has had an effect on limiting the rise of super-teams, the sheer depth of the league has made the biggest difference. Nobody has a fourth line of goons playing four or five minutes a night anymore. There are no easy matchups, precious few plugs and pylons to exploit.
“It’s the salary cap, but it’s also teams really figuring out their models behind drafting well, and developing well, and building their teams the right way, and putting time and money into getting players to play the right way,” Hawks defenseman Connor Murphy said. “Seems like everybody’s well-coached now, too. You’ve got systems that are giving you less and less time and space for guys who have the puck. You definitely have a hard game every night. That’s made it a fun league.”
An exhausting one, too. The physical grind of an 82-game season is obvious. But the mental grind can be even harder — especially when there are no nights off, no times to ease up a bit. It’s one of the reasons Joel Quenneville spends less time practicing than other coaches.
“It makes you value your off days, and that’s one thing that we’re very fortunate with our coaching staff here,” defenseman Cody Franson said. “They do a nice job of allowing us to find that balance to maintain our energy levels.”
In a neat twist from his early days in the league, Seabrook noted that when players come to Chicago from other teams, they often talk about how much they’d get up for games against the marquee Hawks, particularly at the United Center.
But that only adds to the challenge night after night.
“It’s good, because it prepares you for the latest parts of the season and even the playoffs,” Murphy said. “It makes it fun to watch and fun to play. Sure, it’s nice to get easy wins, but when a game’s a blowout, you’re sitting on the bench half asleep and not as into it. You like the tight games to get your adrenaline going. That’s the fun of the game.”
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