If you like what you’re seeing in the Western Conference Final between the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings, then you’re in luck—there’s a pretty good chance you will be seeing it for years to come.
Combined, the Kings and Blackhawks have won the last two Stanley Cup series and three of the last four.
They’ve gone head to head in the past two conference championships, and at least one of the two clubs has participated in the Western Conference Final in five of the past six years.
It’s the modern equivalent of a dynasty in the parity-laden, post-lockout NHL—teams that are perennial contenders, prime examples of consistency, franchise models other teams are striving to follow.
They’re the barricades on the western road to the Stanley Cup.
Their philosophies, at least at first glance, appear to be wildly different, with the Kings focused on rigid defense and the Blackhawks on explosive offense.
|Kings and Blackhawks in the 2013-14 regular season|
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It seems like a classic cliche battle to prove whether defense wins championships or the best defense is a good offense. More on that later.
In reality, the two clubs are actually very similar in their foundation.
Both the Hawks and Kings boast Selke Trophy-nominated centers, a big-time sniper, a Norris-worthy defenseman and a high-quality goaltender.
More importantly, they have what sets them aside from so many other squads in the Western Conference: quality depth.
Behind Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Corey Crawford, the Blackhawks have veterans Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp locked up long term.
Same goes for Bryan Bickell, who at 28 is proving that his playoff prowess as a go-to goal scorer is legitimate.
The Hawks’ bottom-six forwards have the kinds of qualities teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins—who have been in decline since their Stanley Cup championship in 2009—are now realizing they desperately need behind their own marquee names.
Guys like Andrew Shaw, Brandon Bollig, Brandon Saad, Marcus Kruger, Kris Versteeg and Ben Smith have enough skill to match up well against most lines opponents can throw at them, but they also have the kind of sandpaper spirit that leads to drawing penalties or making a physical impact in wearing down the opposition.
On defense, Brent Seabrook is nearly as good as his partner, Keith. Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson form a stellar shutdown tandem, and Nick Leddy and Michal Rozsival aren’t counted on to play many important minutes.
For the Kings, depth behind Anze Kopitar, Marian Gaborik, Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Justin Williams is provided by the likes of Tanner Pearson, Tyler Toffoli, Trevor Lewis, Jarret Stoll, Dwight King, Kyle Clifford and Jordan Nolan. It’s a blend of big bodies and smaller contracts behind the moneymakers.
Defenseman Drew Doughty is saddled with an inconsistent but potential-laden Jake Muzzin, who was one of the top possession players in the NHL this season.
Jeff Schultz, Willie Mitchell, Robyn Regehr and Matt Greene (when healthy) are the veteran rearguards who rarely roam. Slava Voynov and Alec Martinez are up-and-coming defensemen with offensive skills.
Despite the fact some of the back end is looking slower every year, the team’s system allows interchangeable pieces via trades or free agency to jump in and thrive so long as the core remains intact.
And the core is locked up for a while. Kopitar, Brown, Richards and Carter have at least more years on their contracts, as does Lewis. Clifford and youngsters Pearson, Toffoli, Nolan and Muzzin won’t be restricted free agents for another year. Doughty and Voynov are just 24 and on the books for five more seasons, and goaltender Jonathan Quick may retire as a member of the Kings after signing a 10-year, $58 million deal that kicked in this season.
Trade-deadline addition Gaborik is a pending unrestricted free agent, but the Kings will make an effort to bring him back. If he chooses another landing spot, the Kings could promote a guy like Toffoli—who has thrived in a part-time NHL role so far—to a more prominent role, or take a crack at another name on the open market or the trade route in time for another long playoff run.
Turnover on the Blackhawks roster will be minimal in the coming years unless the team somehow fails to lock up Toews and Kane, who will both enter the last year of their current contracts next season.
Given the Hawks’ winning history and a salary-cap ceiling that is expected to climb, that shouldn’t be an overly complicated process.
Only Michal Handzus and Peter Regin up front and seventh defenseman Sheldon Brookbank are unrestricted this summer.
Management has done a great job building the rosters.
The coaches have done an even better job of getting those players to play the way they want.
Remember when I mentioned it only appears the Kings and Blackhawks play different styles based on their regular-season numbers? That's not the case in these playoffs.
|Kings and Blackhawks in the 2014 playoffs|
|Goals against per game||Rank||Goals per game||Rank|
Yes, the Kings can score. It starts with the way they control the puck—much like their new conference rival. The Kings and Blackhawks were the top two possession teams during the last two regular seasons, according to ExtraSkater.com. In 2011-12, they were ranked fourth and fifth, respectively.
They’re both modern thinkers. Chicago Sun-Times reporter Mark Lazerus wrote recently about the tracking analytics employed by the Blackhawks.
Kings head coach Darryl Sutter—as old school as any coach in today’s NHL—described in his own terms the type of game the Kings play, via Jim Matheson of the Edmonton Journal. It’s not at all different than what the Blackhawks do despite the various ways they achieve their results:
The game’s changed. They think there’s defending in today’s game. Nah, it’s how much you have the puck. Teams that play around in their own zone [are] defending but they’re generally getting scored on or taking face-offs and they need a goalie to stand on his head if that’s the way they play.
The way the Kings and Blackhawks play has earned them spots among the league’s elite. And that doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon.
Steve Macfarlane has been covering the NHL for more than a decade, including seven seasons for the Calgary Sun. You can follow him on Twitter @MacfarlaneHKY.