KEEP­ING THE TRAIN ON THE TRACKS

Los­ing top-end tal­ent year af­ter year seems like a for­mula for fail­ure, but the in­jec­tion – and in­te­gra­tion – of new blood makes the Hawks a peren­nial con­tender

The Hockey News - - WASHINGTON CAPITALS - – MATT LARKIN

dooms­day clock ticks closer to mid­night ev­ery year, with each new ros­ter more rad­i­cally over­hauled than the pre­vi­ous sea­son’s. It has be­come a fall tra­di­tion for prog­nos­ti­ca­tors to pre­dict the team’s em­pire to fi­nally crum­ble. And yet it never does. Chicago GM Stan Bow­man con­sis­tently ex­e­cutes salary cap wizardry to keep his fran­chise si­mul­ta­ne­ously com­pet­i­tive and on bud­get, from jet­ti­son­ing An­drew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien weeks af­ter a Stan­ley Cup win to trad­ing away young star Bran­don Saad and re­plac­ing him in the lineup with an ob­scure Rus­sian im­port named Artemi Pa­narin. Time and again, it ap­peared Chicago’s top-heavy ros­ter, which de­voted most of its money to a small core of star play­ers, would col­lapse un­der the weight of its big­gest con­tracts. Yet the team kept winning, adding Stan­ley Cups in 2013 and 2015 af­ter the one in 2010 and cap­tur­ing the Cen­tral Di­vi­sion crown last year.

But, no, se­ri­ously, 2017-18 was re­ally, fi­nally sup­posed to be the year that Chicago sunk in the stand­ings. Chicago lost Pa­narin (traded to get Saad back), Mar­ian Hossa, Nik­las Hjal­mars­son, Johnny Oduya, Brian Camp­bell, Scott Dar­ling, Mar­cus Kruger and Trevor van Riems­dyk. That’s a lot of lost tal­ent and vet­eran lead­er­ship. Bow­man could only res­cue his squad from obliv­ion so many times, es­pe­cially with stal­wart de­fense­men Dun­can Keith and Brent Seabrook well into their 30s…right?

Wrong. The Black­hawks started strongly yet again in 2017-18, punc­tu­ated by an­ni­hi­lat­ing the de­fend­ing Stan­ley Cup cham­pion Pitts­burgh Pen­guins 10-1 Oct. 5. That’s de­spite de­ploy­ing rookie winger Alex DeBrin­cat in a top-nine role; en­trust­ing sopho­mores Ryan Hart­man and Nick Sch­maltz in cru­cial scor­ing-line as­sign­ments along­side su­per­star Pa­trick Kane; and de­ploy­ing Jan Rutta, who had never played pro hockey at any level higher than the Czech Ex­traliga, as a top-six NHL de­fense­man. It doesn’t seem to mat­ter who Chicago swaps into that lineup to play depth roles be­hind the stars. “It’s not a se­cret, it’s cul­ture,” said de­fense­man Con­nor Mur­phy, an­other new ar­rival who came over from Ari­zona in the Hjal­mars­son trade. “You have a core of guys who are so solid and

are such good lead­ers and pros and play the game to win. It’s in­fec­tious among the guys, and any­one who comes in, you fol­low that rope and try to em­u­late what those guys do.”

One way the Black­hawks off­set the loss of so many vet­er­ans: reac­quir­ing a cou­ple from the team’s past. Speedy two-way maven Saad seam­lessly tran­si­tioned back onto the top line along­side cap­tain Jonathan Toews, which was no sur­prise given Saad is 24 and in his prime. Chicago also brought back Pa­trick Sharp, who was part of all three modern Cup runs but is also now 35 and com­ing off an in­jury-short­ened year in Dal­las. His role isn’t to fill the net any­more. It’s more im­por­tant for him to pass on guile and that winning cul­ture Mur­phy men­tioned. Sharp rubbed off a lot on line­mate DeBrin­cat early in the year. “He’s def­i­nitely helped me,” DeBrin­cat said. “Just hav­ing so many years in the league, he’s taught me a few things. He’s told me, ‘If it’s young guys, it’s al­ways as­sumed, try to get the puck to the older guys,’ and that’s not what he wants. He wants me to play my game and not worry about who I’m on a line with. So that was a big thing. As a younger guy in the league, you try to force a lot of plays, and he doesn’t want that, ei­ther. It was just, ‘Be your­self when you’re out there, shoot the puck when you get a chance, and just make the right play.’ ”

The ef­fect is sim­i­lar to what we see in Pitts­burgh. The Pen­guins also spend a mas­sive chunk of their money on their star group, in­clud­ing Sid­ney Crosby and Ev­geni Malkin, and bar­gain-priced prospects rise up from the farm groomed to play a style that com­ple­ments the Cup-winning vet­er­ans. That’s how you see sup­pos­edly for­get­table prospects like Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust emerg­ing as vi­tal cogs. The Hawks hope they’ve found the same in Rutta and Yale grad­u­ate John Hay­den, a hulk­ing power for­ward, while Hart­man, Sch­maltz and DeBrin­cat bring a higher-end prospect pedi­gree.

Coach Joel Quen­neville no­ticed an en­ergy change in his team to start the sea­son and felt it was the re­sult of new blood ar­riv­ing – as in, the new-old blood from Sharp and Saad plus the in­flux of prospects. “Sharpy’s ex­cited about be­ing back in town, and Saad brings a lit­tle bit of ex­cite­ment be­ing in Chicago again as well,” Quen­neville said, “but there are a lot of new lines. Sch­maltzy be­ing a cen­ter…Kaner’s ex­cited about play­ing with the young kids. Johnny’s line is ex­cited at see­ing how pro­duc­tive they can be. DeBrin­cat’s com­ing in and giv­ing that line some ex­cite­ment, and they’re think­ing they can score, too.”

Mur­phy gushed about a pre­sea­son team con­ven­tion in which the cur­rent Black­hawks so­cial­ized with the le­gends, the Hall of Famers, with the fans in at­ten­dance “go­ing nuts.” As some­one com­ing over from the tiny-mar­ket Coy­otes, he was awestruck at be­ing ex­posed to such a pos­i­tive en­vi­ron­ment. And that’s how the Black­hawks do it ev­ery year. They show the unini­ti­ated, “this is how you win,” and the new­bies be­lieve it, be­cause they know the vet­eran group has done ex­actly that so many times. So we can put off any talk of dooms­day in the Windy City af­ter all.

ALEX DEBRIN­CAT

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