It took nearly a decade, but the NHL finally has a repeat champion in the salary-cap era.
In case you missed it – and judging by the ratings in Pittsburgh and nationwide, you didn’t – the Chicago Blackhawks raised the Stanley Cup for the second time in four years with a six-game victory over the Boston Bruins. In doing so, the ‘Hawks stand alone in being able to successfully climb the mountain twice with a salary cap to worry about.
Since 2005-06, the NHL’s first season with payroll restrictions, seven teams have won the Cup. Prior to last week, the closest a champion had come to repeating was in 2009, when the Detroit Red Wings came within one win of going back-to-back before the Pittsburgh Penguins turned them away in Games 6 and 7.
A two-time champion was guaranteed to come out of this year’s tournament once it reached the conference-final stage, as each of the final four (Chicago, Pittsburgh, Boston, Los Angeles) had already claimed the Cup in the past four years. Judging by that alone, we know it’s possible to make multiple playoff runs with the same core group, despite the challenges a salary cap presents.
The Penguins in particular can take heart in the Blackhawks’ reboot. Similar to Chicago, Pittsburgh has a couple of in-their-prime forwards who are signed long-term and will define the franchise for years to come.
Following the ‘Hawks’ ultimate victory this week, center Jonathan Toews and winger Patrick Kane have each collected a Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP, with Kane taking this one after Toews brought home the prize in 2010. Evgeni Malkin won the Conn Smythe in 2009, and his fellow star center Sidney Crosby has over 100 points in 82 career postseason games. Much like Chicago, Pittsburgh has a pair of all-world competitors who can be counted on to produce year-round.
The Pens and ‘Hawks also share a similar style of play, an up-tempo approach that treasures quick transition. However, while Pittsburgh struggled for consistency in its four-game loss to Boston in the Eastern Conference final, Chicago appeared to carry the play for the majority of the Stanley Cup Final, although the series still could’ve gone the other way.
Chicago also showed that offense doesn’t have to come at the expense of defense, as the Blackhawks were first in scoring and second in goals allowed in the regular season, then succeeded with the same two-pronged proficiency in the playoffs. The Penguins seemed to forget that at times in the postseason, especially in the first round against the Islanders and the third round vs. the Bruins.
Pittsburgh also didn’t get much luck when Boston prevailed in the East final. Chicago escaped a 3-1 series deficit to Detroit in the second round (plus a Game 7 overtime), then needed a pair of sudden-death wins and a Game 6 escape to down the Bruins. Those things don’t happen without a bit of good fortune.
But perhaps the Penguins’ most important takeaway is how much the Blackhawks roster turned over between Cup triumphs. Chicago memorably dumped several significant contributors immediately after its 2010 run, parting ways with forwards Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg and Andrew Ladd, plus starting goalie Antti Niemi. General manager Stan Bowman rebuilt around pillars like Kane, Toews, Marian Hossa, Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith.
Pittsburgh’s changes over the past four years have been more gradual; nevertheless, Bill Guerin, Sergei Gonchar, Rob Scuderi, Hal Gill and Max Talbot are no longer walking through that door, to paraphrase Rick Pitino. Crosby and Malkin will likely finish their careers with the Penguins, and Ray Shero has added Chris Kunitz and James Neal to that list, with decisions still looming on Pascal Dupuis (free agency), Kris Letang (possible trade) and Marc-Andre Fleury (trade or buyout).
The Penguins should be encouraged by what the Blackhawks just pulled off. A salary cap makes keeping a team together difficult, but having transcendent stars as a foundation is the ideal starting point. Pittsburgh can look west for inspiration as it tries to duplicate Chicago’s feat in 2013-14.