The Blackhawks’ depth players have once again caught up with its core.
With most of the nucleus from their 2010 Stanley Cup victory retained, Chicago has seemingly found the right mix of talent and brawn with role players contributing in every facet of the game.
In 2010, the Hawks could boast of Kris Versteeg, Andrew Ladd, and John Madden: a depth scorer who stood out offensively, a future captain of the Winnipeg Jets, and a faceoff specialist respectively. Dustin Byfuglien screened goalies as a defenseman, played forward on occasion, and wreaked havoc.
The success of the 2010 team meant that not all of the talent could be re-signed and properly compensated in the offseason. Ladd and Byfuglien became Thrashers and then Jets. Versteeg was dealt to Toronto and Anttii Niemi was not retained; he signed in San Jose.
In the two years after winning the Stanley Cup, the mix was just off: Never the right combination of specialists, veterans, and dynamic youth. Players like Andrew Brunette, Fernando Pisani, and Marty Turco were failed experiments when the Hawks had to be creative under a looming salary cap.
Now, in 2013, with mainstays like Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith, general manager Stan Bowman has again stocked the cupboards.
Michael Frolik has been the best penalty killer on the No. 1 unit, helping the Hawks to a 95 percent success rate. Brandon Saad has become a threat, scoring 27 points in his rookie season and getting a Calder Trophy nomination. And physical force Bryan Bickell has found new life, suddenly playing on the top line with more goals (6) than Toews and Kane combined this postseason.
And Corey Crawford, after middling success the past two years has shared the nets with veteran Ray Emery this year, with both earning the William Jennings Trophy for the least goals allowed in the regular season.
Most successful playoff teams get unexpected offensive contributions from role players. Though Bickell notes on NHL.com that “hitting is probably the main part of my game,” his perceptive teammate, Viktor Stalberg insists, “We need him [Bickell] to keep going here if we want to have a chance to win.”
“I think he’s earned that opportunity [with] how he’s played,” said head coach Joel Quenneville about the 6-foot-4-inch 230 lbs. Bickell.
Quenneville also had this to say about rookie Saad. He stated that the young forward has been given more responsibility due to the quality and consistency of his play. “This is a real nice start to his career,” Quenneville told CSN Chicago.
These depth players do not produce in a vacuum, however. Bickell points out the effects of playing with an experienced core and its advantages for youth like Saad. “With our veterans in this room he’s going to be a great hockey player.” Toews has called Saad “fearless.”
Yet, as Chicago inches closer to their second Stanley Cup final appearance in four years, the salary cap crunch is to begin again.
In 2013-14, the cap is set to shrink according to the new collective bargaining agreement and as it stands, Chicago is $2 million under the cap with significant unrestricted and restricted free agents to re-sign this summer. Stalberg, Bickell, Michal Roszival, and Emery are all unrestricted while Marcus Kruger is restricted.
Changes are imminent come June 30, the day of the NHL entry draft.
At the time of writing, the Blackhawks remain in control, leading the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference final 2–0, looking more poised and confident as they play in to June.
Quenneville has not once had to make any changes to his six-man defensive unit during these playoffs, exhibiting a rare show of trust built on consistency. Only skaters like Bickell and Saad have moved through the lineup as momentum dictates.
And when their top scorers are Patrick Sharp, Hossa, Keith, and Kane and eight different players have scored game-winning goals, memories of 2010 come rushing back.
Still, for some Hawks, this postseason will necessarily be a one-off. They’ll try to enjoy the ride while they can.