One of the secrets to Chicago’s dominance of the last half decade is that the team’s management group has generally done a pretty good job of not getting confused about what makes the team win. That’s why, as it has in the past, it’ll do whatever it takes to keep the stars that win championships.
The core of the team is a group of five players: Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp. That’s something that stands out when we look at the top scorers in both of the recent seasons when the Blackhawks won the Cup:
|Chicago Blackhawks' Top Scorers, 2009-10 and 2012-13|
|Player||2009-10 Stats (Team Rk.)||2012-13 Stats (Team Rk.)|
|Patrick Kane||82GP-30G-58A-88PTS (1st)||47GP-23G-32A-55PTS (1st)|
|Duncan Keith||82GP-14G-55A-69PTS (2nd)||47GP-3G-24A-27PTS (5th)|
|Jonathan Toews||82GP-25G-43A-68PTS (3rd)||47GP-23G-25A-48PTS (2nd)|
|Patrick Sharp||82GP-25G-41A-66PTS (4th)||28GP-6G-14A-20PTS (9th)|
|Marian Hossa||57GP-24G-27A-51PTS (5th)||40GP-17G-14A-31PTS (3rd)|
All are exceptional talents; with the exception of Sharp any one of those players is the kind a team can be built around. The Blackhawks have three of them inked to long-term contracts, while Kane and Toews will doubtlessly be extended long term prior to becoming unrestricted free agents in the summer of 2015.
But to keep a core together, sacrifices often have to be made. The Blackhawks won it all in 2010 while Kane and Toews were still on their entry-level deals (both having signed long deals previously that would kick in the next year), but with a sudden increase in those salaries the team needed to free up money in a hurry. It did it by dumping much of the team’s supporting cast, and six of the skaters it let go in the two years that followed were quite good in their own right.
It is a list that includes some guys who emerged as top-flight talent after leaving Chicago (Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien), a top defenceman (Brian Campbell), a secondary scorer (Kris Versteeg) and two big support players (Troy Brouwer and Tomas Kopecky). The Blackhawks mostly took draft picks and prospects back.
As a side point, that’s a fun list to look at in a league obsessed with size. Of the six valuable players Chicago shipped out, four were big top-nine forwards, one was a smallish secondary scorer (a guy they brought back this season at a greatly diminished price) and one a good defenceman with a massive contract.
For all that commentators harped on the role of Bryan Bickell in the Blackhawks’ Cup win this past summer, Chicago has shown that it doesn't worry about big guys who can play a bit because they’re much easier to replace than the elite talent.
That’s not to say the loss of those capable players didn’t hurt Chicago. In 2009-10 the Blackhawks posted 112 points and a gaudy plus-62 goal differential. They averaged 99 points in the two seasons following the sell-offs and had a total goal differential of just plus-43. But that was the price of keeping the elite talent, and it was a price Chicago was prepared to pay.
Last season showed the wisdom of that approach; the Blackhawks took the Presidents’ Trophy by five points over Pittsburgh (despite playing tougher Western teams all year) and then won this group’s second Stanley Cup.
The lost talent was replaced with other players: Bickell, Brandon Saad, Viktor Stalberg, Andrew Shaw and Michael Frolik. Stalberg and Frolik were let go in the summer, while Shaw and Saad are still playing on cheap entry-level deals.
The Blackhawks forgot their own history a little, though, or perhaps general manager Stan Bowman just wanted to avoid the post-championship lull the team suffered the last time around. Chicago ponied up big money for Bickell, who has all of six points this season.
Likewise, the team handed goaltender Corey Crawford a long-term extension after letting its previous starter (Antti Niemi) walk after winning the Cup; Crawford has a 0.907 save percentage this season and continues to look like the middling starter he’s been for most of his career.
But when it comes time for Chicago to re-up Toews and Kane, it’s a good bet that Bowman remembers the purges of 2010-2011 and comes to the same decision he did then. Toews and Kane matter; ultimately the Bickells and Crawfords and the rest are replaceable. If he has to deal the support players to keep the top guys, he absolutely will. It worked out pretty well last time.