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
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.